Yesterday's New York Times ran a story titled, "Some See Beetle Attacks on Western Forests as a Natural Event" - a title that confuses if not completely misrepresents the beetle attack that is devastating our western forests. In isolation, the title suggests that there is uncertainty about whether the beetle attacks are a simple act of nature or a product of human activities. The article itself actually does a better job of describing the situation, but for anyone who only read the title or was confused by the mixed messaging presented within the text of the article, I'd like to clear up a few points.
The "natural" elements of the beetle outbreak include the (undisputed) fact that mountain pine beetles are native to our western forests - they are not an introduced, exotic species. Additionally, the beetles have a history of large scale outbreaks with certain tree communities - many of which have evolved defenses over time to survive the outbreaks and coexist with the beetle.
What is not natural is how our forests have been managed for many decades with an emphasis on the suppression of fire - which, like the beetles - is a natural element of forests. This management has led to large, connected swaths of mature forests that are ripe for beetle attacks to sweep through at a massive scale. Historically, beetles would encounter disruptions in their path created by forest fires which resulted in a mosaic of mixed age stands of trees. Beetles only attack mature trees so, as the article points out, '"If they come up against a young patch, they'll quit," Dr. Six said. "If it's old, they keep on going. But we've lost that mosaic, so they keep on going."'
The article also correctly points out, "The major human-caused element of the current outbreak, though, is a warmer climate, which has opened new territory to the beetles." Frigid temperatures kill beetle larvae, but in milder winters more beetles survive. Warmer year-round temperatures have sped up the beetles' life cycle allowing it to reproduce with greater frequency. And finally, warmer temperatures at higher elevations have moved the beetle into new forest communities that lack the defenses of the beetle's usual hosts. In particular, whitebark pine - a high elevation tree found throughout the "roof top" of the west - is experiencing a debilitating beetle attack that is further aggravated by the non-native, introduced fungus - white pine blister rust.
So, are the beetles themselves a natural component of our western forests? Yes. But decades of forest mismanagement and human caused global warming have made the scope and intensity of the beetle outbreaks anything but natural. And in contrast to the NYT article which says, "Nothing can or should be done to halt the spread of the beetle," we believe that something can AND should be done to save our forests from this disaster that human actions helped facilitate. Check out our team of "whitebark warriors" who are out hiking the mountain ridgelines as we speak and take a look at our petition to list whitebark pine as an endangered species. Here's where you'll find all Switchboard posts relating to whitebark pine.