HELENA — The most startling visible change to our landscape in the past decade is the rapid death of the pines. Lodgepoles and ponderosas alike have been destroyed in a seemingly inexorable onslaught by a tiny bug called the bark beetle.
The industrious little borer has turned the needles red on millions of acres of land throughout the Western United States and Canada. The most recent preliminary federal estimate is that some 5 million acres of Montana forests have been affected by the infestation, up about 2 million acres from last year alone.
The red-and-dead reality seen in the South Hills, the Helena National Forest and beyond has prompted much alarm and has led the managers of public lands to redirect efforts they had under way to reduce overgrowth and fire danger in area forests.
But if there’s any assurance or consistent description of the issue to be found in this, it’s the fact that this has all happened before and that these infestations are a natural part of the ecosystem.
A sizeable outbreak killed trees in the 1920s and 1930s. Another hit forests 30 years later. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, stands in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks took their hits.
“There’s a cyclic nature to this, especially in the lodge pole pines,” state forester said.
“So … why is there reason to be concerned?” he mused. “Part of it is this is happening in very visible areas, especially for your readership. And what I think is a little different compared to the late ‘70s … is we have a lot more homes in that (wildland) interface.
But there are new wrinkles this time. The beetles had been limited in past outbreaks by deep cold snaps that used to be a common feature of Montana winters, and severe cold is the bugs’ only real killer. But that type of winter weather is becoming more and more rare here.
Another change — while past outbreaks had hit some specific areas quite hard, Montana forests are in a position of extreme susceptibility across the board. They’ve been weakened by drought. And the massive fires of the early 20th century sprouted new growth that’s now mature – there are literally millions of acres of uniform stands of lodge pole that grew up after those fires, for instance.
“At this point in time, we don’t know the extent,” Harrington said. “And I think another difference this time is that we had millions of acres in the old outbreaks, for sure, but we have huge parts of Montana that are lodge pole pines that are now 100 years old. Now they’re ready to go.”
Mike Garrity, director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, agrees the beetle outbreak is on a scale not recently seen by humans, but he doesn’t believe the picture is as dire as some press reports have said. In an example, he pointed to the forest between Helena and Butte. A few years ago, those trees were bright red, which had the effect of drawing everyone’s eyes away from what’s still living.
Now, the red needles have dropped off, and a different image emerges.
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“Your eyes focus on the red, once the red is gone, you see all the live trees that were hidden by the needles,” Garrity said.
“It doesn’t take long for the forest to recover from this,” he added. “My prediction is that once the red needles fall off around Helena, people will move on to some other hysteria. I think people are blowing this all out of proportion.”
But while Harrington and Garrity largely agree on the nature of the issue, they don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on how — or, in many instances, whether — to address it. And other folks have lined up in the same corners, fighting out another story that’s all too common in Montana: the interests of the environment versus the use of the resources it produces.
Garrity advocates thinning where needed. He agreed with the decision to temporarily close the Park Lake campground and day-use area because of the large number of hazard trees left standing dead. And he agrees with the decision to remove several hundred hazard trees along the cross-country ski trails at MacDonald Pass. But he doesn’t think the beetles are cause for much more.
“In general, if you look at the healthiest forests in our region … the area where there’s the broadest diversity of wildlife are in unmanaged forests,” Garrity said.
Harrington sees things differently. He believes a portion of the trees should be harvested to both manage the land and help the Montana timber industry.
“I think at first it’s a question of scale,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who’s advocating that we should start (cutting) in Helena and not stop until we get to Butte.
“We think on several fronts the state of Montana has a vested interest in seeing some level of reasonable, science-based management on the landscape, on all ownerships,” he added. “From a state perspective, we think it’s a good thing to employ people. We think it’s a good thing to generate economic value.
“The broader issue in 2010 in this country and in this state is: are we going to continue to outsource our forest products industry out to Canada and southeast Asia and Siberia … or are we going to continue to provide for ourselves?”
The beetle issues and the response will continue to evolve in the coming years, and the debate surely also will.