Beetle epidemic may impact society more than forests themselves

By Quinn Lance

Living and recreating in southeastern Wyoming makes the current mountain pine beetle epidemic a part of the daily lives of many Wyomingites who value their outdoor experiences. While spending time in the Medicine Bow National Forest, one of the many forests that has fallen prey to the beetles, you can hear the dead trees groan and crack while they sway in the wind.

Witnessing our forests morph from a dense, vibrant green into a rust-red landscape has evoked powerful emotions for many outdoor enthusiasts. And while the impact of beetles on forests is a natural process, many foresters have said that this is the first time they have seen the effects on such epic proportions.

People have direct ties to the lodgepole pine trees that are being killed. Having studied this epidemic over the past academic year in the Environment and Natural Resource Program’s capstone course at the University of Wyoming, I wonder if the current mountain pine beetle outbreak and subsequent epidemic is called an epidemic because of what it means to people’s sense of well-being?

During the early 1900s, Gifford Pinchot became the first Chief Forester and began advocating for federal ownership over large areas of public land. Pinchot, who was considered a progressive conservationist, understood that fire played an integral role in forest structure. Yet, due to the era he lived in, when federal forest management practices were still in their infancy and the political agenda he was pursuing, Pinchot also said, “The first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon.”

With little to no ability to control wildfires, even around settlements, the fear of fire was a serious concern to the settlers of the West. This fear became a reality when a natural wildfire occurred in August of 1910 and spread across Montana, Idaho and Washington, killing 87 people. The Great Fire of 1910 was proof enough for policy makers to decide that the duty of the U.S. Forest Service was to suppress and extinguish all forest fires.

This colossal fire was estimated, at the time, to have burned enough timber to sustain the entire nation for more than a decade. Pinchot’s reaction to the estimate, as revealed by Timothy Egan in his book, ‘The Big Burn,” was that the loss of the timber was “an inexcusable waste.”

Why did Gifford Pinchot believe that losing this timber to a natural forest fire was a waste? Could Pinchot truly recognize the need for fire while saying that it was humanity’s responsibility to control the environment that they lived in? I believe that he could, but human control over the natural environment is a tricky proposition. It has been my learning experience that nature dictates and humans adapt.

Fast forward nearly 100 years to a joint House oversight hearing of the Committee on Natural Resources in 2009. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) told the committee, “For most of our forested land in the West … we have lost the battle.”

In my opinion, our forests are not engaged in a battle with an endemic species that can be won or lost. What we do know is there are foresters who say that by removing beetle-killed lodgepole pine, for instance, we can make way for a diversity of trees in those areas currently occupied by one single species. The current forest management plan for the Medicine Bow emphasizes silvicultural practices, which control the establishment, growth and health of the forest to support desired future conditions. The plan also focuses on how these conditions might include younger stands and increased species, which over time, will support resistance to bark beetle infestation.

Should we even look at our national forests in terms of waste versus productivity and a battle to be won or lost? It appears that the human demands of the forest are the driving motives behind these questions, not simply the health of the forest alone.

However, as a society, it is impossible to look at our national forest ecosystems without placing some type of value on them. This modern human construct ultimately leads some to believe, just as Pinchot and perhaps Rep. Lummis, that the result of the mountain pine beetle epidemic is an inexcusable waste or a battle that has been lost.

Remove humans from the equation and the epidemic looks more like a natural part of how ecosystems self-regulate. If this current epidemic is only an ‘epidemic’ because of the consequences it has on the human environment, as opposed to the forest ecosystem, how do we balance our need to connect to the natural world — needs that we often satisfied by our national forests — with an ecosystem that has been able to self-regulate for tens of thousands of years?

In an attempt to answer these questions, this year’s Environment and Natural Resources capstone class is probing three different responses to the mountain pine beetle and the dead trees they leave behind. And research continues in the realms of mitigation, management and how to strike a balance between human needs and the forests that need the mountain pine beetle.

Quinn Lance is a student at the University of Wyoming.

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  1. I think you hit the nail on the head here. So much of what we are doing in Region 2 National Forests in response to the bark beetle mortality is just looking busy. Widespread and infrequent beetle epidemics and intense crown fires are a part of lodgepole forests, but the general public does not like either when they head to the mountains to camp, ski and mountain bike. Attempts to change the situation now fall not under the “caring for the land,” part of the USFS motto, but more “serving people”. As a USFS employee, I feel the people and the national budget would be better served by a little lodgepole ecology education vs. throwing money at dead trees…

  2. I think you purposely avoided mentioning it my friend but religious values underlie this shifting dilemma of ‘what are the parameters we do/should/will use to qualify the importance of and expectations of natural resources like Lodgepole Pine. Answer that, and you have solved most of the social issues in this country.

    Was this world created by Him for us to use and command as we see fit? Or is it all chaotic order that has no right or wrong; only different interpretations. Which I think is your point.

  3. hey quinn,
    it is true that without our management forests will continue to grow. However, our aggressive management techniques in the past have changed the way the forests grow and the way that natural processes influence species composition and structure. It is also true that these lodgpole pine forests will ultimately become more diverse becoming more resistant to the dreaded mountain pine beetle. but historic disturbance regimes of lodgepole included stand replacing fires that would benefit the serotinous cones that lodgepole uses to regenerate after fires. It will be interesting to see how this particular tree species evolves in the onslaught of species diversity.

  4. Quinn, As young man I watched the mills close one by one in the Medicine Bow. An Encampment logger friend told me recently he has not cut a live tree in years, another in Walcott uses beetle trees for log homes. Today I sit in the rainy coast range where timber is still a strong part of the community and the mountains are mostly owned by timber companies. By no means is the beetle kill a battle to be won or lost, as Saratoga discusses a bio-fuels plant, the local communities have excepted this reality and are adapting to the change. I suggest sitting down with Greg Salisbury, the Mayor of Encampment sometime, you may not agree with his politics but you will appreciate his incite. In other words involve the communities in your project, they are the exact humans who are adapting. Good Words Mr. Lance…..

  5. Quinn:

    What you have written describes the never ending short sightedness of mankind…we humans seemingly want to measure and explain all things within the time frame of our short lives.

    As an outspoken activists for wildlife I know the largest hurdle we need to over come is mankind’s continuing arrogance as demonstrated when Pinchot said, “The first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon.”

    I so love the phrase: “wildlife management”

    Great thoughts and words young man!