I have recently relocated from the rugged shores of the San Juan Islands in Washington to the craggy peaks of the San Juan Mountains in my beloved home state of Colorado-from the temperate softness of the cedars and hemlock to the majestic vigor of the spruce, firs, and pines.
I developed my love for forests long ago, when youthful compulsion drove me to alight the branches of any tree strong enough to bear my weight. Countless hours were spent fashioning tree houses that served as hideout, fort, or lair, depending on my whim. That love evolved as I engaged in the many joys and activities that the mountains offer, and ultimately helped define my career path.
As I return to the place of my youth, it feels that, in some ways, I truly know the place for the very first time. Yet, there are changes too, undeniable and heartbreaking. Forests that I remember as lush, thriving playgrounds are now silent mausoleums, ominously awaiting the inevitable: wildfire.
Unusually hot, dry summers and mild winters in the American West have enabled the bark beetle to proliferate and ravish forests from Mexico to British Columbia, resulting in a forest blight of colossal proportions-ten times larger than anything previously experienced in North America. Affecting all 19 Western states and Canada, the beetle infestation has decimated nearly 100 million acres of timber (nearly half of that in the U.S.) at an average 80% kill rate.
Scientists affirm that climate change has contributed to the size and severity of the beetle outbreak, and that this forest denudation will significantly reduce the planet’s ability to remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. In fact, a study conducted by the Canadian Forest Service concluded that the pine beetle outbreak will release 270 megatons of carbon dioxide from Canadian forests alone.
Apparently, we have reached a tipping point where our Western forests are releasing so many greenhouse gasses through forest fires and tree deaths that they have become a net carbon emitter, rather than carbon sink.