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.