Written by Ron Bennett
In the few weeks since I committed to “write about trees” for this newsletter, over 1.3 million acres of forest land has burned in California. Meanwhile, in Colorado, forest fires have “collectively burned more than 304 square miles, fueled by abnormally dry conditions and hot weather that are part of a 20-year shift in Colorado’s climate.” The still-burning Pine Gulch Fire is now the largest wildfire in Colorado’s recorded history. Another heartbreaking story among so many tragic events this year.
I’d hoped to write about ancient giants on the coast, Shinrin-Yoku or “forest bathing” and the delicious butterscotch fragrance you’ll discover by hugging a Ponderosa Pine. It was the stark realization that even the beloved coastal redwoods – nurtured by a marine layer of fog and surviving fires for millennia – are imperiled by climate change just like the aspen, fir, pine, and spruce trees of Colorado. Many of the redwoods will likely survive these latest fires, but a global trend toward hotter, more frequent and destructive fires puts all forests at risk.
Those images of California redwoods hollowed-out by fire, the haze over the Front Range, from Louisiana where hurricane Laura left 14 dead and $9 billion in property damage, fill me with a renewed sense of urgency.
Unprecedented wildfire is an example of what scientists refer to as a tipping point. Trees store carbon through photosynthesis, a process that converts atmospheric carbon and water into cellulose, ultimately removing 1.65 kilograms of CO2 for every kilogram of dried lumber. US forests absorb the equivalent of 10-20% of the country’s CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, this carbon is released back into the atmosphere when trees burn or decay creating a dangerous feedback loop that can accelerate climate change.
Today, as atmospheric CO2 reaches unprecedented levels from fossil fuel extraction and consumption, prolonged drought and more frequent lightning puts our forests at greater risk.
Rising temperatures and drought in Colorado stresses trees making them more susceptible to disease or infestation. As winters warm, bark beetles don’t die off anymore and can reproduce exponentially. Pine beetles devastated about a million acres of Colorado forests every year from 2007 to 2010. Since that peak spruce beetles and budworms have devastated between 200,000 to 500,000 acres each year.
A Legacy of Resource Extraction
Just as ethnic diversity, elder wisdom, and youthful energy all contribute to a resilient society, forests need a variety of tree species at different ages to thrive. During the late 1800’s mining and logging operators clear-cut large swaths of forest, which was followed by 100 years of forest fire suppression.
Low-intensity ground fires cull some trees and undergrowth while encouraging the proliferation of fire resistant and drought tolerant Ponderosa Pines. In the absence of this natural cycle, forest density has increased along with the risk of intense crown fires. Vast monocultures of mature Lodgepole Pine forests were left ill-equipped to defend against beetle infestation.
Now, climate change – fueled by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels – is preventing forest recovery. Because of hotter, drier conditions forest lands at lower elevations could be replaced by shrublands or grasslands. In a study that examined thirty years of Rocky Mountain wildfires researchers found that “annual moisture deficits were significantly greater from 2000-2015 as compared to 1985–1999, suggesting increasingly unfavorable post-fire growing conditions, corresponding to significantly lower seedling densities and increased regeneration failure.”
As trees struggle to survive drought conditions, some farmers and ranchers in the state need to get by with less water as aquifers are stressed. Colorado’s western slope and three nearby Utah counties have warmed at a rate double the global average while in the last decade, the Southwest US has seen the most persistent drought on record. This alarming trend is matched by another drought of sorts: the lack of real climate leadership at all levels of government in this country. Forests burn while our leaders at minimum, kick the can down the road, or at worst remove protections and auction off public lands in an all-out climate assault. Consider these recent events…
- Despite industry pushback, the EPA rolls-back pollution controls related to methane emissions from oil and gas operations; increasing risk to Southwest indigenous residents and the global climate.
- BLM publishes its Uncompahgre land-management plan for 1.7 million acres in Colorado that greenlights widespread, long-term oil and gas development in ecologically sensitive areas.
- Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission misses its deadline to propose greenhouse gas reduction measures mandated by House Bill 1261 passed into law over a year ago.
- Boulder City Council votes to place its ten year quest for a 100% renewable-powered municipal utility in the hands of voters as a ballot question. Voters will consider a twenty-year franchise agreement with Xcel, a utility that plans to use coal and gas for years to come.
The push for America’s energy dominance has doubled-down on unsustainable fracking and fossil fuel infrastructure to benefit a few while trampling on the rights of indigenous tribes, people of color, and future generations. Driven by greed, this persists despite a scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions drive destructive climate change – so vividly manifest this fire season.
A Call to Action
Rain is part of a cycle that’s eternal and universal, capable of eroding whole mountains in time – but we haven’t got that kind of time – we need more rain now! Think of the wealth and power invested in fossil fuels as the lightning that might strike up a forest fire. It’s the collective voice of activists like you and me that’ll be the rain needed to put that fire out. At this pivotal moment, our voices and our votes are what imperiled forests so desperately need.
“I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Greta Thunberg addressing the World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland, January 2019
In response to Greta’s call to action here’s what you can do to protect forests while actively participating in our extraordinary, yet fragile democracy…
Be a climate voter!
Be a peaceful protester.
Be an advocate.
Be a fracktivist.
Be the rain our forests need.
Ron Bennett, AIA
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