At first it's hard to tell what we're looking at. The tiny plane bumps and bounces through turbulence that warns of a winter storm. Beyond the window, rolling mountains spread east from Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley, their trees flocked in fresh snow. In the valleys, subdivisions scrawl in weird loops over the winter-locked landscape.
And then I see it: The unmistakable rust of beetle-kill peeking from beneath all that white. The other passengers in the plane—mostly reporters—are silent as Ecoflight pilot Bruce Gordon tells how much closer large-scale infestations of the bug have gotten to the valley, home of the resort towns of Aspen and Snowmass. And indeed they have. Helped along by warmer winters and drought, they've crept ever westward from hard-hit areas in the northern part of the state and left a grand total of four million acres of trees dead in Wyoming and Colorado as of last year.
Similarly dire stories resounded later that day at the main event, "Forests at Risk: Climate Change and the future of the American West," a symposium with an all-star list of speakers put on in Aspen by For the Forest, a local nonprofit.
Forest Service plant pathologist Jim Worrall informed the audience of several hundred people that outbreaks of Sudden Aspen Decline, or SAD, triggered by deep drought at the beginning of the decade, have killed off 17 percent of Colorado's aspens to date, and that as climate change progresses, we can expect that at least two thirds of the 16 million acres now suitable for aspen in Colorado and Wyoming will no longer be so by 2060.
University of Montana professor of forest entomology and pathology Diana Six explained how warmer temperatures have allowed bark beetles to shorten their life-cycle from two years to one and go into reproductive overdrive, increasing their lethal spread accordingly. In white bark pines, an important food source for grizzly bears, the bugs move so fast—three years to the typical seven it takes for them to kill a lodgepole—that study sites are unrecognizable from one year to the next.
Meanwhile, U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist Phillip van Mantgem delivered the grim news that tree mortality is increasing—and doubling over an 18-year period—in step with increasing temperatures and decreasing moisture in 87 percent of surveyed older forests in the West. And it's not just in this country, said USGS research ecologist Craig Allen, as he showed images of dead and dying trees in Spain, Algeria, Australia and Canada.
Capping the conference was Nobel Laureate and former Vice President Al Gore. Not surprisingly, his message was apocalyptic: "This is a forest issue. It is a political issue. It's an economic issue. It's a national security issue. It's a jobs issue. But at the bottom, it is a moral issue, and we have to be a generation willing to stand up and do the right thing."
As the audience rose to give him a standing ovation, I thought about what that right thing might be. Earlier in the day we'd heard about a collaborative effort to stop the spread of the beetle on Smuggler Mountain, a popular recreation spot just outside of Aspen. The Forest Service, Pitkin County, the city of Aspen and For the Forest have been working to remove beetle brood trees and treat whole stands with the beetle-repelling pheromone verbenone. After just two summers, the project is showing some success. Aspen has tried to lead in other ways, including through its Canary Initiative, an effort to slice local greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. Elected officials at the conference also praised startup initiatives that link clean biomass energy with logging sick trees.
But the conversation was lacking in one glaring way—especially given the event's location within striking distance of the mini-mall-sized houses peppering Red Mountain, the airport dominated by sleek private jets that accounts for a sizeable chunk of Aspen's greenhouse gas emissions, the four ski resorts that draw people here from all over the world.
No one pointed the finger back at us—at our insatiable appetite for energy, be it "dirty" or "clean;" at our use and over-use of resources—land, water, timber—regardless of our political affiliations or whether we're global-warming believers. Energy efficiency and conservation got barely a nod. There was no mention of living smaller, closer to home. After the auditorium had cleared and everyone dispersed to a reception with live music and free food, a colleague snarkily dubbed the day's proceedings "Drive For the Forest."
Thoughtful, small-scale, collaborative responses like cutting those trees on Smuggler Mountain are undoubtedly part of the solution. But beetle kill is just a symptom. Later that night, flipping back through the photos I took from the plane, it wasn't the images of dead trees that arrested my attention.
It was the subdivisions.
Sarah Gilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado, where she is the magazine's associate editor.