Global Warming: Western U.S. Feels the Heat
By JOEL CONNELLY
DUBOIS, Wyo.–As pilot Bruce Gordon lifts up from the
local airport, the distant perspective of the Teton Range
raises the spirits, but the unfolding sight of dying forests
sears the soul.
High-elevation white bark pines, which have endured droughts
and lightning and insect attacks in life spans as long as
1,000 years, are being killed by a tiny beetle whose numbers
were once limited by a bitter winter climate.
“What you are seeing is a natural process on steroids: All
these trees will be toast unless the pace of global warming
is drastically slowed,” said Diana Tombeck, a University of
Colorado-Denver professor. She studies white bark pine and
calls it “a foundation species.”
Later, in the Wind River Range, on a tour sponsored by the
Natural Resources Defense Council, we cut open a 1,000-
year-old white bark pine to see pin e beetles feeding inside
the tree. In the 1920s and the 1970s — and for centuries
before — this pine had survived beetle attacks. This year,
the tree’s defenses have been overwhelmed.
“It’s a zombie tree: It’s dead but doesn’t know it,” said
Jesse Logan, a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist. “It
took everything that nature could throw at it, but not what
we have caused to happen.”
The perspective from this place in the Rockies is
particularly angering. The 13,770-foot Grand Teton is where
presidents, at least Bush Sr. and Clinton, have come to tout
their “green” credentials. It’s America’s best photo
Dick Cheney’s airplane was parked at the Jackson, Wyo.,
airport for much of August. The Secret Service shoos away
locals and tourists alike so the vice president can fish in
Cheney headed the task force that met in secret with energy
industry executives. It turned out a dig it-drill it energy
policy, recommending increased subsidies for the carbon
The country has lost seven years — time in which
fuel-efficient cars and alternative energy resources could
have been developed — largely owing to the vice president’s
Global warming is leaving its footprint throughout much of
western North America.
In Canada, the pine bark beetle has killed lodgepole pine
forests from the B.C. Coast Range to the Continental Divide.
The infestation in white bark pine forests will create
killing zones from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierras of
California, to the Oregon and20Washington Cascades.
In the Pacific Northwest, glaciers sustain river flow in
late summer and early fall.
South of Colonial Creek Campground on the North Cascades
Highway, Thunder Creek carries runoff into Seattle City
Light’s Diablo Lake reservoir. The Columbia River is fed by
ice fields of the Canadian Rockies and the Selkirk and
Even the large South Cascade Glacier, which the U.S.
Geological Survey has studied since 1950, has shrunk to an
extent that it may be gone by 2050.
In the Rockies, Glacier National Park will have no more
glaciers by 2030. Glaciers in north-facing cirques of
13,000-foot Wind River peaks are shrinking rapidly.
The Northwest depends on rivers — especially the
Columbia-Snake river system — for its hydroelectric power,
vast federal irrigation projects and the survival of
struggling salmon runs.
Similarly, agriculture and recreation along the Wind River
is made possible by summer- long river flows.
Lake Powell, impounded by Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado
River, has not been filled since 2000. Water levels have
fallen to 150 feet below full pool, but have recovered about
40 feet this year.
“The country is seeing different impacts: Fires in the West
will be the Achilles’ heel that rising sea levels and
powerful hurricanes are to the Southeast,” said Steve
Running of the College of Forestry and Conservation at the
University of Montana.
“A tree’s a tree: How many do you need to look at?” Ronald
Reagan once asked.
So, why care about the white bark pine?
In the high Cascades, after all, it is overshadowed by the
Lyall’s larch, whose needles turn gold in early autumn.
Well, a lot of stuff is connected to the oft-gnarled pines,
found up to 12,000 feet in the Sierras, as high as 10,500
feet in the Rockies, and down to 2,500 feet in British
The white bark pine builds ecosystems in its high, tree-line
home. “Tree islands” slow the snowmelt and hold the soil on
dry, wind-swept ridges. Clark’s nutcrackers dig out and bury
seeds. The fatty seeds also are buried by squirrels, and
later dug out by grizzly bears.
“Pine seeds are very important grizzly food,” Montana Gov.
Brian Schweitzer said.
Deniers of global warming have multiple, refutable lines of
denial. Infestations have hit forests before … but never
with the speed and scale seen now. Grizzlies can find other
food … up near Glacier Park there are plenty of berries,
but not in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
And, of course, the Cascades and Rockies had a snowy 2007-08
winter. “This is really the kind of summer that was normal
20 to 30 years ago,” Running said.
A few days later, the Rocky Mountain Roundtable in Denver
heard from Lord Nicholas Stern, the London School of
Economics economist whose report on climate change impact
helped galvanize European leaders.
“Global warming is absolutely transformational in where
species can live,” Stern said.
White bark pines now, grizzly bears in the Rockies tomorrow
and our own species in the very near future.
P-I columnist Joel Connelly can be reached at 206-448-8160
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow politics on the P-I’s
blog at blog.seattlepi.com/seattlepolitics.