Jeff’s truck lurched from side to side as we bumped along a steep mountain road above the city of Ouray, Colo. Rust- and orange-colored leaves of shrubby gambel oak brushed against the cab until the narrow track emerged into a grove of tall spruce and fir where he had permission to cut some of the dead timber that is becoming a prominent feature of the Rocky Mountain landscape.
Gretchen and I had arrived in Ouray, located at nearly 8,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, just hours before to visit our son, Jeff, and his family. I soon donned work clothes for the tree-cutting expedition that is becoming a regular event at these visits, giving me something to work on in spare moments during our stay — splitting wood with a Monster Maul, a gift to Jeff from our friend Jay in Holmen years ago.
Jeff dropped one of the trees, and we went to work with our chain saws reducing it to a pile of stove-length rounds stacked on the back of the truck. Based on a field guide I consulted later, the tree was an Engelmann spruce or a white fir, both affected by beetle infestations, either the spruce bark beetle or the white fir engraver beetle.
As we headed back down the mountain, the cab fragrant from the pitch on our pants and gloves and the truck growling in low gear along the track, Jeff recounted the recent reports on the effects of climate change in the steep mountainsides above Ouray. The brown, gray or reddish dead trees that dot the slopes are a constant reminder as one takes in the view of the surrounding peaks that climate change is real.
Just prior to our visit, the Union of Concerned Scientists said that if climate change is allowed to continue unchecked, the impacts of extreme heat and drought, more and larger wildfires over a longer fire season and the explosion of tree-killing beetle populations will “fundamentally alter the Rocky Mountain forests that we know today.” Climate change could kill up to 90 percent of the forests covering the Rockies, the study said.
Later in the week, I fished for trout in Crystal Lake near the summit of Red Mountain Pass. But I found it difficult to focus on the colored Indicator on my line amid the glory of the yellow-gold aspens reflecting from the still water. Wide swaths of aspen gold lay like great shawls draped on the shoulders of the surrounding peaks — a display that attracts tourists by the thousands to Colorado mountains in the fall.
The Union of Concerned Scientists study said that the Forest Service projects a decline of 60 percent in aspen forest coverage in the Rockies by the year 2060.
Stephen Saunders, report co-author and president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, said, “We have a whole lot at stake in this region, if we really care about conserving these landscapes, not just us in the West but people all over the country and the world.”
As I worked splitting the wood during our visit, I could see in the sheets of bark that fell from the splits the maze-like tracks of the beetle larvae that fed on the tender cambium layer under the bark, effectively girdling the tree to kill it.
The climate change reminders in our area might not be quite as visible as the beetle kill in Colorado, although there is nothing subtle about our extreme weather events, including more intense rainfalls. But the Colorado experience was potent evidence that the climate change protest march in New York merits all the attention it got.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is urging voters to demand elected leaders support and implement a comprehensive set of climate solutions, “particularly by passing a Climate Resiliency Fund and supporting policies that reduce global warming emissions.”
Our grandchildren are growing old enough soon to wonder why the trees are dying. How much longer must we wait to give them answers with more than a helpless shrug? We must vote for political leaders who will respond to this challenge.