It’s one thing to read about how some of the most amazing natural treasures in the world are endangered due to environmental degradation, or learn specifically about the dangers global warming poses to our national parks. It’s another thing to see it firsthand.
I was hiking in the Rockies earlier this month and saw for myself large swaths of dead, rust-colored Lodgepole pine trees throughout the forest (see gallery below). Witnessing the actual damage done by human folly is heart wrenching in a way that is difficult to verbalize. For me, there’s a huge sense of loss and missed opportunity and a knot of pure anger in my stomach at the shortsightedness and power of denial in us humans.
At the same time, there’s a strange gratitude in the moment of experience at the fact that I’m lucky enough to stand surrounded by such inspiring beauty (despite the visible damage). Then there’s the feeling of awe and appreciation at the incredible beating nature is able to take before showing signs of wear.
The trees’ deaths were caused directly by an insect called the mountain pine beetle and indirectly by climate change. Pine beetles have always fed on certain species of trees, like the Lodgepole pines in the Rockies, but cold winters have kept the beetle’s population under control and plenty of water made the trees hardy and resistant to the beetle’s attacks.
Enter drought and successive years of warm weather. The population of beetles explodes, the trees are weakened and unable to secrete the resin that kills the beetles, and the trees die – to the tune of millions upon millions of trees. According to this National Parks Conservation Association Survival Guide, Forestry officials estimate that all mature Lodgepole pine forests in Colorado will be dead by 2013.
This all sounds hopeless and it is, especially for the Lodgepoles and the many birds, animals and fish that directly or indirectly depend on them for survival. So many dried, dead trees make the specter of devastating wildfires a sure bet.
Experts agree that the damage is irreversible. The only way to think positively is to ponder the new forest that will eventually grow up in this one’s place. Luckily, nature does have amazing powers of regeneration. But that doesn’t mean we can excuse the damage already done. To appreciate both the beauty and the scale of loss people need to see these places and truly experience them firsthand. That’s the only way we are ever going to save them.
Though heavy visitation has its own deleterious impacts on our national parks, I believe it is only through experiencing nature’s awe-inspiring beauty and mystery that humankind will muster the desire to live more lightly in hopes of saving what we still have.
Images: Vanessa Barrington