It will be spring one of these days and our forests will re-awaken to the sounds of birdsong and a scurry of insect and animal activity. Hilda M. Slade, a 19th century English poet put it very nicely, in her poem: “To Sussex Cottagers.” My Grandmother had this poem written on a tile in her bathroom, in Sussex, and I will always remember it. I excerpt from Ms. Slade’s work: “Oh ye men, who day-by-day, walk the country lanes and feel the close companionship of fern and flower; the strength of trees and read the coloured prophesy at dawn and dusk. Oh ye men, who greet without surprise the friendly overtures of bird and beast; who know the lizard’s sudden turns; the secret nooks of insects and foretell the Summer’s glory in the Winter’s sleep…”
The thawing of the frozen ground and the warming of the soil will awaken the trees from their winter’s sleep and the glory of summer will start all over again. But all is not well in our forests: Also awakening will be millions of insects, including Dedroctonus ponderosae, the mountain pine beetle. Pioneer female beetles initiate these outbreaks, by excavating into the bark of pine trees and hollowing-out a nuptial gallery and releasing pheromones to attract male beetles, for the purpose of reproduction. These rice-sized insects also have a very interesting symbiotic relationship with a fungus: Grosmannia clavigera, or blue stain fungus, which the beetles carry with them, in their mouthparts. The blue stain fungus infects the circulatory system of the beetles’ chosen trees and slows down the production of resin, which the trees produce in an attempt to expel the beetles. The beetles mate; the female lays her fertilized eggs; and their life-cycle continues. The only real problem with the beetles’ strategy is that the blue stain fungus kills the trees, rendering them unusable for subsequent rounds of reproduction – thus the insects’ march across the landscape, in search of new habitat.
We are currently experiencing a population explosion of these insects: The latest information from the Forest Inventory and Analysis monitoring program, indicates that the mortality rate on National Forest land is now 188 percent of annual net growth and is approaching 39 percent of annual net growth on private forestlands. This mortality includes lodgepole pine – the beetles’ favorite – comprising 88 percent of the total tree mortality on our National Forests.
How can we influence this forest sea-change? Do we throw up our hands and blame it on “global warming?” Can we take forest management action to change the trajectory of this epidemic? Do we let nature take its course and just recycle these forests with wildfire? All three are possibilities, but which are practical, economically beneficial, and environmentally responsible? The beetles are immune to the blame game and blindly accept the situation as a huge opportunity to expand their range into northern forests.
What we could do is get ahead of the insects and limit their available habitat by harvesting some of the mature trees and regenerating our forests with new age classes of trees. Such a proactive forest management approach has huge economic benefits, allowing us to reinvigorate the Montana forest products industry by capturing the high value of these trees while they are still green; instead of the current futile game of catch-up-and-salvage, as Forest Service analysis processes and litigation creep along at below-beetle speed.
Imagine a sustainable economy, where we utilize renewable natural resources, which would otherwise go to waste as wildfire fuel: Creating jobs; creating tax revenue for necessary government services; accumulating export earnings and bringing wealth to the state.
So, to “‘foretell the summer’s glory in the winter’s sleep’” – or at least to dream about the possibilities – keeps me going, for foresters are eternal optimists.
Patrick Heffernan is with the Montana Wood Products Association.
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