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Look west to see what might yet happen

A few years ago, Southern pine beetles seemed to be moving through Hernando County like a devastating, slow-motion forest fire.

The rice-sized insect was discovered in 1999 near Brooksville, feasting on its favorite food — the inner bark of overcrowded, drought-weakened loblolly pines. As dry conditions persisted over the next two years, the infestation spread to other pine species and neighboring counties.

Division of Forestry naturalists worried out loud that it would consume large swaths of the Withlacoochee State Forest and push across much of the state.

Fortunately, rains returned. Responsible landowners cut down and removed diseased trees. The scariest predictions never came to pass.

Which left me feeling I had been caught up in the hype — that I'd helped make a cyclical natural outbreak seem like a looming environmental catastrophe.

Now, though, I have seen catastrophe. I know it can happen.

When our family arrived at a rented cabin at a YMCA-owned ranch near Winter Park, Colo., two weeks ago, we unwittingly ventured to ground zero of the worst mountain pine beetle epidemic in the state's history.

The beetle, nearly identical to its southern counterpart, has so far infested 1.5-million acres of forest and is expected to kill nearly every mature lodgepole pine in Colorado and southern Wyoming.

Instead of the healthy stands of evergreens pictured on the ranch's Web site, we saw expanses of clear-cut wasteland. Mountain views were tainted by the rusty color of dead treetops.

These trees may, in turn, fuel devastating forest fires. Later, as the trees' roots decay, the mountainsides will be vulnerable to widespread erosion. And, expansive as the destruction is in Colorado, it is only part of a larger infestation that has spread across much of western Canada.

History is partly to blame for the outbreak. Miners and settlers cleared many of the state's lodgepoles more than 100 years ago, so the forests are a monoculture of trees reaching the end of their life span.

But that shadowy, ever-present environmental villain, global warming, is also a suspect.

Several years of drought, which some scientists attribute to a warming climate, left the trees vulnerable to the beetles' attack. Waves of extreme cold — lower than minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit — once swept through the Colorado mountains periodically, wiping out beetle populations. But it hasn't been that cold in more than a decade.

"If you think in terms of global climate change, yes, that's playing a role,'' said Dave Steinke, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

So there's no good news?

Well, not quite. The way to feel better about nature's ability to adjust to any setback — in Colorado or elsewhere — is to hit the trail. We saw wildflower-covered meadows, ptarmigan and elk. We climbed high enough to look down on a northern harrier soaring above a valley.

Best of all, we saw healthy spruce, fir and young lodgepoles ready to fill the void left by older, dying pines.

"The pine beetle doesn't destroy forests; it re-arranges them,'' a Forest Service spokeswoman told me.

Maybe this is just reassuring public relations patter. But by the time I left Colorado, I believed it.

Look west to see what might yet happen 06/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2008 9:45am]

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