Piehl & Hallman: Climate change, forest health & wildfires
October 9, 2012
It doesn’t take a scientist to understand the connection between climate and forest fires. Last spring was hot and dry, which resulted in a dry forest that burned. This should not surprise us. What is surprising is the pace of climate change and the damage it has had on our forests and communities.The vast majority of scientists now recognize climate change as a threat to our nation’s well-being. Their findings are supported by decades of research. The climate is changing at the pace of the worst-case predictions from 5-10 years ago. Last year there were thousands of new record high temperatures. Severe drought conditions devastated millions of acres of crop and grazing lands. Acres burned by wildfire have increased significantly over the last decade.Wildfires are not our only threat. Water-starved trees are sensitive to natural infestations such as the mountain pine beetle. With warmer winter temperatures and longer summers, the pine beetle population exploded. What historically has been a good thing – the natural kill of older trees in limited locations – has turned into a continent-wide disaster, with tens of millions of acres impacted. Locally we can see the impact of climate change on the health of our forests, water supply and recreation economy.What’s at stake in Colorado? – Our lives, homes, water supply and economy. Not only do our forests provide beauty, they are in fact our most critical economic resource. Colorado is defined by its mountains and forests. Not only do people come here to ski, they move their businesses and families here because of scenic beauty and outdoor lifestyle. They stay, eat and buy lift tickets and houses.Colorado is a dry place. We cannot survive without fresh clean water from our forests. Large wildfires and forest health declines now threaten our reservoirs, streams and watersheds. Faced with a changing climate, the job of managing our forest lands is made much more difficult. Money to fund forest monitoring, management and reforestation is increasingly spent fighting wildfires protecting homes and property. Resources that should go to recreation and ecological enhancement are now diverted to protect trail users and campers from falling dead trees. With increased development in forest lands the situation only gets worse.Where will the money come from? The U.S. Forest Service’s share of the federal budget is tiny and decreasing. The Forest Service has performed its mandate of managing our public lands with remarkable focus and dedication. Absent a strong and adequately funded Forest Service to properly manage our common public lands, there will be no bigger losers than the people of Colorado.We cannot stop climate change in the short-term. What we can do is provide more resources and greater funding to manage our public forests, and by doing so protect our environment, economy and our homes. In the long-term, we must decrease carbon emissions by means of cleaner energy sources and greater energy conservation. There should be no debate about this. The solution is clear.Brad Piehl and Howard Hallman are members of the Forest Health Task Force.