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Rocky Mountain Forests under a
"Triple Assault," Study Reports

This 2014 U.S. Forest Service (USFS) map shows the forest cover in the Rocky Mountain regions. The USFS estimates "as many as 100,000 beetle-killed trees fall to the ground every day in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado alone."
Map: USFS 2014

According to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, the Rocky Mountain forests are under a "triple assault??"tree-killing insects, wildfires, and heat and drought??"that could fundamentally alter these forests as we know them."

Some 60 million people visit the Rockies' 37 national forests each year. The Rockies are home to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain national parks, which attract 11 million visitors each year and generate more than $1 billion annually in visitor spending.

The report notes an exceptionally hot and dry stretch from 1999 to 2003 produced unusually severe impacts on the region's forests. According to an earlier report from the U.S. Forest Service (Meddens, Hicke, and Ferguson, 2012), from 2000 to 2012, bark beetles killed billions of trees in the West, an area covering 46 million acres, a little smaller than the size of Colorado. The report says the exceptionally hot, dry conditions stress and weaken trees, while reducing their ability to ward off the beetle attacks.

The study further reports:

• From 1984 to 2011, dry forest conditions have translated into a 73 percent increase in the annual number of large wildfires in the region.

• Besides increases in tree-killing beetles and wildfires, there has been a rise in trees dying from no obvious cause. "Tree mortality in relatively undisturbed old-growth forests across the West has doubled in recent decades, with no compensating increase in the number of tree seedlings."

These threats are "severely affecting" three iconic tree species of the Rocky Mountains: whitebark pines, aspens and piñon pines.

• Whitebark pines are "in catastrophic decline throughout their range in western North America. Mortality in some areas has been 90 percent to 100 percent."

• "From 2000 to 2010, some 1.3 million acres in the Southern Rockies saw significant aspen decline, and regeneration of new aspens has been much lower than normal."

• In 2002, the driest year since 1895, with precipitation 22 percent below average, sites in Mesa Verde National Park, Colo., near Los Alamos in northern New Mexico, and near Flagstaff, Ariz., "lost some 90 percent of their piñon pines."

About the lead authors of the study:
Jason Funk, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was a land-use and climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, and is certified as an expert reviewer for land-use emissions inventories under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Stephen Saunders is president and founder of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. He served in the Clinton administration as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior over the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

1. Funk J, Saunders S, et al. Rocky Mountain forests at risk: Confronting climate-driven impacts from insects, wildfires, heat, and drought. Report from the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. Cambridge, Mass.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2014.

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April 22, 2019, 4:03 am PDT

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