ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK — A few modest features distinguish the trunk of the limber pine standing among the trees near abandoned beaver ponds: a white, plastic pouch attached by a removable staple, a numerical metal tag secured with an aluminum nail and a printed warning: “Pouches on trees to repel mountain pine beetles. Pouches contain chemicals. Do Not Touch-Do Not Remove.”
The conifer, with its accoutrements, represents a small salvo in the battle against a beetle infestation, fueled partly by warmer temperatures. But it is also a larger symbol of how researchers from the Forest Service — in concert with National Park Service officials and other scientists — are working to steel high-elevation pine forests in the West against the onslaught of climate change.
A map of North America's high-elevations forests.
The Forest Service’s Jeff Witcosky explains how federal researchers are working to curb a beetle epidemic in an effort to save high-elevation pine forests.
Scientists know that global warming will reshape these forests, which provide crucial habitat and food for key species, curb soil erosion and slow melting snow destined for local water supplies. What they don’t yet understand is which trees are best poised to survive under these changed conditions and how they can help them adapt in the decades to come.
Although it’s had its share of pests and pathogens, the pine forest here is in better shape than some nearby. Scientists are trying to figure out how to keep it that way.
“We’re trying to stay ahead of the target,” said David Cleaves, climate-change adviser to the chief of the Forest Service. “The interior West, that’s sort of ground zero for us.”
Global warming could affect everything from national forests’ and grasslands’ vegetation to their stream flows, and the agency has a comprehensive plan to deal with it. Managers must keep a performance score card on everything from how educated staff are on climate change to how much carbon is stored in trees and vegetation in their areas. They’ve started planting some species at higher elevations, such as yellow cedar in Alaska, and near river banks to lower stream temperatures. And they’ve launched a pilot project to assess the vulnerability of watersheds in a dozen national forests.
At Virginia’s George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, for example, managers are planning to construct stream crossings and bridges that can withstand major storm events, and to use fire more frequently to restore pine forests under pressure from the Southern pine beetle.
Out West, high-elevation five-needle pines — which include the species whitebark, limber, foxtail, Southwestern white, Rocky Mountain bristlecone and Great Basin bristlecone — are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Warmer temperatures have allowed native beetles to grow and feed on trees at a faster rate. Water deprivation and drought can also hurt them, and they can be crowded out by other tree species migrating to higher altitudes.
“We know the consequences of doing nothing,” said Forest Service research ecologist Anna Schoettle, looking out from Rainbow Curve at a vista boasting both healthy conifers and ones that had turned red and gray after beetle infestations. “We have a threat we can’t ignore.”