A Slow and Ugly Death at Rocky Mountain National Park

pine kill hillA dead tree is an ugly thing. Brown and dry, with knarled and bare branches reaching up to the sky, it stands without help and without hope. A dead tree never comes back to life.

In the last several years, there has been a slow, ugly death happening around Winter Park, Fraser, Grand Lake and the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The last time I came here (4-5 years ago) I remember hiking in the summer through lush, green forests and cross country skiing through stands of tall, living pines. This weekend, what I saw shocked and saddened me. The mature lodgepole pines, which are the major species of tree in this part of Colorado, are almost all dead or about to die very soon. Their bare, burned-out appearance is a natural disaster. Entire mountains, entire valleys are brown and dark brown with pinekill.

I mean, I knew that pinekill was a serious problem in this part of the state. I saw evidence as far south as Frisco and Breckenridge and as far east as Estes Park. I heard that residents of Grand Lake were concerned, and that maybe, just maybe, it had a negative effect on property values (if so, it’s minimal. This place is still outrageously priced for being kind of ugly now). But this—this is a nightmare. Visiting this area was like visiting a radioactive hot zone or a burn area. It’s ugly and depressing. And it’s going to look like this for as long as I’m alive. There’s no way there’s enough money or resources to cut down all these dead trees. They’re going to have to fall down on their own, or get burned down (let’s hope not), or get blown down by heavy snow and wind.

I don’t know why this isn’t more of a serious, front-and-center issue in Colorado. I suppose it is in some circles. But really, who will want to visit western Rocky Mountain National Park in the summer when it looks like this?

dead trees

snowshoeing in woods
Dave blazing a trail in the snow in Rocky Mountain National Park near Grand Lake

Dave and I decided that the less-than-lovely landscape wasn’t going to stop us from enjoying a little bit of snowshoeing in the woods. There wasn’t much wind this morning, which is a good thing, as any lick of breeze makes the gray sentinels sway dangerously (I read an article a few weeks ago about a guy getting killed by a falling tree…the ultimate example of the wrong place at the wrong time). There are some that have already toppled part-way, and now every time there’s movement in the air they rub up against another tree and make a creepy creaking sound, a sound that particularly haunting in the middle of the wilderness.

new growth
New growth among the dead trees

After an hour of trekking through the mostly-dead woods, it occurred to me to ask the trees what they needed, dead or not. What was their point of view about this disaster? As the answer came to me, I also began to notice something else, something hopeful. I saw as many young and baby lodgepole trees as mature dead ones. The young ones are much more, if not completely immune to the pine beetle. I don’t know if I was noticing the young trees because the older ones were so colorless, or if there was indeed an explosion of new growth. Somehow I don’t think these trees were planted here. It’s much too hodge-podge for it to be an organized planting. Some of the trees are only about 6 inches sticking up out of the snow and some look to be no more than a few years old, while some are already close to ten feet tall. The young ones are everywhere, but they’re not immediately obvious simply because they’re hidden from view by the gray and brown tops of the old ones.

snowshoeing across mountain lakeBoth the dead and living trees seemed to be saying that they want to be left alone. They seemed to be a lot less concerned than I was. “What looks like a disaster to you is just another life and death cycle to us. This needs to happen every once in a while.” I sensed a relaxed resignation, mixed in with hope and pride over the babies that were growing in between the corpses. This was the next generation of lodgepoles, and they looked healthy, green and strong. I really hope that the conditions improve for you kids, I thought. I hope it gets wetter, and gets colder in winter so the beetles are kept in check and won’t want to suck you dry. I hope the ecologists looking for non-toxic pine beetle repellants succeed in treating the forests in this area. I hope you live and thrive and outlive me.

By the time these trees are 40 feet tall, I’ll be dead. In 500 years, there will be a new forest here. Perhaps it’ll be a forest of fir trees, or aspens, or other pines. I wish I could see the future.

Never summer range
Never Summer Range, west of Rocky Mountain National Park

Of course, what’s 500 years to a tree? Our lifetime probably feels like a particularly unlucky season to a tree. I don’t know how old some of these trees are since I’m neither an ecologist or park ranger. I would guess that it will be another 100-200 years before the younger trees grow to full height, and maybe by then some of the dead trees will have toppled and rotted. I’ve heard that pine beetle kill is part of a natural process, although the suppressing of natural forest fires, drought, and above-average temperatures in winter in the last decade have accelerated this process and decimated entire mountain ranges. I know that this problem reaches all the way north to Montana and British Columbia!

It feels strange to see a valley where I know there are no houses, no people, no electrical wires, no roads, and yet there’s this unjust destruction. The reason is this insect that is so tiny and well-camouflaged, it’s nearly invisible to the naked eye. I have never seen a pine beetle. After seeing what I saw today, I think I would want to smash that little f***er flat if I did.