Thousands of square miles of trees in the western United States have been leveled by a tiny insect — the pine beetle, no bigger than a grain of rice. Already the beetle has destroyed 38,000 square miles of forest land, the equivalent of the states of Indiana and Rhode Island combined. The Cascades, Rockies, Sierra Nevada, and Teton Mountains have all been affected.
Fueled by climate change (warmer winters in the West) and accompanying drought conditions, the beetle has been thriving and wreaking destruction in its path. Normally, cold winters would kill the beetles off, but with an average US temperature increase of 1.9 degrees, the beetles are living longer and have moved into higher elevations, both increasing their numbers and allowing them to live in a wider geographic area.
According to the US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the beetle infestation is a danger to 94 national forest areas in 35 states, as noted in Bloomberg Businessweek. States such as Colorado, South Dakota, and Wyoming have felt the biggest impact of the mighty beetle. In the Black Hills (home to Mount Rushmore), for example, 25 percent of the woods are gone.
In Colorado, 7 of its 13 national forests have experienced such devastation that the state’s governor is seeking a US Forest Service priority for reforestation. The Forest Service has already designated 45 million acres for its attention as a result of the beetles’ havoc, but they also suggest that it’s nearly impossible to stop the spread of the pine beetle. All they can really hope to do is slow down the destruction.
The impact of the beetle is being felt across the West, as trees are ravaged at ski resorts, dude ranches, golf courses, and parkland, all prime money-making tourist locations. At the historic C Lazy U Ranch, employees have spent countless hours clearing trails. In Grand Lake, Colorado, a bond initiative of more than $4 million was passed in order to finance the clearing of some 400,000 trees from its golf course, while in Winter Park an additional property tax has been put into place. In Grand County, Colorado, trees worth $1 billion have been lost, according to Colorado State University.
While some of the trees that have been felled by the beetles can be used for their wood (salvaging some cash for landowners and local governments), generally, there aren’t enough mills to work the sheer volume of trees. Several small tourist-based communities are worried about business in the wake of such devastation. Increasing wildfires also come along with so much dead wood. With the economy still so fragile, many worry about the long-term impact on their very survival.