The Death of Western Pine Forests

Juliet Eilperin has a good story in the Washington Post on federal efforts to study and try to circumvent the effects of climate change on pine forests in the West. When it comes to western pine forests, there are a lot of moving parts. If you understand the issues and can fill in a few blanks, the article ties all of these moving parts together.

The crux of the matter is this:

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.

Is this hubris? I support the efforts to study and prepare for a changing climate’s impacts on forests, but can we help nature adapt to natural events?

We know from paleoecology – the study of prehistoric plants – that vegetation has been in a constant state of flux for the past 20,000 years. We know that pine trees, as well as other tree species, have been migrating great distances and reestablishing in new areas, partly as a result of changing climatic conditions, for thousands of years. Trying to prevent this natural succession and eventual migration of pine forests seems like a futile effort.

But maybe the effort is one we need to undertake? Isn’t it in human nature to believe that we can manipulate nature – indeed, outwit nature – to suit our needs? I also think part of this is the fear of the unknown, or more directly, the loss of what we find comforting. Who knows what future forests will look like? What we know is that we like the way our pine forests look now, today, in this climate.

I support the efforts of our government and other researchers who are working to understand what is happening and how to protect pines. The effort is worth the small cost, and in the process we are likely to learn more about our own contributions to the loss of pine habitat. Let’s allow these research efforts to play out.


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