Dying Whitebark Pine Forests? Look Elsewhere for Biomass Fuel

This is what I see from my window…This article is from OnEarth magazine (NRDC),Community Blog.

by Whitney Leonard
When I look at the dying whitebark pine forests across the American West, where ancient trees are succumbing to a climate-driven mountain pine beetle explosion, I see an ecosystem hanging on by a thread — an ecosystem in need of protection. When the biomass industry looks at these forests, it sees a land prime for exploitation to feed the growing hunger for biomass fuel. A representative from John Deere’s Construction and Forestry Division said as much in a recent article in the industry magazine Biomass Power and Thermal, where he cites NRDC’s own whitebark pine study as evidence that the West is filled with standing dead timber that should be harvested.

But we drew a different conclusion from our study, focusing on the need for protection and restoration rather than continued destruction in these fragile forests. Though it’s tempting to try to turn lemons into lemonade, here are a few reasons to pause for thought before jumping to the misinformed conclusion that we should to slash down our beetle-damaged forests, particularly our 1000-year-old whitebark pine forests.

As NRDC’s website explains, whitebark pine is both the pioneer and the anchor of high alpine ecosystems, providing food for animals — from squirrels and birds to the iconic grizzly bear — and shading the mountain snowpack, providing precious water flow into the dry summer months. Whitebark pines have no significant defenses against mountain pine beetles, so as warmer winters allow the beetle to expand into previously inhospitable high alpine forests, this hungry insect is wreaking havoc on the defenseless trees. Greater Yellowstone has been hit particularly hard. As the Biomass Power and Thermal article correctly reported, a groundbreaking aerial survey by NRDC in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service found that 80 percent of the whitebark forests in the 22-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are dead or dying, with just 5 percent remaining truly unaffected by beetles. As this climate-driven catastrophe continues to unfold, it will have huge impacts for the region’s wildlife, water supply, and ultimately all of us who live here.

But the seemingly logical claim that these dying trees are turning the forest into a tinderbox turns out to be untrue. As NASA-sponsored research shows, forests with beetle damage do not appear to be more susceptible to large or intense fires. This goes for all beetle-killed pines — not only whitebark but also lodgepole pine (think Colorado), ponderosa pine, and others. As NASA reports, green needles appear lush and difficult to burn but are in fact packed with highly flammable oils, which break down and actually become less flammable after a tree dies. Furthermore, as dead needles drop from a tree, they are essentially removing many of the fine fuels from the canopy. Intense fires are then less likely to ignite and spread in this forest of dead tree trunks.

It is therefore illogical to suggest that we need to cut down all these beetle-killed trees to reduce fire danger. The timber and biomass industries would like you to believe that they’re doing the world a favor by removing these standing dead trees, but it’s simply not true.

Likewise, there is increasing evidence against the popular belief that forest thinning reduces fire danger and severity. As scientists are beginning to understand, any significant tree or brush removal, even just in the understory, increases wind speeds within the forest. Higher winds dry out the vegetation faster and speed the spread of any fires that do occur (see this Martinson and Omi study). Though the Biomass Power and Thermal article touts understory thinning as a fire prevention technique, the claim doesn’t hold up.

Nor is thinning the understory helpful for managing a forest with beetle damage — in fact, it may be the worst thing to do. Mountain pine beetles only attack trees larger than about five inches in diameter, sparing saplings in the understory because they don’t provide enough food. So in many forests that are being devastated by the beetle, a healthy crop of saplings still blanket the forest floor — and these saplings are our best hope for renewing the forest in the wake of beetle attacks. Removing the vibrant understory in beetle-damaged forests is clearly the wrong management tactic, as it would halt regeneration in its tracks.

Finally, there is little evidence that thinning mature whitebark pines can reduce the spread or intensity of mountain pine beetle outbreaks. Thinning to reduce competition and boost the health of the remaining trees has unfortunately not been shown to provide a significant benefit, since, unlike lodgepole pines, even the healthiest whitebark pines lack natural defenses against the beetle.

Beetle-damaged forests, particularly the whitebark pine forests where ancient trees are facing an unprecedented and devastating beetle outbreak, need all the help they can get. They need protection and restoration, not destructive harvest practices that would do little to guard against fire or continued beetle attacks.

We do need clean energy solutions to reduce climate change and give the whitebark pine a fighting chance. But that doesn’t involve cutting down the very trees we are trying to save.

For more information on the mountain forests that anchor our Western landscapes, check out NRDC’s new whitebark pine webpage:


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