The Forest Health Task Force long ago concluded that the pine-beetle outbreak can’t be stopped. The citizens, environmentalists, politicians, and fire-service and water-utility officials who make up the group spent part of their May meeting talking about the threat that falling trees pose to infrastructure. They spent most of their time talking about drought.
“What we have now is a very dry year. It could possibly be a very, very serious drought,” said Steve Swanson, head of the nonprofit Blue River Watershed Group. In a voice so soft that listeners strained to hear him, Swanson laid out what was on everyone’s mind.
As of early April, Colorado’s snowpack was 48 percent below average. Conditions haven’t been this dry since 2002, the year made notorious by the Hayman fire, the largest in state history. That inferno burned more than 138,000 acres in the hills southwest of Denver and clogged the Cheesman Reservoir with an ashy slurry. The Western Forestry Leadership Coalition estimates that direct costs, rehabilitation, and other indirect costs of the fire topped $200 million. Ten years later, the rehabilitation effort is ongoing.
Colorado’s 30 largest forest fires on record have all occurred since 1996, and state data suggest that fires have been growing in size as well as frequency. As this story went to press, New Mexico was fighting the largest forest fire in its history, a 46,000-acre blaze was burning in northern Colorado, and an 8,000-acre fire was spreading in southwest Colorado, near Durango.
At the meeting, Gibbs made a pitch for establishing “defensible space” around homes: a cleared area that stops fire from leaping from treetop to rooftop, or from bushes to front stoop. Defensible space is standard practice in Southern California, but it’s not something Colorado policymakers and homeowners have thought much about until recently.
In Summit County, people are adjusting to a new normal. Longtime environmental stressors such as the pine beetle, drought, and wildfire have become more prevalent. Even people who believe that those changes are linked to rising global temperatures have a sense that bringing up climate change only polarizes and confuses the discussion.
Dan Schroder, director of the Colorado State University Extension in Summit County, heads a program that educates the community about fire risk and explains what’s killing all the trees. But he’d rather not drag climate policy into it.
“I’m in the camp where climate change is happening, and it’s something that we need to address and think about as we move forward,” Schroder said. “But in order to engage with the general public, that sort of remains somewhat inflammatory, or a bit of a conflicting idea. So I tend not to engage that term ‘climate change.’ ”
Hallman came to Colorado in 1972 to work as an engineer at the molybdenum mine up in Climax. He has been working as an environmental consultant since the late 1980s, but he’s not a climate-change expert. He’s a guy who cares about the outdoors and who’s hungry for information about the changes he’s seeing around his home. He’s also worried that a confusing, sustained debate over whether the Earth is warming and why can only mean political paralysis.
“We have people who are saying, well, it doesn’t exist, and not only it doesn’t exist, but if you believe it exists, you are somehow—you are at least a socialist, if not a communist,” Hallman said. “So that’s not a good starting point.”
“When it comes to allocating funding, like at the local level, if you have the misinformation … how are you going to have the political will to take the actions that are necessary?” he asked. Another task-force member, Breckenridge-based environmental consultant Brad Piehl, feels the same way. “People need more facts. They need to sit down and talk about it,” he said.
Mitton and other scientists might argue that those facts are already present, but at the local level, there is still room for doubt. People are watching new growth sprout around the dead pine stands. They know they live in a dry state. And even those who believe that reducing carbon emissions is necessary, like Hallman and Piehl, know that unless a majority of Americans feel that the same way, the national action needed to start that reduction isn’t going to happen.
Locals can’t do anything to stop the pine beetle’s spread, just as they can’t do anything, as individuals, to slow global carbon emissions. The way the pine-beetle outbreak will affect fire and water behavior remains murky, just as it’s unclear how climate change will ultimately affect people’s behavior about fire and water in the West. Advocates anticipate that more wildfires or water shortages could help convince people that climate change is here, and that it’s a problem. But by the time scientists have proven the changes and everyone else has accepted them, more of us will already be living with the fallout.