North American Forests:
When the Colors of the Trees Change
By Mario R. Fernández
Translated By Deonca Williams
5 July 2012
Edited by Lydia Dallett
Argentina - ArgenPress - Original Article (Spanish)
Global warming seems to be an everyday affair, a way of life; sometimes we ourselves are witnesses to its verifiable warming effects without resorting to a report or any other scientific paper or journal.
In a recent personal experience last February, in the Canadian winter on the banks of a lagoon, which is more like a marsh, not far from where I live, I could see ducks (American Black) that give life to the place particularly in spring and summer, touring the marsh in a row of about 40. These ducks were walking down the path that surrounded the frozen lake; they seemed almost disoriented and lost, searching for food and water. I wondered what caused these migratory birds to be there, being that it was winter and their instinct normally leads them to the south, some clue to their environment in addition to photoperiod. However, changes in weather conditions such as higher-than-normal temperatures can cause imbalances that confuse migrating birds. But the ducks are not the only ones affected by these changes; the insects are affected, too, and this is the issue I am referring to here.
Recalling somewhat forgotten images of North American forests — those that were in pictures, documentaries, movies and even in the forest industry’s own propaganda — the forest stretched majestic and virgin over territory formerly of the Aboriginal peoples who were able to maintain a balance with its ecosystem for thousands of years, [a balance which] is now gone. That balance was interrupted by the arrival of European conquerors and their "civilizing" machine, which is now very dangerously overwhelming [nature]. Natural forests are no longer part of that sacred worldview of Aboriginal peoples but are actually viewed and understood simply as sources of timber and producers of profits. Europeans applied technological and commercial systems that have taken everything sacred in the forests and submitted it all to a ruthless and thorough exploitation. In North America, Canada and the United States’ western forests have been exploited for more than 120 years and this exploitation is becoming more aggressive; though it is a unique process to North America, it is one that affects all the world's forests.
In central Canada and the central and western United States, there was a suffering of plagues of insects called lobsters (of the family "Cicadidae") that attacked crops in 1870 and filled the sky in masses. Planted fields were eaten in a very short time; this was perhaps the largest concentration of animals on earth. About 3.5 billion estimated insects covered an area of almost 3,000 km (1,864 miles) in length and 170 km (105 miles) in width. This plague was terrible but could be fought eventually. A century later, however, a new insect pest — this time from the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) and fir (Dendroctonus rufipennis) — has been detected in the bark of both trees and other pine trees.
These animals, known as beetles, occupied a place in the balance of things and together with natural fires helped keep pine forests vibrant and healthy by removing weak trees. The beetles in these forests exist with over 100 original species in the northern hemisphere and Southeast Asia. Beetles are insects older than the trees themselves and are the most numerous animals on the planet. But in the 1980s the situation began to change, adversely affecting the natural control of the beetles; the winter is warm, and beetles are able to bypass natural pest control. In normal times the winter is a controlling factor by being tough; therefore few larvae survive. With the growth of the beetles controlled by natural factors such as climate, predators and fire, they fulfilled a key role in the balance sheet. But with increasing temperatures and warmer winters the beetle population has increased, and has even invaded higher elevations and [begun to] colonize new trees in the spring.
It is certainly amazing how adaptable and mobile these insects are. They can fly over 200 miles; these same skills have made them a serious epidemic and fatal threat to the very future of forests. The proper balance of the beetle is responsible for strengthening the forest by removing weakened trees, but now the beetle has become the second destroyer of trees after the human, who exploits the forest’s natural resources. It is true that no other animal on earth has been able to transform the natural landscape as dramatically and as quickly as humans, with the exception, perhaps, of the beetles. [Beetles are mimicking humans] so much so that Andrew Nikiforuk, a Canadian author, speaks of the power and dominion of the beetles, arguing in his book (“Empire of the Beetle”) with a humanized tone that beetles have developed into a true “empire,” summing up the disaster and the destruction [that they have imposed] on the great North American forests.
The beetle that we ignore has, according to DNA studies, a fossil record over 350 million years old, which is no small thing considering that plants flourished about 140 million years ago. The old beetle has enabled its speciation; it is estimated that there are nearly 400,000 species of beetle in existence. Some scientists argue that in fact there are more than 10 million different species of these insects.
Historically, almost all civilizations have recognized the beetles as very important and attractive animals, with the exception of our civilization. The beetles received much attention from the Egyptians, Greeks, the aboriginal tribes of the Gran Chaco in Bolivia and from Europeans during the Middle Ages. German biologist Gerhard Scholtz suspects beetles were the inspiration for the wheel; some feed on manure, he says, which inspired the people of the Middle East who saw them carrying balls of sheep and goat dung by rolling the balls on the floor. Until not so long ago some species of beetles were food for many nations for two reasons: they are abundant and protein rich. Even today in Asia and Africa they continue to be used for human consumption.
The beetles from the bark of the trees are small, about the size of a grain of rice, but there are more than 1,400 species of them in North and Central America. They feed on the nutrients that exist within the bark or cambium (plant tissue). To achieve this they transmit fungi, parasites, viruses, bacteria, protozoa and nematodes to the plant tissue. Vulnerable trees are detected at a distance and by the sounds they make when they lack resin. The lack of resin limits the defense capabilities of the trees because the resin, filled with toxic hydrocarbons, stops the invaders. No doubt the beetles also attack healthy trees more than anything now since their numbers are so high, penetrating the bark and creating galleries built in the form of an S or a J to reach the tissue and, depending on the strength of each tree, employing varied numbers of invaders, which can range from 10 to 10,000 beetles. Eventually, the invasion destroys the plant.
In these tunnels, a small space exists where adult beetles have sex in private; the female can then make another gallery in a straight line and there deposit about three hundred eggs which are reared into insects. They also have a place to produce a kind of garden for fungi which serves in the destruction of the tree itself and as food for the young. The blue stain fungal pathogen, which for years was thought to be the cause of tree death, has been proven guilty by a scientist from the University of Montana, Diana Six. According to Six, although fungi play a role in the attack, nothing in the world of beetles is simple; it has been proven that trees die even before the mushrooms start, but the fungus alone is not necessarily the cause of death for trees.
By 2010, billions of beetles invaded and destroyed more than 30 billion different types of pines in North America. In addition, human tree cutters, under the guise of stopping the invasion, cut down more trees than ever before. The invasion and deforestation may be one of the great destructions of forests in the history of mankind, comparable to the deforestation in northern Europe by the hands of peasant communities, which occurred between the 12th and 13th centuries. This European deforestation was so drastic that even by the late 19th century the Europeans tried to restore some forests, planting white pine seeds taken from the United States, but to no avail. A significant invasion-plague of beetles occurred in Alaska, where pine trees toppled by the millions, including the Sitka pine which was more than 250 years old. To date, according to a status report, the plague of beetles has killed 200 million trees in an area of over 1.6 million hectares. Tourists who visit Alaska in summer often asked why these beautiful trees have a reddish color. The answer is obvious: the trees are already dead.
Another area affected, and the most important, following the Rocky Mountain chain to the south, is the province of British Columbia in Canada, one of the richest areas of the world in wood and forests. It covers an area larger than the total area of France with more than 60 million hectares, of which 25 million are covered with trees that are over 250 years old. About 10 million hectares have been cleared over time (Canada has 97 million hectares of forest, equivalent to 10 percent of the remaining forests in the world). In 2004, timber comprised 40 percent of British Columbia’s exports, generating more than $14 billion in annual income. But by 2012 timber exports will decrease to about $11 billion annually. Also in 2004, there was an estimated total wealth of over $240 billion. Unfortunately, only 8 percent of the forests of BC are in protected areas; the rest (92 percent) is controlled by the timber industry. For the past 30 winters no more than 20 percent of the larvae of the beetles have survived, but in the most recent winters, more than 80 percent of the larvae survive. Until 2001, the pollution of forests by the beetles was relatively slow, about 750,000 hectares, but since 2005 the pace has accelerated and 8 million hectares have been contaminated. In 2007, 12.5 million acres were contaminated; by 2012 an estimated 18.1 million hectares will be contaminated. With an estimated 710 million cubic meters of pine wood (in market value), the invasion of the pest will increase exponentially.
The British Columbia provincial government has spent, since 2001 to the present, almost $900 million, in addition to the $300 million it already spent compensating the federal government and industry communities for loss of economic activity, helping to exploit other natural resources such as mining ground in the forest areas where the beetles exist, and investing in roads and other infrastructure. The government ironically helped to cut down contaminated trees, generating sporadic booms, and allowed lumber companies to violate the assigned areas and cut thousands of healthy trees. There is a lack of awareness of the problem; out of fear of losing their jobs, many people involved in the forest industry blame the government and accuse it of being "socialist" simply because it tries to prevent over-exploitation of healthy forests.
Something similar has happened in the maritime industry with the fishermen after the collapse of fisheries in the North Atlantic. There has been a strong reaction against fishing quotas. These quotas have been implemented in the hopes of recovering sea ecosystems, but people have rejected these quotas as fishing is a basic source of employment.
The fight against the plague of beetles has included ineffective and environmentally harmful methods; for example, between 1995 and 2004, British Columbia used arsenic, as this is cheaper than burning the forest, but it naturally turned out to be a danger to the health of the area inhabitants as arsenic is carcinogenic and damages DNA. Arsenic affects not only human populations but many other animals as well, yet the British Columbia government only suspended the practice as late as 2006. In addition, winds to the east have brought the epidemic of beetles to the northern boreal forest and south to the province of Alberta in Canada. To the authorities of Alberta, who have never shown much respect and concern for forest resources, the invasion of beetles has been seen as an opportunity to exploit cheap wood. In the provinces of Atlantic Canada, other types of beetles have begun to encroach on forests; these species are immigrants from Europe and Asia brought by ships thanks to climate change. Many experts fear that the invasion of beetles will eventually attack all Canadian forests.
In America, millions of hectares have been contaminated in the 11 western states and millions of hectares of trees are doomed to disappear in the near future, including the beautiful pine that has been around for 300 to 450 years in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and California; the country of Mexico will be adversely affected as well. For example, in the state of Colorado, with 9.7 million hectares of forests, more than 2 million are contaminated by the invasion of beetles, and in the state of Utah, with its 7.5 million hectares of forest, more than one million hectares of trees are lifeless.
Most people are indifferent or ignore the reality of these threats to the life of the trees and our life, but scholars and scientists who have spent years investigating these phenomena (with money from the federal governments of Canada and the U.S.) understand the challenge. A small number of citizens are concerned about environmental issues and try to increase awareness. For example, David Dunn, a musician from Santa Fe, New Mexico, managed to record a CD with the incredible sounds of the beetles in the bark of pine pinion. Reagan McGuire, a truck driver and a lover of trees in the east of the country, read an article saying that 74 million trees were sentenced to death in Arizona and New Mexico. As a result, McGuire decided to use music to end the invasion, recalling Manuel Noriega as he played music day and night to get the beetles to leave his refuge in Panama. Richard Hofstetter, a young scientist from the University of Northern Arizona, proposed his idea to materialize one of the most witty scientific experiments in the history of the insects that connects him to the musician and trucker in research.*
Ahead of us we have the possible destruction of forests, vital in maintaining oxygen levels necessary for life, in the control of carbon dioxide, and in water cycle balances. Notably, the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere has dropped from 35 to 21 percent from prehistoric times to now, and the carbon dioxide has increased in part by the human growth pollution in cities with high oxygen levels, which often comprises only 15 percent of total air. So at this rate it is obvious that in these cities we will render the "air" unbreathable. Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a botanist, says, “the abuse of forests and pollution of the oceans has caused them to produce only half the oxygen (they produced) 10,000 years ago.”** We must also consider that in the last 30 years this process has accelerated the deterioration or the collapse of almost all living systems.
The answer to the deterioration of life is that the rich and those who usurp power in the name of them are totally against the sense of urgency to protect the planet's resources. In Canada, for example, the current federal government has drastically reduced — due to the policies of the last 20 years — funding to the department of environmental protection, ocean and fishing. Similarly, the provincial government of British Columbia’s forest service has been facing budget cuts since 1995, reducing its budget and staff by 40 percent. In the United States, similar policies are underway, American entomologist Jesse Logan said. "They want science to be a fantasy as they see the world.”*** All financial resources for scientific research do not matter because the results of these investigations do not seem to apply to real life. Anyone who dares protest in favor of more responsible policies regarding the environment is mistreated, oppressed and discredited as if the problem was not real and does not affect us all. If there is justice and democracy then the politicians responsible for the genocide of the environment should be condemned.
At best, the beetles recognize our idiocy and corruption; perhaps we may be observing [the results] of our charging nature’s account so much abuse and mishap. Therefore we are criminals against our own and other species. We ignore what we know and ignore our own science and imagine we can skip any test and control any disaster created by us. Such arrogance and stupidity is disastrous and will lead to certain suicide. Even though we see ourselves as the center of the world, perhaps we are more inferior to these other species.
*Editor’s note: For more on how Dunn, Hofstetter and McGuire use sound to change the behavior of beetles, please see http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=10-P13-00009&segmentID=6.
**Editor’s note: This fact is misattributed to Beresford-Kroeger. The line actually appears in the text of Andrew Nikiforuk’s “Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests,” in which Beresford-Kroeger is quoted elsewhere.
***Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, cannot be verified.
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