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Missing the Forest and the Trees

Photojournalism project reveals how pine beetles are destroying western forests

Seventeen years ago a historic mountain pine beetle infestation quietly began in North America’s lodgepole pine forests. Since then, lodgepole pines have been dying off in unprecedented numbers throughout the western United States and Canada. Entire forests – including a combined 4 million acres in Colorado and Wyoming – have been destroyed.

photo of a mountain landscapeAll photos by Steven DeWittWidespread Mountain Pine Beetle Infestation – Gore Mountain Range, Colorado
Click this photo to view more.

One of the oldest native species in North America, the lodgepole pine dominates subalpine areas like Colorado’s northern Rocky Mountains. The Centennial State’s 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pines represent 10 percent of all the lodgepoles in the US.

Those trees are now under threat. Swaths of lodgepole forests, once deep green, have turned brown. The changes in North America’s western forest landscape could last for generations.

The problem is connected to our diminishing winters. In the past, mountain pine beetle populations stayed at stable levels because routine freezes would kill the beetles when they were most vulnerable – in the fall and the late spring. That’s not happening anymore. Human-generated climate change has shortened our winters, and allowed the pine beetle population to reach epic proportions.

photo looking upward along the trunk of a treeSteven DeWittA Centuries Old Living Lodgepole Pine – White River National Forest Colorado

Summer heat and drought have contributed to the damage. During the last 25 years, Earth’s global average temperature has increased at an alarming rate and our planet has experienced some of the hottest years ever recorded. This global temperature rise has sparked a widespread, headline-making drought that has significantly weakened North America’s lodgepole pine forests.

Like drought and wildfires, the mountain pine beetle infestation is an ancient, natural and necessary feature of lodgepole pine forests. Without cycles of periodic drought, mountain pine beetle infestation and wildfire, these trees wouldn't exist as they do. Now, climate change’s extremes have turned this natural cycle against the forests.

I moved to Eagle County, Colorado in 2003, and immediately fell in love with the forests. What I have witnessed since then has been heartbreaking. In just 10 years, I’ve seen winters get shorter, watched the lodgepoles turn brown, and witnessed the radical transformation of our natural world. For those of us who enjoy oxygen, this news is cause for concern.

photo of a dying forestSteven DeWittLodgepole Pine Forest in Red Phase Infestation: Autumn 2007 White River National Forest

I launched the The Lodgepole Project as my way of raising awareness about how climate change threatens our forests. The central mission of The Lodgepole Project is based on biologist Sam Labudde’s idea of visual truth: “The visual truth of a situation can move millions of people, and their outcry moves politicians and bureaucrats. Without visual ammunition we are like unarmed soldiers marching into battle.”

The Lodgepole Project provides the visual truth of this historic beetle epidemic, and in the process highlights another devastating effect of a human-altered climate. It’s a visual story about what happens when humans alter the delicate balance of the natural world.

For updates and to learn more, please visit The Lodgepole Project.

View these photos and more as a slideshow here.

Steven DeWitt
Steven DeWitt is a Colorado based outdoor adventure and conservation photographer.

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