When Aspen, Colo. resident John Bennett flew across Colorado after the devastating pine beetle infestation had taken effect, he was shocked by what he saw.
"I had a very strong sense of flying over a cemetery. A vast graveyard," he said.
Entire pine forests had turned brown and died as the beetle epidemic spread, and the death toll of trees continues to rise, not just across Colorado, but across a swath of forest from Canada to the Mexican border.
Forests across the West are seeing a confluence of factors killing off trees in numbers never before seen in human history. Various beetles are attacking weakened pines, spruce and pinons. Wildfires have reached explosive proportions. Aspens, the iconic tree of the west, are falling ill and dying in massive numbers.
No single cause is behind all of them, but scientists believe climate change is one factor they all have in common. For the first time ever, a group of scientists and land managers will come together in Aspen in February to discuss the plight of Western forests and the role climate change is playing in it.
Former Vice President Al Gore, whose film An Inconvenient Truth helped shine a spotlight on climate change and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, will speak at the event. So will Harris Sherman, the agriculture undersecretary who oversees the forest service, an indication of how seriously the Obama administration is taking threats of global warming.
"The current administration clearly seems to understand climate change and its implications," said Bennett, executive director of the group For the Forest, which is hosting the symposium Forests at Risk: Climate Change & the Future of the American West on Feb. 18 in Aspen. "The difficulty of course is that Congress so far has not gone along."
Bennett's group formed when some Aspen residents became concerned about lodgepole pines around the resort town turning brown and dying. Aspen wasn't alone. Some 50 million acres of pines, from British Columbia across the American West, have been affected by the bark beetle.
After a conference on the beetle epidemic last year, Bennett said he heard overwhelming support for a broader conference focused on the various threats to Western forests that scientists believe are linked to climate change.
"Clearly our scientists in the Forest Service are seeing shifts in climatic patterns that lead to the outbreak of insect disease and forest health problems that we're seeing firsthand," said Scott Fiztwilliams, forest supervisor for Colorado's White River National Forest, which includes ski resorts like Aspen and Vail.
With some 23 million visitors a year, the White River National Forest the most heavily-recreated national forest in the country, Fitzwilliams said. Poised at the headwaters of the Colorado River and key Denver water supplies, the forest is responsible for municipal water for 23 million people across the West.
That may make the forest unique in the effects of climate change, but it's hardly alone. Forests across the west are facing the same issues of blight and wildfire that have scarred its mountainsides and left broad swaths of trees decimated.
"Those who understand the danger that climate change offers to our future, our quality of life, tend to speak too often of distant threats in far-ff places," Bennett said. "Rarely do we talk about the things that are happening in our own backyard. I think that's a mistake. I think we need to focus more closely on the real, personal effects of climate change and how they are affecting our neighborhoods, our homes and the world around us."
Follow David Frey at www.davidmfrey.com.