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Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug are Killing North America's Great Forests

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In advance of the awarding of the annual $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, this Wednesday at the Politics and the Pen Gala in Ottawa, Huffington Post Canada will be running excerpts from the five finalists. Here is author Andrew Nikiforuk, whose book documents "misguided science, out-of-control logging, bad public policy, and a 100 years of fire suppression [that] released the world's oldest forest manager -- the pine beetle -- from all natural constraints."

EVERY SUMMER, LOUISA Willcox, a prominent grizzly bear advocate and avid mountain climber, hikes to the summit of Packsaddle Peak in Tom Miner Basin, Montana, like a determined mother on a mission. Although Willcox enjoys the expansive high-country vista into Yellowstone National Park, she mostly comes now to check on the state of her ancient children: the silvery-skinned whitebark pine. In early August 2009, the pines are not doing well, and Wilcox is growing anxious. "Things are getting ugly," she says.

The whitebark pine is a five-needled monarch that lives in majestic groves throughout the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada-Cascade ranges. It can be found in at least 25 U.S. national forests and much of the mountainous interior of British Columbia and Alberta. This hardy, long-living tree sports outrageously purple cones. The tree itself stores more carbon than a lodgepole. The whitebark pine can endure high winds, poor soils, Arctic cold, deep snow, and lightning strikes. The biologist Diana Tomback calls it "a tenacious survivor." But these gnarled and shrubby-looking pines are now dying by the millions, which could unravel another iconic part of the West in ways no one ever expected.

When Willcox visited the Packsaddle a month earlier, in July, "the ugliness" was not yet there. At the time, she was giving a tour of the forest to members of the Greater Yellowstone Whitebark Assessment Project. The unusual team consisted of retired beetle expert Jesse Logan, conservation pilot Bruce Gordon, and Wally Macfarlane, a veteran mountain man and landscape analyst. Together with the U.S. Forest Service, the team was about to map the scale of beetle damage in whitebark country with an unprecedented aerial survey of Greater Yellowstone. To that point, the government had not collected much comprehensive data on beetle attacks in the pines, because it considered the tree of little commercial value. Willcox, a long-time member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, thought that foolhardy. She even maxed out her credit card to get the map project going.

Using a simple classification scheme that ranged from zero to five ("no dead" to "all dead"), the team rated conditions on Packsaddle as a category two to three. The place was full of large, living trees. But from the summit, the team could see a "red cancerous expanse of dying forests" for hundreds of miles, and within a month what was once a vibrant forest on Packsaddle had become a land of zombie trees: they looked green but were deader than doornails.

It was clear now that in a couple of months the mountain would be a category-four territory aflame with red needles. The deathly quiet of the forest had a British Columbian tenor, but with one startling difference. These trees weren't the abundant 100-year-old lodgepoles but rare 800-year-old elders.

On her August ascent, which started in a spruce forest badly rusted and harassed by the budworm, Willcox passed monster whitebarks decorated with the dismal carpentry of the beetle. The garish, orange-colored pitch tubes on the trees resembled lurid, otherworldly tree blood. At the base of every pine lay fresh telltale mounds of light-colored frass, a combination of sawdust and beetle shit. As Willcox spotted one attacked tree after another, the wildlife advocate muttered in dismay. Some of the attacked trees predated Christopher Columbus's arrival.

"It's unbelievable," said Willcox. "This tiny bug and climate change. It's no match."
The mountain pine beetle's assault on subalpine whitebark forests may seem at first a minor chapter in the great beetle Iliad. But the ancient whitebark anchors much of the West in ways few people appreciate. It not only serves as the crown for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), home to the world's first national park, but guards the rooftop of a continent. Perched on some of the continent's most inhospitable and rocky terrain, these noble pine forests quietly regulate snowmelt, conserve water, shelter diversity, freshen the air, and grow fat-rich seeds for wildlife over an area the size of South Carolina in the GYE alone. The region shelters one of the most intact temperate forests on the planet and encompasses two national parks, six national forests, and 21 mountain ranges.

But in Yellowstone's high country and throughout the Rocky Mountain West, the beetle has now become what Jesse Logan calls "the fire that doesn't burn out." Since 2005, the epidemic has killed 7 million whitebark pines, creating "ghost forests," patches of gray skeletal sticks, on mountaintops from Oregon to Wyoming. Even the U.S. Forest Service admits that the mountain pine beetle, working in combination with a deadly fungal invader and climate change, has already placed whitebark and its hardy relatives such as limber pine "on the brink of disaster."

The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing will be announced at the Politics and the Pen Gala on April 25th. Samara is giving you the chance to win copies of all five books.