This fourth edition of ACES’ State of the Forest Report includes both pressing concerns as well as improvements in our local forest ecosystem. Each year we find climate change to be one of the most pervasive topics. This doesn’t come as a surprise and probably isn’t surprising to our readers. Climate influences virtually every aspect of ecosystems, from single-celled bacteria and fungi that decompose dead plant and animal matter to the most massive organism on earth, a grove of quaking aspen in Utah which weighs an estimated 6,600 tons.
As it pertains to forests, climate change science is complex. Forests are influenced by and also influence the climate, likely more so than any other terrestrial ecosystem. Forests are an integral part of the carbon cycle, taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each spring and summer through photosynthesis and releasing it back to the atmosphere as trees die, decompose or burn. When forests are cut down or burned for agriculture or development, much of the stored carbon is released into the atmosphere and no future sequestration occurs.
In the 1990s, discussions of forests and climate change centered around forest protection, simply not cutting forests down, as a tool for mitigating climate change. As global carbon emissions have continued to dramatically increase, the paradigm shifted to protecting those forests from the actual impacts of climate change. Forests, with their practical and aesthetic values, were used as an example of a resource that could be lost should climate change continue unabated. The world’s failure to mitigate climate change means that forest loss is no longer a hypothetical, but a continuing, reality.
Unfortunately, no matter what actions society takes at this time, there is no stopping at least 50 years of continued warming because 200 years of fossil fuel emissions are already in the atmosphere. We are limited to managing and reducing its impact, which means that reducing greenhouse emissions is critical to avoid more catastrophic consequences.
The impacts of climate change on our forests are already happening, whether it’s continual spikes in insects and disease as a response to increasingly frequent drought or changes to our extremely valuable snowpack. The mountain pine beetle epidemic may have subsided, but in southern Colorado, a spruce beetle epidemic continues to expand at alarming rates. Even without trying to quantify their intrinsic value, forests are worth protecting based on simple economics. As a major source of our nation’s water and drivers of local economies, forests pay their own way.
As an organization that works on forest restoration, ACES considers not only what the forests looked like 150 years ago before significant development, but also what they might look like over the next 50 years of climate change. It is undeniable that we will be leaving our children with a different forest than we know and love today. It is up to us as to how much of a forest we leave them.