Cascadia’s inland pine forests have been, predictably, catching fire a lot this summer. (From the safety of a boat, I came within a couple hundred yards of a giant blaze on my vacation earlier this month.) And climate change has likely fanned the flames.

But climate change’s biggest toll on inland forests, so far, has been to turn them blue – the color, not the mood or the political leaning.

Yes, trees in the inland Northwest, especially in British Columbia, are increasingly stained in azure shades. The explanation is such a perfect example of ecological interactions that, like foxes and rabbits, it might start appearing in biology textbooks.

  • inland-pine-forests-have-long-been-kept-honest-by-a-few-types-of-bark-beetles-the-mountain-pine-beetle-(pictured)-among-them-which-attack-trees-that-are-stressed-by-drought-or-disease.-hitchhiking-on-the-voracious-wood-eaters’-backs-is-often-a-fungus.-the-beetles-bore-through-pine-bark-to-eat-and-lay-their-eggs;-the-fungus-spreads-inside-the-bark.-where-the-fungus-goes-it-dyes-the-wood-in-shades-from-cerulean-to-indigo.-together-fungus-and-beetles-weed-out-stressed-stands-of-trees.-this-gives-the-forests-a-healthy-mix-of-ages-which-makes-them-more-resistant-to-catastrophic-fires-and-disease.

    these-self-balancing-feedback-loops-of-course-evolved-within-the-bounds-of-the-present-(or-recent-past)-climate.-as-cascadia’s-climate-changes-the-ecosystem-is-coming-unglued.-beetle-numbers-are-limited-by-among-other-things-the-coldest-days-in-winter.-and-though-average-temperatures-in-our-region-have-increased-only-a-little-as-yet-the-extreme-colds-have-become-much-less-extreme.-in-british-columbia-for-example-where-mountain-pine-beetles-are-most-prevalent-average-year-round-temperatures-are-up-about-1-degree-fahrenheit-over-the-past-century.-minimum-winter-temperatures-meanwhile-are-up-more-than-4-degrees-(pdf-see-page-6).

    in-places-reports-the-high-country-news-(subscription-required)-in-an-excellent-feature-the-winter-die-off-rate-among-beetles-has-dropped-from-about-80-percent-to-about-10-percent.-

    adding-fuel-to-the-fire-interior-cascadia-has-suffered-one-summer-drought-after-another-in-the-past-decade-also-perhaps-because-of-climate-change.-and-drought-has-weakened-the-pine-forests’-resistance-to-beetle-attack.-augmenting-the-effects-of-climate-decades-of-forest-fire-suppression-and-clearcut-logging-have-homogenized-vast-areas-of-forest-to-even-age-stands-of-middle-aged-lodgepole-pine-setting-the-table-for-a-bioregion-wide-beetle-fest.

    bark-beetle-numbers-in-the-inland-northwest-are-up-by-the-hundreds-of-millions-perhaps-even-billions.-talk-about-a-population-boom!

    as-of-late-last-year-mountain-pine-beetles-had-spread-across-25-million-acres-of-british-columbia’s-timberlands-plus-millions-of-additional-acres-of-parks-and-other-protected-forests.-(their-2003-extent-is-here.-an-animation-showing-mountain-pine-beetle-outbreaks-in-british-columbia-in-recent-decades-is-here.) And beetle infestations seem to be accelerating. BC beetles overran twice as large an area in 2003 as in 2002.

    In the Northwest states, beetles are also proliferating. Trees by the millions have dried out and died in Idaho’s national forests. Eastern Washington has lost a third of a million acres of lodgepole pine.

    Unfortunately, there’s some even worse news: the beetles, emboldened by their success among lodgepole pines, are moving into new, unprepared hosts. In Idaho and Washington, the infestation has spread up to the whitebark pines, a high altitude species that plays a critical role in its ecosystem. In 2003, some 13,000 acres of whitebark pine died in eastern Washington, up from 1,700 acres the previous year.

    Whitebark pine nuts are a seasonal food for grizzly bears. When the number of nuts is low, bears move to lower elevations, where people usually live. Research conducted in Yellowstone National Park found that bad Whitebark nut years are big years for human-bear interactions. And human-bear interactions lead to one thing: dead bears. Biologist David Mattson told the Billings (Montana) Gazette “When you have a good year with whitebark pine, the bears stay up high and stay alive. When you have a poor year, the bears come (to lower elevations) and they die faster.” Beetles, in short, endanger grizzly bears.

    Oh, and about the blue wood: With millions of acres of tinted trees dying in the hinterlands, the province of British Columbia has launched a marketing campaign to help sell the lumber. Their bold, lemons-to-lemonade concept? Denim Pine.

    Here’s the pitch:

    Denim Pine is a unique exotic wood created by Mother Nature. It can currently be found deep within the forests of British Columbia, Canada.

    Only Denim Pine products guarantee they are environmentally friendly. You will also know you are buying “Green”. These trees died naturally in the forest.

    Can “acid-washed boards” be far behind?

    (This post researched and coauthored by Matt Schoellhammer.)