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Lodgepole pine study raises worries for forests

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The Latest
Wednesday, March 02, 2011

By Corey Paul

Climate change might kill off lodgepole pines in the Pacific Northwest by 2080, a new study out of Oregon State University concludes. And as soon as 2020, this tree that thrives in cold temperatures from western Canada to Colorado will likely remain in just 17 percent of its current range.

The study, just published in the scientific journal Climate Change, is based on analysis of 12,600 sites by researchers from OSU's College of Forestry and the Department of Forest Resource Management at the University of British Columbia. Already it's making waves in Washington, DC and in the media.

If the findings sound bad — rising temperatures are bringing drought and destructive insects that will kill off a tree key to forest ecosystems — that's because they are.  The lodgepole pine is the only native two-needle pine in the state. But what, more specifically, might a lodgepole apocalypse mean for Oregon?

To find out, Oregon Business asked folks at the Oregon Forest Resources Institute — Director of Forestry Mike Cloughesy and Communications Director David Kvamme — and Richard Waring, emeritus professor of forest science at Oregon State University.

Here's what they said:

The biggest concerns are long-term, such as an increase in erosion and a heightened risk of wildfire.

In the short term, if pine beetles indeed gobble up lodgepole pine, little if any measurable damage would immediately befall the Oregon lumber industry. That's because lumber could still be salvaged quickly. If not, a blue stain fungus that pine beetles deposit will open the door for more fungi that will devour the tree. But it may also be worth mentioning that there's not tremendous demand for lumber these days, with the global economic crisis and a weak demand for American houses, and that lots of lodgepole pine exists on federal land.

"On federal land it wouldn't have been logged dead or alive, so it would be a pretty small economic impact," Cloughesy said.

The die-off could impact aesthetics, and indirectly, tourism, as shorter young trees grow on the remains of the old. "When it dies, it dies, and it dies on a whole stand," Kvamme said. "That's very disturbing to the public when they drive by and see this."

What seems most damaging is the prospect of large amounts of dead timber, and with that the threat of fire. Oregon has about 1.3 billion lodgepole pine trees. Combined with the expected climate change-related lengthening of the fire season from spring to autumn and the overgrown state of many of Oregon's public forests, there is plenty of fodder for disaster scenarios that could hurt timber stocks - while ironically helping the state's large wildfire-fighting industry.

But perhaps the most immediate insight contained in the study concerns the rate of climate change and ecological disruption, Waring said. The study suggests a change so quick among so much area that animals and humans would struggle to adapt, and disturbed areas could lead to erosion.

The study comes on top of previous reports about trees suffering from climate-related changes. A Colorado study released last month, for example, estimated 100,000 spruce trees a day lost to a spruce beetle infestation in 2010.

Such studies support a stark picture of global warming with hard data — the recent OSU study was backed by observed ecosystem changes dating to 1980.  The OSU forest expert Waring felt a need to address naysayers:

“For skeptics of climate change, it’s worth noting that the increase in vulnerability of lodgepole pine we’ve seen in recent decades is made from comparisons with real climatic data and is backed up with satellite observations showing major changes on the ground."

These major changes are not hurting the state's forests in significant ways yet. But they could in the future.

Corey Paul is an associate writer for Oregon Business.


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