email a friend iconprinter friendly iconDrying of the West
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People are not yet suffering, but trees are. Forests in the West are dying, most impressively by burning. The damage done by wildfires in the U.S., the vast majority of them in the West, has soared since the late 1980s. In 2006 nearly ten million acres were destroyed—an all-time record matched the very next year. With temperatures in the region up four degrees F over the past 30 years, spring is coming sooner to the western mountains. The snowpack—already diminished by drought—melts earlier in the year, drying the land and giving the wildfire season a jump start. As hotter summers encroach on autumn, the fires are ending later as well.

The fires are not only more frequent; they are also hotter and more damaging—though not entirely because of climate change. According to Tom Swetnam, director of the University of Arizona tree-ring lab, the root cause is the government's policy, adopted early in the 20th century, of trying to extinguish all wildfires. By studying sections cut from dead, thousand-year-old giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada and from ponderosa pines all over Arizona and New Mexico, Swetnam discovered that most southwestern forests have always burned often—but at low intensity, with flames just a few feet high that raced through the grasses and the needles on the forest floor. The typical tree bears the marks of many such events, black scars where flames ate through the bark and perhaps even took a deep wedge out of the tree, but left it alive to heal its wound with new growth. Suppressing those natural fires has produced denser forests, with flammable litter piled up on the floor, and thickets of shrubs and young trees that act as fire ladders. When fires start now, they don't stay on the ground—they shoot up those ladders to the crowns of the trees. They blow thousand-acre holes in the forest and send mushroom clouds into the air.

One day last summer, Swetnam took a few visitors up Mount Lemmon, just north of Tucson, to see what the aftermath of such events looks like. In May 2002 the Bullock fire roared up the northeast slope of Mount Lemmon, consuming 30,000 acres. Firefighters stopped it at the Catalina Highway, protecting the village of Summerhaven. But the very next year, the Aspen fire started on the slope just below the village, destroying nearly half of the 700-odd houses in Summerhaven and burning 85,000 acres, all the way down to the outskirts of Tucson. The entire mountainside beyond the village remains covered with the gray skeletons of ponderosa pines, like one big blast zone. "Ponderosa pine is not adapted to these crown fires," Swetnam said, contemplating the site from the scenic overlook above the village. "It has heavy, wingless seeds that don't go very far. When you get a large hole like this, it will take hundreds of years to fill in from the edges."

Mount Lemmon's forests are also experiencing a slower, broader change. The Catalina Highway starts out flat, at an altitude of 2,500 feet in the Sonoran Desert, with its saguaros and strip malls. As the road leaves the last of Tucson behind, it climbs steeply through the whole range of southwestern woodland ecosystems—first scrub oak, then piñon and juniper, then ponderosa pine and other conifers, until finally, after less than an hour and a climb of 7,000 feet, you reach the spruce and fir trees on the cool peak. There is a small ski area there, the southernmost in the United States, and its days are certainly numbered.

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