Bernardin Lake

Fire and bark beetles

Something looms over this whole project.

It shaped how I did the through hike, and when I did it.

I saw it in the trees while I was walking and in the lack of snow the winter prior. I watched it on TV during the fires in California.

40% of the people in my country don’t believe it exists. And only one in three is willing to admit responsibility for it.

I hate making this into a political thing. But this isn’t actually political. It’s science. It’s real. And it isn’t just coming: It’s here. “Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have said it is highly likely New Mexico will lose the vast majority of its forests by 2050.”

Climate change is here.

As the average temperatures get warmer, and the weather patterns shift, it’s only a matter of time until we have devastating fires in the Sangre de Cristos. It’s only a matter of time until caterpillars or drought or stress weakens the trees so badly that most of them die.

That’s a heavy consequence. The forests are still here, of course, but they are threatened. I watched the fires this year in California – and watch all fires – like they are overlaid on these mountains.

The people who protect our mountains did Herculean work in 2018. It’s a miracle we didn’t have a catastrophic burn. The fire teams managed to get to every small isolated fire in time. There was no remote lightning strike that caught and spread before it could be contained.

We got lucky. But it’s not always going to be like that.

I know a lot of you reading this will dismiss me as a hysterical liberal. Have at it. Here’s what has been documented:

  • From the Santa Fe New Mexican, outlining what the National Climate Assessment predicts for the Southwest: “rising temperatures and increased drought in New Mexico and across the Southwest, worsening wildfires, a decline in available water supplies and food sources, and a rise in diseases.”
  • The Janet’s looper caterpillar infestations are getting worse, spurred by climate change.

“The forest’s high-elevation trees have been increasingly ravaged in recent years by bark beetles, and much more damage is predicted because of warming temperatures and less snowpack due to climate change.

From 2013-17, tree mortality caused by Douglas-fir and spruce beetles was mapped on more than 133,000 acres of Santa Fe National Forest. Nearly half of the Pecos Wilderness has been hit by the beetles and other pests.

The news only gets worse: The U.S. Forest Service says nearly 300,000 more acres across the 1.6 million-acre forest are at risk of significant tree loss by 2027, and scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have said it is highly likely New Mexico will lose the vast majority of its forests by 2050.”

The forests are in trouble. I saw it walking from north of Stewart Lake, all the way up past Horsethief Meadow and below East Pecos Baldy. The evergreens where bare, crumbling almost.

Sick trees along the trail.

I saw it in Carson Forest, just north of Santa Barbara campground, right before the closure. The aspens were gray from lack of water and strain.

I saw it at Bernardin Lake, where the water level was six feet below the typical water line.

Bernardin Lake

And, of course, everybody saw it in the Sardinas Fire. It lit up like a bomb had gone off.

Photo courtesy of Carson National Forest.

Honestly, I had known it was bad. But not as bad as that quote from the caterpillar article. Now I have a date to deal with. 2027 is eight years away.

So let me backpedal a little, just so the despair doesn’t get me.

Right now, December 4th 2018, the Santa Fe ski basin has received 49 inches of snow so far this year. Last year we got 60 inches, “nearly 90 inches below the five-year average.” So we’re well on track to do far better than we did last year. According to the long-term weather forecasts, we’re due for an El Niño pattern, which should mean better than average snowfall this year.

And so far, that’s true. (*Editor’s note: As of February 24th, 2019, the Santa Fe Ski Basin has gotten 205 inches of snow.)

But the trend is inevitable. I did not mean to step right into such an issue by doing my little thru-hike, but I have. These woods will be among the first lost to climate change. In a hundred years, Rufus’s grave may no longer be in a grassy field, with aspens and ponderosas towering over him. The Trailriders’ Wall may have a barren view.

But that’s not here yet. And there’s so much we can do. But these woods are on the edge. We could lose them soon. So it seems all the more pressing to document this. To show what we’re at risk of losing. To be more conscious of the consequences of our actions.

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