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As we approach the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, America has reason to celebrate the progress we have made toward a stronger public consciousness about the environment. Being an “environmentalist” wasn’t always a popular term in 1970, but today, a new generation of Americans is not only interested in the conservation challenges we face at home; they are interested in our global impact.

As chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, I have the responsibility to oversee some of the most spectacular landscapes and treasured lands in America. No matter where you call home, America’s “greatest idea” — our national parks — are part of the fabric that unites us as a people.

Just as our national parks serve to bring us together, they also increasingly expose a shared national challenge facing all Americans — climate change.

Last year, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and I hosted a field hearing in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and took a close-up view of the unfolding natural disaster of dead and dying trees covering whole mountainsides of the Western United States. We saw evidence of shrinking glaciers, the changing migratory patterns of wildlife, enduring episodes of drought and the glaring impact of devastated forests.

Across the West, millions of acres of trees have been killed by an infestation of bark beetles. These insects are a natural part of our forest ecology, but because of a variety of factors, including unseasonably warm winters, they have multiplied and spread through forested lands like a plague from biblical times.

It may not have the immediacy of a tornado or the devastating loss of life and property of a hurricane. But just like any other natural disaster, its slow progression through our lands presents significant threats and challenges that will be felt for years to come.

Part of the problem, as the climate record has shown, is that many areas of the West have been warming. We are not experiencing the consecutive winter weeks below 20 degrees Fahrenheit that keep this beetle’s numbers in check. In addition, trees are weakened by dwindling nutrients and the droughts plaguing Western states. This climate-related condition makes it difficult to produce sufficient sap to repel the invading beetles and leaves these pines especially vulnerable.

In short, the beetles are enjoying a veritable smorgasbord in our backyard that could leave almost every lodgepole pine in Colorado lifeless before they are finished. What we are witnessing is a tangible manifestation of climate change combined with more than a century of forest policies of fire suppression and reduced harvesting that have created a perfect storm.

Vast numbers of homes, communities, power lines, water facilities, watersheds, recreational areas, roads and trails nestled in, across and surrounding these ravaged forests are also at risk — not only from wildfires, but also from the risk of death and injury from the millions of falling dead trees and the erosion of topsoil and siltation of water supplies and riparian ecosystems.

We cannot do anything about the current march of the beetles or immediately reverse the influence of climate change, but what we can do is reduce the impacts and, if we are strategic, help promote a future forest condition that is more sustainable and better resistant to insects.

That is why Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) and I have introduced the bipartisan National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act of 2009 to provide incentives to productively use these trees for renewable energy production, to reduce the costs associated with their removal and to encourage private-sector innovation and involvement in thinning dead stands.

If we meet this challenge in a smart way, we can help promote jobs, enhance our energy security, assist nature in the establishment of healthier forests and restore balance on our forested landscapes. But our legislation only addresses the symptoms of the larger problem of climate change.

To restore balance in our forests and reduce the potential for future epidemics of this magnitude, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Our changing climate helped fan this epidemic. Promoting renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon capture through reforestation and slowing deforestation can all help create healthier national parks, forests and communities.

For all the concerns that this insect has caused, one of its positive influences may be to shine a spotlight on our need to address climate change and the implications if we fail to take action. Now is the time to put a price on carbon, not just to stave off the impact on our environment, but also to sensibly spur job growth through innovative technologies, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and ensure our leadership in the global clean energy economy.

Our country faces tough challenges with no easy fixes, but by working together, we can accelerate the shift to clean domestic energy sources and employ millions of Americans in the promising new clean energy economy — goals worthy of Earth Day 2010.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks.

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