Stunted, drier, disappearing forests in our own backyard

Jon Stewart /


Our quality of life in Central Oregon is framed by our rivers, forests and mountains. Our access to those natural attributes, thanks to our highways and roads, has helped propel Bend’s growth over the past century.

As we become an increasingly urban culture, we often overlook how quickly the natural features that define our quality of life are changing and why. A simple summer hike to our backyard vividly underscores those changes to our natural world.

The Three Sisters Wilderness area once contained 17 named glaciers. Tree-ring research shows that these glaciers reached their maximum “neoglacial” advance in the 1850s and 1860s and have been receding ever since. In the past decade, rising temperatures have reduced many of these glaciers to seasonal snowfields. Today, towering glacial moraines, stone barricades plowed up by these rivers of ice, many as high as a 10-story building, stand as enormous tombs hinting at the size and power of these once-huge ice fields. These ice reservoirs, which helped fill the creeks that our cities and farms use for drinking and irrigation, are rapidly disappearing.

Below these glacially bulldozed ramparts lay alpine meadows and stunted forests of white pine and mountain hemlock. Today these alpine forests are dominated by vast expanses of gray snags. Warming temperatures have allowed the pine beetle to survive each winter in increasing numbers. In the huge alpine bowl between South Sister and Broken Top, beetles and blister rust have killed the last of the Western white pine, leaving gray ghosts in their wake.

These trees were a major food source for the Clark’s Nutcracker. Commonly referred to as “Camp Robbers” for their keen raids on picnic baskets, their population is starving to death even though there are more picnickers than ever visiting these dying alpine forests.

One step below these disappearing alpine forests and their unraveling ecosystems lay hundreds of thousands of acres of fire-blackened Lodgepole and Ponderosa pine forests. Over the past decade, over 441,000 acres have gone up in smoke in Central Oregon, thanks in part to longer, drier fire seasons.

Fortunately we now have national leadership that is keenly aware of the impacts of global warming. Our nation’s new secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell (former CEO of REI), recently stated that, “You and I can actually do something about it. That’s a privilege, and I would argue it’s a moral imperative.”

It is easy for us to ignore moral imperatives, let alone think we can actually do anything to reduce global warming. It is far easier to complain about the heat and smoke while wryly noting that this past July in Central Oregon was a striking 5.5 degrees above average. As we drive around in our air-conditioned cars, it is all too easy to overlook the fact that one-third of the carbon dioxide emitted in the U.S. comes from our vehicles.

To help reduce these emissions, the Oregon Department of Transportation created a new data analysis tool called GreenSTEP, software used by city planners that sets up various transportation and lifestyle scenarios and estimates greenhouse gas emissions.

ODOT is even authorized to reimburse staff in local city governments to gather this information. Unfortunately, members of Bend’s City Council, who see that this valuable information may limit their agenda of aggressively expanding the urban growth boundary, refuse to authorize the data collection to implement this valuable planning tool. Instead, Bend continues to blindly construct an ever larger and less energy-efficient city that produces more and more global emissions.

The result? We are undermining our local economy by carelessly erasing the chalkboard spelled out in grand vistas of glistening glaciers, shimmering snowfields and emerald forests. If we don’t act now, it will soon be an empty blackboard marked by silent stone tombs, ghostly forests and dry creek beds.