Pine beetles have been in the news a lot in recent months. They've killed thousands of acres of pine forests in Colorado and Wyoming, forced removal of acres of hazardous trees in Rocky Mountain National Park, and now they're being blamed for cancellation of the annual Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Pine beetles are rice-grain-sized critters that evolved right along with lodgepole pine forests. In large numbers, they can kill forests by boring into trees and, among other things, interrupting nutrient flows. Normally populations of these beetles ebb and flow with temperatures. Lodgepole forests have been able to cope with them over the centuries by reproducing fairly quickly, arming themselves with defenses such as sap, and by enjoying drop-offs in the beetles' populations when winters produce cold snaps with temperatures of 40 below zero for at least ten days.
But with warming temperatures winter and summer, pine beetles and other bark beetles are flourishing. Not only are they increasing in number by being able to reproduce more quickly than in the past, but they're also heading higher in elevation and latitude, movements that are endangering not only lodgepole forests in the Northern Rockies but also exposing whitebark pines, which have no natural defenses to the beetles, to their boring habits. Attacks on whitepark pines are of particular concern because the pine's calorie-rich nuts are prized by grizzlies trying to pack on the pounds late in summer.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, some 10,000 trees have been treated with an insecticide with hopes it'll slow the beetles march.
And now comes word from Mount Rushmore that the annual fireworks display is being canceled this year "due to the unacceptable risk they pose to the fragile condition of the Black Hills forests in and around the memorial resulting from extensive damage from an epidemic of mountain pine beetles."
"The wildfire hazard during the 2010 summer tourist season will be high to very high. Therefore, the National Park Service is cooperating with partner land-management agencies to explore and implement ways to reduce the risk of wildfires, especially human-caused ones,” Acting-Superintendent John Scott announced earlier this month.
During the last several years the proliferation of mountain pine beetles has resulted in more than 330,000 acres of infected and dead pine forests in the Black Hills, according to the Park Service. The memorial is home to the second-largest contiguous stand of old-growth Ponderosa pine forest in the Black Hills, and beetles have infected scattered populations of old-growth trees throughout the park.
The nearby Norbeck Wildlife Preserve and the Black Elk Wilderness Area of the Black Hills National Forest have been particularly affected.
Due to the high number of standing dead trees with needles intact, local, state and federal land-management agencies are concerned that a fire in or near affected forests has the potential to grow into a wildfire with catastrophic results, including great risk to human safety and property and would drastically alter the exceptional character and appearance of the park as well as the Black Hills for generations to come.
“Fireworks at the memorial introduce an unnatural, human-caused risk of starting a catastrophic wildfire," said Mr. Scott. "This restriction will maintain the safety of visitors and the park’s natural resources.”
Fireworks during previous events at the park ignited fires which, fortunately, were able to be contained by park and supporting agency staff. “However, 2010 is like no other year in that the fire danger is too high and the risks to the park, our neighbors and the Black Hills too great," he added. "In evaluating the current situation, the National Park Service has determined that eliminating fireworks at Mount Rushmore in 2010 is the most prudent and responsible course of action.”
Planning for the 2010 Independence Day Celebration will be adjusted to incorporate this change. Based on the results of past events, the planning team will be looking for ways to improve the safety and enjoyment of this year’s event.
“The park will continue to be collaborating and cooperating with its partners to develop this year’s Independence Day event at the memorial to commemorate the birth of our nation," said Superintendent Gerard Baker. "Suspending the fireworks in 2010 demonstrates the value we place on the unique natural resources in the park and the Black Hills. These lands are sacred to us all and deserve the extra caution used to come to this decision."
General information about the evolving celebration can be found online at www.nps.gov/moru in the months to come.
What remains to be seen is whether other Rocky Mountain parks will be impacted severely enough by bark beetles this coming summer to force some policy changes, such as where campfires can be built. So far, no changes are anticipate in Rocky Mountain or Grand Teton national parks.