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Forests at Risk: Real and Personal

As I gathered with other concerned Coloradans for the “Forests at Risk” symposium in Aspen, Colorado last week, the importance of climate change and forests became immediately clear with the absence of two key speakers. The symposium, organized by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), focused on bringing together a range of distinguished scientists, policy makers, conservationists and business leaders for a dialogue to address the relationship between rising temperatures and a plethora of other challenges facing the forests of the Western United States. The event was meant to include a range of speakers from Harris Sherman (Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment) to environmental leaders and the CEOs of Snowbird Resort and the Aspen Skiing Company. What symposium organizer John Bennett and those of us attending the conference did not expect, however, was that Harris Sherman and Dan Jiron (U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Regional Forester) would be needed at a new coordinated command center in Denver due to the new fires that had broken out in Colorado over the weekend. On the first day of the symposium a record 14 wildfires were raging in Colorado alone and 32,000 residents in the Colorado Springs area were forced to evacuate their homes that night. Though the absence of these two key speakers was unfortunate for those of us attending the symposium, it brought home the seriousness and the relevance of the risks facing our beloved forests. With this sobering backdrop in mind, we took our seats and the conference commenced with a welcome from Senator Mark Udall and State Senator Gail Schwartz, followed by the first speaker, Craig Allen. I was riveted by Craig’s presentation of before and after images showing forestlands across the Western United States being devastated by wildfires and the heat-induced mountain pine beetle epidemic of the past decade. As a Research Ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, Craig has also been conducting an in-depth study of Western temperature patterns found in regional tree rings. Through his presentation of time-lapse images and tree-ring data, he convinced even the most skeptical in the room that as more CO2 is released into the atmosphere, average temperatures in the West are rising, and the magnitude of forest devastation is increasing. The remainder of the symposium focused on making connections to the larger climate picture, with many speakers comparing the situation in the Western United States to rising temperatures and related forest devastation happening across the globe. As an environmental policy college major doing a summer internship with Island Press, I was impacted by the different speakers’ collective ability to capture the audience’s attention with local forest issues and the hope for innovative, and site-specific solutions. I was equally impressed, though, by the ability of the speakers to connect their locally focused presentations in the greater climate change context. I found this effective because many people in Colorado and around the world care deeply about the fires, diseases, and the degradation of forests in their own ‘backyards,’ but fail to recognize that similar degradation is increasing every day around the world and that this is largely due to human-induced changes in the global climate. As I embark upon my third week at Island Press, I know that I will go forward with the recognition that the ‘Forests at Risk’ symposium was representative of a crucial new movement within the environmental world to demonstrate that climate change is both real and personal.

Eleanor Bennett, intern