What Is Red Is Dead

Hari Sreenivasan is a CBS News correspondent based in Dallas.
To think that something the size of a grain of rice can bring down entire forests (3.9 million acres in 2007, to be exact), escapes comprehension … until you walk in one of those forests, scrape some tree bark, and hold the pine beetle carefully between your fingertips.

It's not a foreign invader from a far-off land, so don't go blaming China or India. And it hasn't been dropped into our forests maliciously, so you don't have to call homeland security just yet. But it is deadly. The right combination of severe droughts over the past decade, warmer winters without serious cold snaps (prolonged extreme cold can kill the bugs) and increased density of some of our forests has left millions (yes millions) of trees choking – thanks to the tiny teeth of these beetles.

These little bugs crawl under the bark and start to feed on the phloem (the rings that carry the nutrients of a tree for those who were throwing paper airplanes in biology class). This month they feed and multiply and leap from tree to tree and they are having the time of their lives.

The rates of disaster are even visible from space. In Canada, the pine beetle has taken out huge swaths of land in British Columbia. Check out Google Earth over parts of our own western states in the U.S. What is red is dead.

It is the worst beetle infestation in 25 years according to the Forest Service. Trees that sprouted around World War I or before are the ones most at risk, in fact the beetles can't even burrow deep enough into fresh young and strong trees. It is why as you're in these forests, you'll see young saplings nice and green as all their grand old cousins around them turn red and die.

There are legislative subcommittees and Bark Beetle Working groups and neighborhood spraying collectives trying their hardest to stop this inevitable force, but the best most of them can do is to catalog the devastation. This problem is literally changing the landscape of slopes around areas like Denver. Home owners that bought properties for the privacy and seclusion that a grove of trees may offer, suddenly find themselves on naked hillsides with an unexpected view as trees are cleared. Others living below those naked hills are concerned at the soil erosion and flooding potential as snow melts and rain run quickly down without any trees to absorb the water.

You've probably been watching all the trees on fire throughout the west during this forest fire season, it is hard to imagine but the number of pines being wiped out by these little beetles is several times that amount.

The timber industries are working overtime to try and clear all the excess dead and dying trees because of the risk they pose when seasonal wildfires come roaring through. I can't remember the name of the machines but we went pretty far into a forest to watch some of these tree felling machines at work, and it is amazing how mechanized the process has become. Bringing down a grove of trees isn't about pairs of burly men standing in their flannel shirts at either end of a big saw. We saw a machine that pulls trees out of the ground from their roots, strips all the branches from the trunk and tosses the remains into a pile to be collected. The technician sitting comfortably inside his glassed-in perch never once had to touch a saw or a tree branch.

You'll notice this piece has some snow in it and we're up in the mountains of Colorado, which tells you that my producer Megan Towey and I shot the story months ago. It was ready to go one week, then another and another still, but more pressing news ended up bumping it out of the Evening News to the point where now, to have a snowy backdrop in a story airing in the dead of summer would look odd at the least.

We still feel it is an important story, and we've decided to put it online because it ought to be seen. So share the link if you can, and if you see a pine tree turned red somewhere this summer, look around you, chances are by next year, every pine around it will be red too.
  • Hari Sreenivasan

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