Nature Disrupted

DSCN5785Last winter, I finally had the opportunity to see what was left of Moraine Park after our destructive fires the previous fall. One of the most beautiful and iconic landscapes in Rocky Mountain National Park,  this wide valley is bisected by a meandering river and surrounded by the tall peaks; it’s a favorite place for elk herds to graze—and for tourists to take photos. Only a few months after the wildfires, the nearby trails were still closed, but from the road I could see the blackened soil and charred and burned trees and bushes—a seemingly lifeless landscape.

DSCN5753This spring, the Park Service opened one of the trails—to Cub Lake—and I wanted to see if there was new growth. Walking through the valley (above), I saw grass  lusher than usual but also more death: groves of blackened aspens, some still standing while others were collapsed on the ground, perhaps blown over by the winds that pushed the deadly fires. Although some ponderosas still had green needles on the top while the bottom of the trunks were charred (left), other pines were laid flat out, their trunks now charcoal.

I knew from past wildfires that, in the aftermath, plant nutrients are returned to the soil, and new growth is more fertile—and greener—than what was there before. Taking advantage of this nutrient-rich vegetation last week were several large herds of elk, their heads buried in the deep grasses, while around them the Big Thompson River was surging, almost over its banks.

DSCN5775For every heartbreak, there’s also an opening. Somehow, this part of the Colorado escaped (so far) the horrible drought that is affecting the rest of the state and most of the West. Snowstorm after snowstorm in March and April resulted in a full snowpack, brimming reservoirs and overflowing rivers.

Hiking through the valley, I saw more ponds than I’ve seen in decades—enough water flowing and pooling to attract ducks and geese—while on the other side of the trail were the dead and fallen pines (above). Even some of the rocks looked charred.

DSCN5772Last fall, we experienced four destructive wildfires, intensified by hot, dry conditions and fast-moving winds. One of them, the East Troublesome, came close enough to my cabin to warrant an evacuation advisory. Researchers are only now starting to assess the damage and predict what the future landscape will look like.

For decades, wildfires in the West were repressed, resulting in a build-up of dead material that contributed to the intensity of the fires. Ponderosa pines that may have survived past fires are now in jeopardy. In many places the pines are being replaced with shrubs and grasses, which, in turn, will cause a change in wildlife, forcing some species out and bringing in new ones. While the West has always been subject to hot, dry weather, climate change is exacerbating these conditions.

DSCN5791As I hike through this bedraggled and new landscape, on the hillside I spotted a pincushion cactus—a round prickly ball with startling pink flowers. I rarely see them anymore, perhaps as a result of a flourishing market for cactus and succulents. But there were dozens spread across the hillside. Had the fires triggered this exceptional growth?  Or with the trail closed off for most of the past year, had these plants been allowed to grow without interference from our species?

At the cabin, after seeing one house wren a few weeks ago, I haven’t seen or heard anymore. Did they leave because the insects haven’t emerged after a late spring? And why are the aspens still not leafed out?

It’s hard to know. But with a climate change, it’s a whole new world. Hopefully, it’s a brave one, because we’re going to need courage to face this uncertain future.  

October 07, 2021

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April 23, 2021

April 04, 2021