Al Gore to keynote Aspen symposium linking climate change, beetle kill

Former Vice President Al Gore will be in Aspen in February to attend what’s believed to be one of the first major public symposiums linking global climate change to the deteriorating health of forestland in the American West due to ongoing insect infestations and the growing threat of wildfire.

“Forests At Risk: Climate Change & the Future of the American West” is scheduled for Feb. 18 at the Doerr-Hosier Center on the campus of the Aspen Institute. Gore, a Democrat, Nobel laureate and Oscar-winning advocate for reversing the impacts of global climate change, will be the keynote speaker.

Harris Sherman, former head of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources and current Obama administration undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment (with oversight of the U.S. Forest Service), will kick off the event, which is sponsored by the Aspen-based nonprofit For The Forest.

Several scientists and forest health experts will also speak and conduct workshops throughout the day, culminating in the keynote address by Gore. Deteriorating forest health and the looming threat of catastrophic wildfires were hot topics this summer and fall as major blazes raged in and around Boulder and Winter Park – areas hit by an ongoing mountain pine bark beetle epidemic.

The outbreak is at least partially the result of warmer temperatures that allow beetle larvae to survive the winter months. Drought and warmer summer temperatures also stress lodgepole pines and limit their ability to repel the insects, which ultimately will kill up to 90 percent of the mature lodgepole pines in the state.

There is some debate about whether beetle-killed forests are more susceptible to wildfires and what steps should be taken to mitigate the situation, but most firefighters agree the red, dead trees burn hotter, making it difficult to fight blazes in increasingly populated mountain areas.

Some scientists predict up to half the forests in the American West will be lost to disease and fire during this century.

“Our forests are changing — and quickly,” John Bennett, executive director of For The Forest, said in a release. “While different superficial causes exist, the bottom-line common denominator appears to be the warmer forest temperatures we’re seeing across the West. Increased forest mortality is another calling card of climate change.”

The Aspen symposium, according to Bennett, will try to “reframe the national dialogue about climate change in personal terms that people can relate to. Some people in Colorado may wonder what significance melting glaciers in Antarctica or rising sea levels in the South Pacific have to their lives in the Rocky Mountains, but when they see millions of acres of forests dying across the state, they know immediately why it matters.”