Suspended over the Earth, like the bolt of cheap foam that underlies a living-room rug, are trillions of gas molecules that shake when light hits them, creating heat and sending it earthward. Those molecules, produced by natural activities like plant respiration and volcanoes, have hung there since the planet became livable, post-Ice Age; absent carbon dioxide, methane, and other dense vapors, Palm Springs would still be permafrost. And as we've learned by drilling holes into Arctic ice sheets to read their chemical profiles, the ratio of those particles had held remarkably firm for 10,000 years or so, balancing the energy retained from the sun with the amount sent back into space. But since the construction, in 1750, of the first coal-fired factories (and the invention, a century later, of the internal-combustion engine), the density of greenhouse gases has increased by a third, holding in much of the solar radiation that bounces off sidewalks and snowcaps. This set up a vicious feedback loop, in which the extra heat was reflected down into the soil or got stored in those giant holding vats, our oceans. "If we could somehow scale back carbon, we'd still stay hot for centuries, manifesting the energy trapped in seas," says Running, the University of Montana ecologist. "But if we don't scale it back, we'll soon cross a threshold where all of the sea ice melts – and then there's no telling how high the oceans will get or any known way to make it stop."
For eons, nature balanced its own emissions by capturing some of the gases in carbon sinks like marshes, soil, and forests. Trees are particularly deft sponges of carbon: Their leaves or needles convert it to sugars that feed them from crown to root, and they go on sopping up noxious particles until they rot, burn down, or get logged. But when clear-cutting commenced on a massive scale in the middle of the 19th century, the planet doubled down on its carbon load, making much more and trapping less. Roughly half the world's woodlands have vanished since then. There's a net loss the size of Greece each year – and no effort under way to start replanting.
I was thinking about that when I stopped on a knoll halfway up the spine of the Gallatin Mountains. It was a masterpiece day, the sky spit-shined of haze, the air so clear it crackled. We'd hiked all morning up trails of steep scree and toeholds of bone-dry sage, and now, looking up from 8,000 feet, Skoglund pointed to the carpet of forest rising from our ledge. "Listen," he said. "Do you hear what I hear?"
I craned my ear but heard nothing.
"Exactly," he said. "It's peak time for wildlife, and nothing's stirring up here. These woods should be packed with birds and squirrels filling their larders for winter, and loads of bear scat as the grizzlies come up and scour for seeds before denning. Instead, they're still down there looking for food, and here it's just pin-drop quiet."
We'd been told, hours earlier, about low-ranging bears when we drove to the B Bar Ranch in Tom Miner Basin. "Seen a bunch of 'em in the meadows," warned Mark Waite, the manager, before we began our ascent through the hills behind his spread. "Have your bear spray out, ready to rock and roll. It's crazy around here these days."
On the hard trek up, we'd encountered no bears, though a mound of recent droppings at 7,000 feet suggested we'd missed one within the day. Now, as we knocked off lunch on the knoll and pushed toward 9,000 feet, the woods closed in again, walling off light and cloaking us in noonday gloom. We'd entered whitebark country, a cathedral of stern shapes that starts at elevations of 8,500 feet. In front of us, stripped of their bark and cones, were ash-gray corpses of centuries-old pines, their trunks contorted like petrified demons fleeing from the wind. Further on were clumps of newly killed trees, their dull bark dotted by purulent holes where beetles bored in to attack. The white stains signified attempts by the trees to save themselves from bugs; when beset by invaders, they exude a pasty resin to try to flush them out. But they were overmatched by the scope of the onslaught: thousands of bore holes on every trunk, where adult and larval insects arrived in swarms to eat their way down to the heartwood.
Hatchet in hand, Skoglund chipped at the bark. It broke off easily, in two-foot strips, and there, in the pinkish pulp of the tree, was a series of trenches, called galleries, that the beetles had furrowed as their base of operations. Devouring the sap-rich tissue of the trunk, they had bled these pines of the carbon-based sugars that fed them from the needles down and infected the trees with a microbe called blue-stain fungus that choked off circulation. It took 60 to 80 years for these slow-growing giants to sprout their first cones and reproduce – and all of five days for the winged marauders to suck the life from them. With the tip of my pinkie, I dug one out of its quarter-inch-wide trench. Though dead at least a year, it stuck to my nail, a speck of black malevolence in a dusty shell.
"Mountain beetles have been here forever, but they could never stick it out at this elevation," said Skoglund. "Every winter would have cold snaps of 50 below, which wiped out any bugs inside the trunks. But now it only drops to 20 below, max, and beetles can easily live through that – their larvae produce a kind of antifreeze that protects them to 30 below."
We hiked another hour toward Packsaddle Peak, the split-rock summit high above tree line on the humpbacked mountain. The farther we went, though, the bleaker things got: stand after stand of rust-colored pine, the red hue both a last sign of life and a coating of bug-shit and sawdust. Equally distressing was the absence of birds – most important, Clark's nutcrackers, who built these woods. Unlike other pines, whitebarks can't spread their seeds, which are locked inside tightly woven cones. For that they need nutcrackers to pierce the cones, then bury the seeds under the rocky soil to eat at a later time. It's an arrangement that's served everyone well for eons: The birds get a store of food for the winter, new pines are born from the seeds they forget, and at the end of every summer, so many new cones have sprouted that bears swarm up here to raid the stashes that red squirrels hide in the dirt. But the few healthy trees now were far too young to produce and drop their seeds, and the only cones we saw were decomposed husks that lay on the ground like mulch. "We've lost lots of pine before in abnormally hot spells like the 1930s and '70s," says Jesse Logan, a retired Forest Service scientist who's one of the world's foremost whitebark experts, "but it always came back when the weather cooled because the nutcrackers stuck around. This time it's different, because we won't be cooling down, and with no seeds to eat, they'll find other places to live. That'll be the final knell for whitebark."
Logan, in tandem with other top-shelf arborists, is trying very hard to stave that off. He's lent his legwork and expertise to an NRDC petition to get whitebark protected under the Endangered Species Act. If the plea is granted, a federal recovery plan will be drafted and funded to try to salvage these forests. Not that anyone knows how to do that or whether it's still feasible. "Whitebark evolved to fight cold, not beetles, and there's nothing we can spray or rub on pines to drive the beetles out," says Logan. "We could maybe breed these trees on north-facing slopes, which stay colder because there's no direct sun, or see if there's potential in a small group of whitebark whose resin is truly toxic to beetles. But either of those projects would be very expensive and take political vision, and I'm not sure that we've got either."
Indeed, if the fight to save bears is any model, it's going to be a hard sell for whitebark. In 2007, Fish and Wildlife decided, by fiat, to take Yellowstone's grizzlies off the endangered species list, saying it had met its recovery goals by more than doubling their population in 30 years. Only a swift lawsuit by Earthjustice and NRDC prevented trophy hunters in Wyoming and Montana from immediately shooting bears in the park. The case slogged through federal court, where, in 2009, a district judge dealt the feds an emphatic drubbing, saying their scientists had misread their own studies and that the bears were endangered – by whitebark loss. That relisting incensed Fish and Wildlife and its big-game backers, who appealed. A decision on grizzlies is expected this summer, but what's clear already is the derision in which government officials hold the ESA. "It costs them billions to protect and count the bears and prevents them from building subdivisions or drilling for gas where bears roam for food," says naturalist Doug Peacock, who spent most of two decades living with Yellowstone's bears and wrote the now classic Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness. "Whether it's Bush or Obama or the state game commission, they hate having their hands tied from doing business as usual, and no animal or stupid pine tree is going to stop them."