I moved to Laramie, WY in 2003, to attend graduate school at the University of Wyoming. As a boy growing up in Wisconsin, I had fallen increasingly in love with the outdoors as I went through my college years. Eventually, I became fascinated by the prospect of moving out west for graduate school. So when I finished my undergrad, I fulfilled my dream by heading west.
My first several years in Laramie, I could not believe just how beautiful the mountains of Wyoming were. I would travel up to the high country of the Snowy Range, and pinch myself, just being blown away that I was lucky enough to be calling this place home. The mountain lakes and streams were my favorite destinations. The alpine environs were like a mythical paradise for a kid from Wisconsin: a never-ending playground of clean, clear water. These waters were chock full of healthy trout, and were flanked by a veritable rainbow of alpine flowers. All of this beauty was often covered in a dome of thousands of gorgeous stars. In my 10 years of living in Wyoming, I was never less than blown away on every single trip I took to the high country. As someone who has struggled with some very profound anxiety for most of my life, the mountains became my escape. No matter how compromised I felt by my sometimes crippling anxiety, the outdoors of Wyoming was the one sanctuary that always felt safe – almost untouchable.
During my second or third summer in Laramie, I started noticing a few of the trees in the sub-alpine environments had distinctly red needles. They seemed to come in small bunches. Looking back, I feel silly admitting I didn’t know what that meant. I just remember thinking, “there are a lot of those red trees in this drainage.” I knew on one level they were dead, but I didn’t understand the significance. As a couple more years went by, I noticed that the number of red trees in some of my favorite drainages was markedly increasing. I finally asked someone, “What’s with all the red trees in that drainage?”
Then, I learned about what was happening with the increasing proliferation of pine beetles. From what I came to learn, thanks to human practices of fire suppression, combined with the alarmingly warm winters of the prior years, the pine beetles were exploding in number. Our annual snowpack, I was told, was significantly less than it had been a few decades earlier. Then, over the next 5 – 6 years of my time in Laramie, I kept noticing more and more dead trees, with entire hillsides slowly become red with dead lodgepole pines. It was a horrifying process to watch – it was as if one of my favorite places on earth was under attack. The impacts of climate change were staring me in the face, and I started to think, “Uh oh…this is really bad.” I asked several of my ecologist friends what we could do about it, and they replied, “Not much… It’s just going to happen. The best we can do is slow it down.” I was absolutely devastated. I felt angry, desperate, helpless…
About 3 years ago, I moved from Laramie, WY, to Missoula, MT. I had grown to love Laramie so much, but I remember the parting thought I had while leaving: “Well, in some ways, it will be easier to not have to watch the trees of the Snowy Range get wiped out over the next few decades. That would have been so hard to watch…” So now I live in Missoula, where I am happy to say that the pine beetle kill is nowhere near as bad as around Laramie. However, the national forests all around Missoula have been experiencing persistently mild winters, low snowpack, and unusually dry spring/summer weather for some time now. Instead of watching pine beetles do their damage, the killer here is wildfire. Granted, wildfire is a natural part of nature’s cycle, but the number of fires around Missoula has been growing at an alarming rate over the past couple decades. Now, there is a legitimate “fire season” every year in Missoula. Older residents will consistently tell me that it didn’t used to be like this. But my first summer in Missoula, we had almost an entire month of the summer knocked out due to thick, suffocating smoke that hung in the air and literally made it dangerous to do anything recreational outside. Now, we have spring, summer, then fire season. It’s just part of the rhythms of the year here in Missoula.
So, in the end, I’ve realized that there really is no fleeing the impacts of climate change. Laramie is watching its trees die, and Missoula is witnessing entire forests burn. There is no hiding from it. The places I love most on this earth seem to be more at risk each year, and it is with a heavy heart that I recognize humanity’s role in this process. And I’m a part of that, too. To me, this issue has been staring me in the face for the past 10 years, and my sense of concern and urgency has only grown with each year. I believe climate change is the largest issue humanity will face in the next 50 years, and I sure as hell hope we start acting like it.