Fall colors fade in U.S. west as aspen trees die

Fri Sep 4, 2009 9:09am EDT
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By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The American West is losing its autumn colors as global warming begins to bite and there is far more at stake than iconic scenery.

Aspen, the white-barked trees with golden leaves that gave their name to the famed Colorado ski resort, have been dying off across the Rocky Mountain states. The die-off is puzzling but some foresters point to climate change.

This disaster coincides with beetle outbreaks that have laid waste to millions of acres of pine and spruce forest in the American and Canadian west. They too have been linked to warmer winters since extremely cold temperatures are needed to kill the insects.

Recent droughts and other factors linked to global warming are seen as likely causes for "sudden aspen decline," or SAD, so named because it can strike a forest so quickly.

"Assuming climate predictions are true, it probably is a sign of things to come," said Jim Worrall, forest pathologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Dwindling aspen would spell trouble for mountain towns like Aspen, Colorado, where tourists flock each autumn to see their spade-shaped leaves turn from green to gold before skiers arrive for the winter.

Failing aspen forests also hurt sawmills and threaten large animals such as elk seeking food with consequences for hunting and other outdoor industries.

The effects have yet to hit home in a city that trades on its scenic beauty, but officials are braced for the worst.   Continued...

<p>Aspen trees in the Dixie National Forest in Cedar City, Utah are seen in this undated photograph. REUTERS/U.S. Forest Service/Handout (</p>