A house in the woods, after the woods are gone

Twelve years ago, my wife and I looked at 11 acres on the outskirts of Helena, Montana. We knew this was where we wanted to build our home. The land was covered with dense forest, including dozens of stately old-growth ponderosa pines.

The rolling property lay on the edge of a small 19th-century gold-mining village, with what was once one of the most productive mines in the state, and just 6 kilometers from downtown Helena, where we had lived for 20 years. We would be a 10-minute drive or an hourlong walk through thick woods and meadows on the thousands of hectares of forested public land that surrounded the site. At $60,000 it was pricy, the high end of our range. But it would give us the best of both worlds.

So we bought the land, and built a house, and managed to have the full Montana experience..

When we bought the land, the stands of timber were so dense and unruly you couldn’t walk through parts of the property. I bought my first chainsaw, an orange beauty. I spent a lot of time thinning small trees, sawing up bigger ones for firewood, splitting and stacking the wood, and using it all to heat our house.  Four years ago, the beetles came. First a couple of our oldest pine trees turned red. Alarmed, we quickly cut them down and covered them with black plastic. It’s stomach-churning when the tree reaper comes to claim your forest. One day ivory-colored plugs that look like candle wax are plastered on the trunk, a sign the tree is pumping out resin to try to halt a drilling bug. Sometimes a tree wins by entombing a beetle; far more often the trees lose to the mob assault.

Then things went exponential. One dead tree turned to five and the next year five turned to 30, dying far faster than I could cut them down. Now the mortality count is in the hundreds, more than 95 percent of our forest, and many more in the national forest around us.

Recently we surrendered. A logging crew cut down all but a few of our trees, taking away our forest and leaving us a meadow. The trees, too damaged to be turned into lumber, were hauled off to a pulp plant, where they will be ground into an oatmeal-like slurry and turned into cardboard boxes. I won’t make money; in fact it will cost me some $$350 a hectare to get rid of them. And good riddance — the sooner they’re gone the better. Dead trees are a fire waiting to happen.

The beetles aren’t just claiming our forest. A hike to the hilltop behind my house reveals an entire mountain valley covered with dead and dying trees. On weekends and in the evening the valley is filled with the angry hornet-whine of chainsaws and the sound of crashing trees.

It’s beyond sad to watch your robust green forest turn red and dead in a matter of a few years. This phenomenon is going on all around the West, from Colorado to Alaska. The forest — the reason many people moved to the small towns and rural areas of the West — is disappearing. It’s happened before, but never to this degree, and there is no end in sight. Scientists believe the proliferation of beetles is a consequence of a warming climate. Bitter cold temperatures are the only way to keep them in check, and our coldest winter temperatures are now as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in the past, which allows the beetles to escape significant winter kill. Now all bets are off. The epidemic will likely be done, experts say, when the bugs run out of food — when they kill all the trees.

It’s a shocker to look out our window these days, something like looking in the mirror after you first shave a beard. The forest we painstakingly thinned and managed is now a horror show. It looks like the Once-ler has come through, the mythical tree-killing creature from Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax.”

In the end, there are upsides, I suppose. The threat of forest fire left with the forest. From the bedroom I can see the indigo silhouette of the Big Belt Mountains and the glowing lights of Helena. Always the optimists, real estate agents in some places have dubbed land like ours “emerging view lots.”

As the land heals and a meadow grows up, our grief will dissipate. We’ll miss our forest. The fact, though, is that nature is constantly changing. It’s a tough lesson to learn, especially with change this sudden. But a warming planet promises more of the same, so we’d better get used to it.