Art depicting spruce beetle kill wood and image of spruce trees, map of Monarch Pass and graph and map depicting beetle kill.

“All of this is infected; we just don’t see it yet.” This is how a local forest ranger described the trees to photographer Beth Johnston as they surveyed the horizon from Monarch Pass. Just a few years later, these trees now stand as skeletons, limb after limb blackened and dry. 

The climate crisis is often invisible. We don’t see 2 degrees of warming or notice the increase in carbon dioxide. Beetle kill, presents a moment of seeing: an indicator, perhaps a symptom pointing to a larger disease?

Symptom or Disease, is an ongoing art project that explores the cascading impacts and underlying conditions of beetle kill on Monarch Pass. Through various photographic and material methods, the artwork translates scientific research into alternative visual form. The artwork also represents countless conversations with Arkansas River Valley community members, local forest scientists and managers. While the project explores the impacts of a specific beetle in a specific location in a specific time, it is also an invitation to consider what lies beyond what we currently see.

“Forest ecology isn’t rocket science. No, it’s far more complicated than that.” Forest Service idiom, quoted from Trees in Trouble by Daniel Mathews.

Art, Science, Place and Community

For years, beetle kill has been making itself known on Monarch Pass. Visible from highway 50 that runs between Salida and Gunnison, the downslope communities began to talk about what was going on. The artist, a long time resident of Salida began photographing the trees several years ago at the height of tree mortality. Since then, the local forest service has done extensive mitigation along the Monarch Pass route in order to reduce the risk of large scale fires and their concomitant threats on water quality and soil erosion. 

While the problem seems to be under control for now, there are many lingering questions in the community and from forest service members themselves. On paper, it seems that spruce beetle mortality is declining, but that is only because there aren’t any adult trees left in the area to kill. Spruce beetle is just one of the many current threats to forests across the Western US, many feeding off of the same underlying conditions. And while efforts to manage the problem have been largely successful in the area, there is a sense that this is a bandaid, not a cure. 

The artwork attempts to create space for both the complex science behind this situation and the questions that science might not be able to ask. 

What you can do to address this issue 

Reach out to your local forest service office to learn about the local conditions and impacts.  Educate yourself about the many factors that create conditions for beetle kill. A few recommended books are: 

  • Trees in Trouble by Daniel Mathews 
  • Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson
  • Native Science by Gregory Cajete 
  • The Rise of the American Conservation Movement by Dorceta Taylor

Environmental and Social Issues 

Beetle kill is visible throughout Colorado. The forests above the Arkansas River Valley are no exception.  These forests have been overtaken by a small beetle called the Spruce beetle, unique from its famous relative the Mountain Pine Beetle, but similarly destructive.  Normally, these beetles are a healthy part of forest ecology, aiding in decomposition and keeping balance within the cycle of regeneration. However, ongoing drought and warming temperatures have allowed this beetle to flourish, causing cascading impacts for the forest, its many life forms, and surrounding communities. From ranchers to mountain bikers, all citizens of the Arkansas River Valley are directly or indirectly impacted by the surrounding forest. The trees in question, the Englemann Spruce, are a vital part of the subalpine ecosystem, providing habitat for countless species as well as playing a key role in air quality and water catchment. There is worry that as trees at the headwaters of rivers die, there will be significant impact to both water quantity and quality, furthering the cycle of drought and extending it downstream. 

Science Integrated into the Artwork

The artwork focuses on the impacts of spruce beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) on Engelman Spruce (Picea engelmannii) on Monarch pass, where 90 % of tall spruce trees have been killed. Spruce beetle infests high-elevation Engelmann spruce throughout much of Colorado. Since 2000, this small, native bark beetle has affected at least 1.89 million cumulative acres of forest. As Colorado ecosystems become warmer and drier because of climate change, trees become stressed making them susceptible to attack by bark beetles. At the same time, bark beetles are thriving, as cold-induced mortality becomes rare. On Monarch Pass, because of tree mortality, wildfire is now a serious concern because of its potential devastating effects on communities and on water quality in the Arkansas River catchment (which includes Salida, Pueblo, and Colorado Springs). See more here: 1) 2021 Forest Health Highlights: Colorado 2) Aerial Survey: Spruce Beetle Remains Most Deadly Forest Pest

The artwork shown above is located in the Colorado State Capitol through October 16, 2023.