a walk in the dead woods

 The aftermath of a fire in the Sequoia National Forest, Calif., last year. Credit Max Whittaker/Reuters

CRESTLINE, Calif. — They appear at random, cinnamon-and-silver-colored pines and firs, the standing dead amid otherwise healthy groves of cloud-snagging trees in the mountains of Southern California. Last week, the Forest Service said there were 40 million of them — that is, 40 million dead trees in this state, almost one for every resident.

Soon, they will be fuel, for what rangers fear will be a catastrophic wildfire season — “40 million opportunities for fire,” as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack put it. Or they will be ghosts, gone in that sweep when the earth broke all records for overheating.

The collapse of the conifers is blamed in large part on a beetle the size of a grain of rice that has metastasized with climate change. In record warm years — which is to say, nearly every year of the last decade — the trees’ natural defense systems weaken and beetles reproduce in large numbers. The infestation killing forests all over the Western Hemisphere has been called the largest insect outbreak in global history.

Anyone who wants to see climate change in all its accelerated misery can do what I did this week — take a walk in those dead woods. I went first to Cleveland National Forest, east of Anaheim, and then to San Bernardino National Forest, about a mile above the infinity of desert sprawl known as the Inland Empire. On one of the days, Donald Trump was holding a rally in the valley below.

After speaking in Anaheim on Wednesday, Trump could have gone just a few miles up into the Santa Ana Mountains to see the collateral damage of what he has called “a total hoax,” “a canard” and “a total con job” — his words for climate change. Cleveland National Forest is a refuge of mountainous arid land surrounded by millions of people. A Forest Service survey counted almost 80,000 dead trees there last year, mostly pine, among the chaparral and scrub oak.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee recently named a leading climate-change skeptic, Representative Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, as an energy adviser. “We know the globe is cooling,” Cramer said in 2012. It takes at least $500,000 — the amount of money given Cramer’s campaigns by the fossil fuel industry — to buy that kind of crackpot theorizing.

Trump has made similar scientifically illiterate statements. And during a campaign stop at a petroleum conference in North Dakota Thursday, he sounded ever more troglodyte, lying about the Paris accords and promising to bring back the Keystone XL pipeline.

But in protecting his sizable investment on the Irish coast, he’s putting his money where his mouth isn’t. Moving 200,000 tons of rock in place to block a rising sea says far more than the vapors of ignorance emitted by Trump at the podium.

The dead woods are a sad symptom of a larger planetary illness. Last year, more than 10 million acres burned in the United States — a record, consuming an area larger than Maryland. Fire seasons are nearly 80 days longer than they were in the 1970s, according to the Forest Service.

“We keep setting records that we don’t want to see beat,” said Vilsack. We keep setting horrid heat records as well. In April, for the seventh straight month, global temperatures posted a new average monthly high. Roads have melted in India. A city in the northwest, Phalodi, posted the warmest day in India since records were kept: 123.8 degrees on May 19.

While the world burns and gasps, Trump is now leading the only major political party in the advanced world to deny climate change. If he were to become president, he’s threatened to make the United States a rogue nation and break with all the others that signed the recent Paris climate accord.

It would be nice to think you could take a walk in the woods and just forget about the orange-haired menace in the valley below. Nobody goes to a national forest looking for death. You go to see bald eagles riding the cool breezes in the San Bernardino range. In the Cleveland forest, you appreciate the small miracle of a burst of wildflowers after a recent rain. You marvel that there is any wild land at all in Southern California.

But the dead trees, 40 million of them, intrude on the pastoral. They tell another story — of ugly, early death and fires next time and the consequences for people who would prefer not to see the forest at all.

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