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College awarded grant to study beetle infestation

Posted on: July 12

The Master’s College Department of Biological and Physical Sciences has received a $30,000 grant from the Shamrock Foundation to study pine bark beetle infestations in the western United States.

Pine bark beetles destroy millions of acres of pine trees across North America each year, devastating forests and devaluing property, and scientists have been trying to discover why. More specifically, they have spent years looking for a way to stop the devastation.

TMC received the grant in part because of its faculty’s creationist perspective on biology – a hard-to-find perspective in the arena of higher education. That perspective includes an understanding that creation was originally formed free from disease and destruction, which alters the way creationists view pests such as the bark beetle.

Rather than looking at the beetle solely as a force of destruction, TMC professors like science department chair Dr. Joe Francis postulate that bark beetles were created to perform important functions in forests by promoting the use of old and dying trees to create habitat in the forest for other creatures, enhancing the health of the forest via species enrichment.

“Most microbes in nature don’t cause disease and that follows from a creation biology prediction that everything in the beginning was created for a purpose,” Francis said. “So as creationists we look for what we would call the beneficial function because there might be a remnant in nature.”

Francis and Dr. Roger Sanders, a creation botanist with the CORE academy in Tennessee, presented a proposal on how the pine bark beetle forest infestation could be studied within a creation framework at a creationist conference last summer. Their research showed that there are many kinds of bark beetles infecting a majority of all tree species.

According to Francis, the bark beetle may play a key role in habitat creation. Fallen trees support life on the forest floor by allowing sunlight in and by creating room and nutrition for new life to flourish beneath the tree canopy.

In addition, the presence of bark beetles in pine trees in California, Francis observed, creates an environment under the bark that is home to the larvae of numerous insect species.

“I took a picture of 7 square centimeters [under the pine bark of an beetle infested pine tree] and there could have been hundreds of larvae [of other insects],” Francis said. “The only way that environment could have been created is because of the bark beetle.”

The college’s science department will conduct field and laboratory research over a period of two years, some of which will involve trips to western Colorado, where the beetle infestation has been the most severe.

Francis plans to utilize TMC graduate and undergraduate students in the process as a way to expose them to the world of research.

More importantly, the study will allow students to experience firsthand how a biblical view of science can be employed to take research in directions routinely ignored by non-creation scientists and to demonstrate how it can offer solutions that would otherwise be overlooked.

Francis acknowledges that going against the grain of trending scientific thought is a challenge. In a community of skeptics, the burden of proof rests squarely and heavily on the science department’s shoulders. Their premise will not be warmly embraced.

“We’re competing against the national institutes of health, the National Science Foundation,” Francis said. “An average grant (to them) could be $100,000 to $200,000. We don’t have that, but we do have expertise. We have a creation botanist, a creation entomologist, a creation taxonomist, a creation chemist. Our main goal is to use this as a teaching environment for undergraduates to be involved in research.”

And if they solve the country’s bark beetle puzzle, that would be just fine as well.

- by Bob Dickson