WHERE THERE IS A WILL…
The question is not whether we can save whitebark pine. There are proven methods to solve each of the problems whitebark faces. Instead, the question is whether enough people will deem the effort worth the expenditure.
The passion is there — it’s just the money that isn’t. Eric Sprague, director of forest conservation at American Forests, told me about his recent trip through a whitebark planting in the Flathead National Forest in Montana with Keane.
“He stopped our group to bend down and shift a sheltering log 2 inches to better the chances of a single foot-tall seedling’s survival,” Sprague recalls. “That’s the kind of attention to detail and dedication that this tree inspires.”
Whitebark pine at Crater Lake. Credit: Howard Ignatius.
Whitebark restoration revolves around the hope that we can selectively breed enough blister rust resistant seedlings to plant resilient forests large enough to sustain the ecosystem that relies on the tree species. There are 40 documented modes of rust resistance.
According to Keane, it’s quite possible that the rust, which mutates much faster than trees, could easily overcome one mode of resistance. The rust regenerates annually, whereas the whitebark’s regeneration period is hundreds of years.
“What you want is not to breed for just one of the modes,” he said, “you want to breed for all of them.”
Breeding for rust resistance is an expensive process. First, you must identify a rust-resistant tree, called a “plus tree,” which means you must hike into the upper altitudes and find a forest affected by blister rust. In some forests, less than 5 percent of the whitebark are resistant, and you have to remember that resistant does not mean immune. There’s a weird kind of joy when you find yourself on a hillside, surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of dead trees, celebrating the one mostly-alive survivor you’ve found that afternoon. It’s inspiring, because you’ve found a progenitor that will help secure the future of the species, and it’s demoralizing, because you have to do this in the first place.
Once you’ve found a tree that has mostly survived, you climb it in the spring and put cages around the cones (because if you don’t, all the seeds will be eaten). Then in the fall, you climb the tree again and retrieve the seeds.
After the seeds have reached a nursery, it takes two years to grow a seedling. Then they are taken to an orchard and inoculated with blister rust during years three, four and five. After that, they grow for another two years, you count off the trees that died, and then plant the survivors in their final destination.
Given that it would normally take another 50 to 75 years for these whitebarks to reach cone-bearing age, branches from mature “plus trees” are frequently grafted onto these nursery-bred trees. These scions remember their age and trick the 7-year-olds into bearing cones, speeding up the restoration process.
“What we’re doing is hastening the process of natural selection,” Dr. Diana Tomback told me. She has been working with Keane for years, and together they wrote “Whitebark Pine Communities,” and collaborated on the first range-wide restoration guide. “But we are still way, way behind. We need 100 times the restoration efforts than what’s currently going on.”
The devil’s advocate would ask, “well, if we’re already so far behind, the outlook so bleak, and the solution so much more expensive than other conservation efforts — should we even try?”
Clark’s nutcrackers have a sublingual pouch that can hold 50-150 seeds at one time, helping them cache tens of thousands over the course of a summer. Credit: Keith Roper.