DIANA TOMBACK and her backpacking partner Pamela were sitting under a pine tree in Inyo National Forest in the early 1970s when Tomback saw something that would change her life. A black and gray bird with white wing patches landed on the tree and began digging at its cones furiously. A wilderness ranger happened by, and Tomback asked if he knew the name of the tree, which he did — a whitebark pine. He didn’t know the name of the bird, but said the locals called it a pine crow.
Fascinated by this tree and its industrious pine-cone excavator, Tomback went back to the university where she was finishing her master’s degree and read everything she could find about whitebark pine and the mystery bird, which she learned was a Clark’s nutcracker. Tomback found that virtually nothing except anecdotal observations had been written about the bird in the scientific literature, save for a nesting study and a molting study. “So when I started at the University of California, Santa Barbara (on my Ph.D.), I knew exactly what I wanted to study,” she says.
Tomback did more than study. She literally wrote the book on whitebark pine and detailed the Clark’s nutcracker’s unique and critical role in the ecosystem. Through her doctoral research, Tomback discovered that the bird was the primary seed disperser for whitebark pine. Clark’s nutcrackers transport the seeds in a specialized throat pouch and bury them across the mountainsides for later consumption, helping whitebark pine regenerate, including in areas burned by wildfires.
That natural repopulation is crucial to many high-elevation forests across the western United States and Canada. The tree creates critical plant and wildlife habitat and is instrumental to protecting regional water supplies. But unfortunately, whitebarks are rapidly vanishing, largely due to an introduced fungal disease, white pine blister rust, that has wiped out 90% of the pines in many northern forests. American Forests has made saving the whitebark pine a priority.
In 1986, Tomback was invited to join a federal research team investigating whitebark pine declines. The book she co-wrote — “Whitebark Pine Communities: Ecology and Restoration” — along with the more than 100 scientific papers and book chapters that Tomback has written on the species, were some of the main resources for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when it proposed to list whitebark pine as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A listing could come as early as this year and would represent the widest ranging forest tree species ever listed under the ESA.
Looking beyond the listing though, Tomback has been working feverishly with American Forests and the U.S. Forest Service — partnering as well with other federal agencies and tribal governments — on a national restoration plan for whitebark pine. If action is not taken, experts believe it’s possible that a combination of the fungal diseases, native pest outbreaks, competition from other trees (due to fire suppression) and climate change could see whitebark pine go extinct across much of its range. Intensive human intervention is, unfortunately, essential to preserve these iconic trees and the biodiverse communities they support.
“I have seen first-hand the passion, grit, determination and creativity Diana brings to whitebark pine science and restoration,” says Elizabeth Pansing, senior manager of forest and restoration science at American Forests, who was a mentee of Tomback during her master’s and doctoral research. “Her contributions to our understanding of its natural history and ecology — and push for coordinated and science-based restoration efforts across its range — have been, and will continue to be, integral to the success of its restoration and long-term persistence.”
Fortunately, Tomback had the wherewithal to co-found the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation in 2001. The foundation has connected the forest management and scientific communities and created financial and political momentum behind saving the whitebark pine.
“I am at the capstone of a fairly long career,” says Tomback, who currently serves as professor of Integrative Biology at the University of Colorado Denver. “But I believe in the mission, with fire in the belly. I want to see this restoration plan written, then disseminated and work begun on funding. And I’d like to see the federal agencies take the lead as we target these different core areas for restoration. Making sure that whitebark pine will be around after the next century is one of the reasons for getting up in the morning.”