Missoula, Mont.

Eric Sprague, Director of Forest Conservation

Whitebark at Crater Lake. Credit: Howard Ignatius.

SCENIC VISTAS at the end of trails, trout pools in fast-moving streams, song of the wood thrush, and the smell of pines all quickly come to mind when I think about the field of forest conservation. However, I mostly think about people. Family woodland owners, nonprofit staff, foresters, government employees and many others. Forests provide the inspiration, and then people go to work.

This past fall, 115 forest conservationists from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Parks Canada, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe and several nonprofits came together because they have been inspired by the whitebark pine.

The whitebark pine is an iconic tree species that ranges across a huge swath of the West, including the Northern Rockies, Cascades and Sierra Nevada. Living up to 1,500 years, the pines are a favored food source of grizzly bears and Clark’s nutcrackers, and the high-elevation communities they create are critical for storing snowpack and then slowly releasing a steady flow of water downstream as the snow thaws. However, the tree, and the benefits that it provides, are threatened with extinction by an unprecedented set of threats: disease, pest outbreaks and severe wildfires, all of which are further fueled by climate change.

These threats make the whitebark pine restoration effort one of the most unique and challenging in the country — a key test for how we can help key forest ecosystems adapt to a changing climate.

The National Whitebark Pine Summit in Missoula, Mont., formally kicked off a year-long process for these conservationists to develop a restoration plan for the species. The plan will guide actions and resources to the most important places for saving the whitebark pine.

While more resources will be needed, the effort does have the right people paying attention. For more than 20 years, these dedicated people have solved immense technical challenges associated with developing disease-resistant seedlings, managing too little and too much fire and navigating
bureaucratic challenges of coordinating restoration across state, federal, tribal agencies and private lands. This work often happens with little resources or is squeezed in between other duties and all for a tree and ecosystem that most Americans will never see.

American Forests, Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service were excited to host these dedicated conservationists at the Summit and are ready to get to work with them to develop the National Whitebark Pine Restoration Plan.

On second thought, it may be that people provide the inspiration so that forests can do their work.