What first interested me about the whitebark pine wasn’t the tree at all. It was the Clark’s nutcracker. That little bird, I learned, has lived in a symbiotic partnership with the whitebark pine for millennia, distributing the tree’s seeds far and wide, and caching them every fall as a food source during the winter and following spring. And it’s those seeds from which we get new trees. It’s also those same, calorie-rich seeds that feed bears, red squirrels and other species critical to a balanced and sustainable ecosystem. So with whitebark pine succumbing to blister rust, mountain pine beetles and climate change, the knock-on effects were far reaching. There are now more dead whitebark pine than live ones and in some places such as Glacier National Park, 90 percent of whitebark pines have died.

But my whitebark pine story is one of hope and restoration.

I first heard the story of the tree and the bird from Doug Smith, who at the time served as the Senior Wildlife Biologist at Yellowstone National Park. Doug introduced me to Diana Tomback, who has studied and advocated for these species for more than 30 years. Once I heard her describe how the birds and trees rely upon each other I knew it was a story that needed to be told. Raising awareness about this unique relationship, and the bigger issues facing the whitebark pine, was a critical step in helping to solve this crisis. This was exactly the type of issue for which I established the Ricketts Conservation Foundation

The Clark’s nutcracker is a very important avian visitor to whitebark pine forests, eating and burying its seeds. In turn, the whitebark pine relies on nutcrackers, which may fly as far as 20 miles away with a seed, to regenerate its forests.
Photo Credit: Walter Wehtje

In my mind, the most powerful way to tell a story is through film. Seeing and hearing a story brings it to life in a way few other things can. So I discussed the idea of documenting the Clark’s nutcracker and the whitebark pine story with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Conservation Media. Working closely with the talented team at Cornell, we got to work on what proved to be a multi-year project, capturing footage that had literally never been seen before. One of the resulting films, Hope and Restoration: Saving the Whitebark Pine, is a vital way to sound the call for people to rally behind. A call to save this centuries-old relationship between a bird and a tree, and all the other animals and plants who depend on them. 

We then approached American Forests to strategize and publicize this conservation crisis. American Forest’s CEO, Jad Daley, was, unsurprisingly, already familiar with the whitebark crisis and identified the Whitebark Pine Restoration Plan as a priority. 

Working together, we’re helping to get the word out, but it’s clear the movement needs more to be successful, including additional funding and people devoted to a restoration plan that uses the best available science and focuses on the highest priority areas to save.  

As for the film, I’m glad we did it, and I hope it inspires more people to tell their own stories about this remarkable tree and even more remarkable bird. 

Hope and Restoration is an official selection of the DC Environmental Film Festival, International Wildlife Film Festival and New York WILD Film Festival. To watch it and learn more about whitebark pine, go to https://savethewhitebarkpine.org.

About the author: Having spent more than 35 years helping to establish and run the world’s largest online brokerage, Joe Ricketts today has returned to his roots, focusing on a wide range of entrepreneurial and philanthropic ventures.