By Doyle Irvin
THE ARGUMENT ABOUT WHETHER OR NOT OUR PLANET IS CLIMBING the foothills of the Sixth Extinction is indisputably urgent and the questions circling this argument are not if but instead when and how far. Will 50 percent of the biodiversity on Earth be extinct by the middle of the 21st century? Or, will it be the 22nd?
Whichever turns out to be the case, the reality of this situation forces environmentalists into a corner, with one prevailing question that seems almost impossible to answer: What do you save?
“I don’t think many of us are prepared to make those decisions,” Darren Long told me in late July. Darren is the program director of the Climate Adaptation Fund at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and it’s his job to save the present in the face of the future. “The climate is only going to create more and more of these difficult questions for all of us.”
“One thing we know for sure,” Keane said, is that “to do nothing ensures that whitebark pine will be gone. You’re definitely going to lose a species.”
The reality facing whitebark pine is one of endless competition on all fronts: economic and ecological value judgments, personal ties squared up against impersonal diseases, and, ultimately, the unhealthy side effects of the American Dream. While tied to this tree are an army of passionate people, it faces many highly uncertain futures.
ARE WE SISYPHUS?
The problems began as the 19th century rolled into the 20th, when Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, thought he had a good idea. Many forests in the United States had been extensively (and profitably) logged, and the country did not have the nursery infrastructure to grow all the seedlings required to reforest them. Europe, however, did. They sent white pine seeds to Germany to be grown in their nurseries before being sent back to America to be planted permanently. Along for the ride with these returning seedlings came white pine blister rust, the deadly disease that is forcing whitebark pine to the brink of extinction.
Blister rust has reduced whitebark forests across the West by as much as 95 percent, but it isn’t the only problem. Increases in temperature due to climate change are more pronounced at higher altitudes, and these increased temperatures have meant that mountain pine beetles are at times able to breed twice in a season. Then, sometimes there isn’t a frost harsh enough to kill them off. These variables have led to such an exponential explosion of pine beetles that often the only thing stopping them is the fact that they’ve already eaten everything. Increased temperatures also mean that competitor species are moving uphill and out-muscling whitebark in places where previously only it could survive. To top it all off, whitebark has also suffered from the effects of fire suppression policies — it thrives when reforesting burnt areas, and for decades wildfires were put out as much as possible. All these factors combined leave many scientists completely unsure about the future of this tree.
“The fact is that we just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Keane said.
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 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?”
IT’S NOT JUST THE BEARS
In one of the more fascinating evolutionary developments, whitebark pine has developed a complete dependency on Clark’s nutcrackers, which are their only source of seed dispersal. Wind doesn’t do it. Fire won’t, either. Their seeds being eaten by other animals produces no trees. It really is just these soft-gray nutcrackers, named after one half of Lewis and Clark. Nearly every aspect of whitebark pine can be tied back to this dependent relationship with the bird.
Clark’s nutcrackers bury the seeds by the thousands and, therefore, must remember where they put them. In order to do this, they prefer disturbed areas with visual markers, which are usually downed logs or stones. This means that their favorite place to plant is in recently burned (former) forests, which are easier for the birds to pick out and remember than dense unbroken vegetation, like how it’s easier to find your keys on a clean table.
These disturbed areas are particularly inhospitable. As such, whitebark evolved into one of the hardiest tree species on the planet, surviving in zones with little shelter from the elements, blasted by the winter cold and parched by high-altitude summer sun.
Once the tree has truly begun to grow, it acts as an ecosystem initiator. Because it can survive in such extremes, whitebark is often the first to regenerate these unfriendly locations. It then provides shade and shelter for other trees and plants. This makes it invaluable to ecosystem resiliency, the process by which the natural world heals itself. You could almost think of the tree as platelets, red blood cells coagulating in a wound as the first step towards restoring normalcy after the inevitable bumps and scrapes that are part of being alive. Whitebark also provides a significant and incredibly nutritious food source for animal life, which in turn are dispersal agents for other species in the ecosystem.
“There are 110 documented species that depend on it,” Keane said. “It’s a keystone species and to lose it is to lose a lot.”
The seeds are really a hot commodity to the animals at these altitudes. Keane told me an anecdote about a scientist’s dissertation, where he was trying to see if the seeds would eventually grow into trees if they were simply put on the ground instead of buried at nutcracker-depth. Each time he tried, there was 100 percent predation by rodents. He did it again and again and again, and they just got them all.
An important factor about whitebark is that the shade it provides retains snowpack at the highest elevations. This both prevents early summer flooding (along with flood-related ecological destruction) and maintains a supply of fresh water, for all species, including humans, late into summer dry seasons.
CHOOSING THE FUTURE
What whitebark doesn’t do is end up on a shelf at the grocery store or as a shelf in a bungalow. The timber value of other trees inspires potential investors to restore their species in such a way that groves can be sustainably logged in the future, while also meeting conservation goals. Whitebark doesn’t have that going for it: It’s not viable for timber, and the seeds are ignored by non-indigenous Americans. The unpretty reality of many conservation efforts is that they cannot be extricated from business.
Darren Long, the program director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, notes the strong correlation between conservation and the economy. He also admits that economics don’t always make the most sense from an ecological perspective.
“One of the things you might do is look at making grants and supporting projects in ecosystems that are likely to remain functional despite the projected impacts of climate change,” he said. “That’s the lowhanging fruit of conservation investment right now.”
Given that whitebark pine has already been impacted by climate change, it makes sense that potential investments go elsewhere. With the gloomy status of the tree, nothing about it seems low-hanging or financially fruitful.
That being said, Long followed up with an important point. “We know that functional, healthy ecosystems are by rule more resilient to climate impacts. And the species that inhabit those intact systems have the most potential to exploit their own adaptive ability, in a system that is functional rather than degraded.”
When you consider the situation in light of this reality, it becomes clear that investing in whitebark isn’t just saving one species from the impacts of climate disruption. It’s providing the 110 documented species reliant on the tree the breathing space they need to adapt to an uncertain future.
Ecologist Bob Keane expressed his frustration with the underwhelming attention whitebark receives as a conservation target.
“If you let something at the bottom of the food chain go, like whitebark, you’ll see massive changes,” he said. “You’ll get brand new ecosystems. Maybe society will like these new ecosystems — but are you ready to bet on it?”
Call us curmudgeonly if you like, but we at American Forests are not the betting type. We know it’s possible to save this species if we create the infrastructure to produce rust-resistant seedlings at a large scale. That’s why we have stepped up and joined with the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service to develop the first range-wide strategic restoration plan for whitebark pine. At the summit we are bringing together this November, nonprofit conservationists, federal agency leadership and land managers, private stakeholders and scientists will establish the nationwide agenda for the salvation of this incredibly special tree. If it is listed, it will be the tree with the largest range ever put on the Endangered Species List.
American Forests’ Eric Sprague recounts the pristine vastness that is whitebark habitat and all the species — from grizzles and mountain goats to the occasional wolverine — that traverse these high elevations unbroken by roads or any development. And yet, when you look around, you see swaths of dead whitebark.
“The severity of pine beetles and blister rust is caused by us,” he said. “Human impact extends across the borders supposedly protecting these wild areas, and we are responsible whether we like it or not.”
It’s hard, sometimes, for society to understand the value of what’s out of sight and out of mind. Most people in the United States have never seen a whitebark pine, and likely never will. That, however, doesn’t mean that whitebark isn’t a key part of our lives. Removing through inaction one of the most important support systems at high altitudes will send an avalanche of negative consequences downhill: What happens on top of a mountain never stays there.
Doyle Irvin contributes to American Forests magazine and Loose Leaf blog, and is passionate about protecting the environment and investing in the future of our planet.