The Fight to Protect High Mountain Forests
By Jill Schwartz
All images by Morgan Heim and Jenny Nichols unless otherwise noted
SHE STARTS OUT ALONE. She prefers it that way, given that she is not as tall and slender as the others. She’s a bit unkempt, in fact, as evidenced by her relatively scraggly extremities.
She’s so unassuming that you might not even notice her amidst the beauty that eventually surrounds her.
But, without her, we would struggle.
“She” is whitebark pine, a type of tree only found upwards of 6,000 feet, mainly in the western United States. “We” are people, particularly those who live and work in that part of the country or like to visit there to ski and hike. It’s also animals — some as charismatic as grizzly bears and others that are lesser known but critical to the health of the forest, such as Clark’s nutcracker birds, which consider the pea-sized whitebark pine seeds a staple in their diet. And “we” includes other trees — those that can’t grow to full size unless there is a whitebark pine nearby to block the wind.
Given the value of this tree species, it’s troubling to know there are more dead whitebark pine trees than live ones in this country, according to the U.S. Forest Service. There are so few left that whitebark pine is a candidate species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and is listed as endangered in Canada.
Many of the forests where the gnarly trees once grew are referred to as “ghost forests,” given the large number of standing dead trees.
They have fallen victim to a non-native fungus, white pine blister rust, that prevents the flow of nutrients within the tree. They also have been hit hard by climate change, which has brought longer periods of dry, warm weather — ideal conditions for intense wildfires and an insect, mountain pine beetle, that attacks mature whitebark pines. Under normal conditions, this tree would live for more than 200 years. Some have lived for more than 1,000 years.
Nowhere is the plight of whitebark pine more evident than the Crown of the Continent, the 18 million-acre mountainous region that spans northern Montana, as well as Canada’s southern Alberta and British Columbia provinces, and includes Glacier National Park. Only one in 10 whitebark pine trees in this region is untouched by blister rust.
There are five other “Hi5” tree species — so named because they only grow at high elevations and their needles are attached to branches in groups of five — in the western U.S. that are in decline. But whitebark pine is in the most danger and is the canary in the coal mine for other Hi5s.
On the Montana side, Melissa Jenkins is a leader in the fight to restore whitebark pine. In some ways, she is like the tree. Unassuming. Doesn’t want or need attention drawn to herself. She doesn’t even offer up in an interview that she won the 2019 U.S. Forest Service National Excellence in Silviculture award.
Yet again, much like the tree, we would be lost without her. Jenkins is on top of all the latest science related to whitebark pine. She has spent countless hours in the woods, studying the tree. She’s so entrenched in the issue that she can explain, in detail, how blister rust attacks a tree.
“The rust spores come into the needle and work their way down the needle to the branch,” Jenkins says, while holding a small piece of a whitebark pine branch that has started to die. “This raised bark is where the canker is. You can see there was a rodent chewing on the branch because the sugar is concentrated there. We don’t know if the rust creates the sugar or if the tree fighting the rust creates the sugar. The rust then goes down the branch and reaches the main trunk of the tree. The tree can’t take up water or nutrients, so it dies.”
She’s been at this longer than anybody — since the early 1990s, when blister rust started to become noticeable in the Greater Yellowstone Area, where she then worked.
“Just thinking about this tree makes me smile,” says Jenkins, a longtime lover of trees, as evidenced by the “Plans to go into forestry” caption under her name in her high school yearbook. “I wish more people knew how special it is. And how in trouble it is.”
Perhaps most important, the mild-mannered and confident forester has a knack for bringing people together to build consensus. That’s one of the reasons why the first-ever whitebark pine restoration plan for the Crown of the Continent is in the final stage of development and already has buy-in from a diverse group that includes tribal members, skiers, federal and state agencies, conservationists, academics and others.
“For the first time ever, we are going to have a plan that prioritizes what parts of the forest need to be restored and the climate-smart practices we need to use to restore them,” she says. “That’s huge.”
The U.S. Forest Service, Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and American Forests are collecting data from the Crown of the Continent, and other regions throughout the west, to develop a national plan for whitebark pine restoration. Doing so is a natural next step for American Forests, which has been active in the region for 20 years. It has planted more than 500,000 whitebark pine trees over 2,000 acres in the U.S. and Canada, contributed to scientific research related to this species, helped teach people how to restore the species, and more.
“We’ve made saving whitebark pine, and all the Hi5s, a priority because we know that, with- out them, our western U.S. forests would be much diminished and provide less benefits to people and wildlife,” says Eric Sprague, vice president of forest restoration at American Forests.
A central component of the recovery plan is speeding up the natural selection process, wherein the Clark’s nutcracker disperses whitebark pine seeds throughout the forest. This starts with trained climbers carefully crawling to the tops of whitebark pine trees at the start of summer to install cages around whitebark pine cones — those that have shown genetic resistance to blister rust — so the seeds within the cones are not eaten by animals. There are approximately 100 animals that would like to get their paws and beaks on those seeds. (Enough cones are left uncaged so there is food for the wildlife that depend on them.)
The climbers make their way back up the trees, referred to as “plus trees,” in the fall to remove the cages and detach the cones from the trees. It’s good the cages were used, given that whitebark pine trees produce cones every three to four years only once they reach the age of 50 to 75 years.
The cones are then taken to a nursery, where a combination of hands and machines are used to remove the seeds, which are then put in containers and grown for two years. When they eventually get planted in the forest, they are not 100 percent blister rust-resistant. But their genetics give them a good chance of survival.
A key partner in this undertaking is northern Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort, one of the top-rated ski resorts in the country and a popular spot for hiking and mountain biking in the warmer months. The resort might seem like an unusual bedfellow for an endangered forest, but it’s a perfect fit. Scientists, conservationists, forest service staff and others use the resort’s chairlifts in the winter to get to the top of the mountain, where they then ski to stands of whitebark pine trees to do their work. In the warmer months, the backcountry roads and trails managed by the resort make it easier for them to drive into the forests.
In 2016, Whitefish was the first resort in the country to become certified by the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation as a whitebark pine-friendly resort. It was recognized for how it helps the U.S. Forest Service and others, as well as what it does to educate the general public about whitebark pine. People learn about it at the resort’s nature center, which has displays about whitebark pine and the forest restoration project, and in more casual settings.
“The chairlift is a great opportunity to teach people about whitebark pine,” says resort Public Relations Manager Riley Polumbus. “They can see it when we are riding up the lift together.”
What many people are interested in learning from her, after she tells them about the dire circumstances this tree species faces, is what this means for them. Without whitebark, skiers would be more likely to get lost when skiing in foggy conditions, as whitebark pines — one of the few trees at high elevations — help guide the way. And they would be less likely to quench their thirst, given that much of the drinking water from watersheds within the range of whitebark pine comes from snow that has melted and run into several major river systems. Whitebark pine holds the snow in place (its candelabra- shaped wide crown provides shade, which slows snow melt) in the winter and gradually release it in the warmer months.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation also is a key player. It manages the 1.3 million-acre Flathead Indian Reservation — 10 percent of which is whitebark pine forest.
The tribal members’ deep and centuries-old connection to the land is what motivates them to invest time and money in caring for the forest.
“We must remember that, before people were here, the animals and trees were here,” says Tony Incashola, Sr., who leads the tribe’s Culture Committee. “They prepared the land for us, so it’s our responsibility to take care of them.”
Whitebark pine is particularly important in the tribe’s culture. The high fat, high protein seeds from the tree are sustenance. Just eat a few when you are in the forest for the day and that’s enough to keep you going, Incashola says.
He and other tribal members cannot divulge their traditional dances, rituals and stories related to nature — including whitebark pine — to outsiders. They keep that information to themselves. The stories can only be told when there is snow on the ground, which Incashola sadly notes is happening less and less as the planet warms.
He can reveal, though, that one of the most sacred whitebark pine trees for the tribe is the “great, great, great grandmother tree,” known to the tribe as “ILawye.” She is believed to be 3,000 years old. Taking a day to hike to the tree is a treasured opportunity.
To protect ILawye and other trees, the tribe created a forest management plan in the 1990s that includes goals for whitebark pine. They have been following the plan ever since it was approved in 2000. But the true relevance and urgency behind the plan did not become apparent until 2013, when people on the reservation started to visibly notice changes in the forest, many of which they attributed to climate change. For example, trees that typically grew at low elevations were moving up the mountain, to cooler climates, where they were outcompeting trees that were already there.
That’s when they decided to create a climate change strategy to supplement the forest management plan.
The strategy incorporates forestry practices similar to those being used by the U.S. Forest Service, such as caging cones on “plus trees.” Tribal members have collected thousands of seeds from the cones they have caged in the last few years and have already planted 2,000 trees from those seeds on 9 acres.
But their work goes beyond planting trees, an approach American Forests refers to as “carbon offense” because the new trees capture carbon. They also play “carbon defense” to prevent forests from degrading and, then, releasing carbon when large and intense wildfires, as well as other events, occur.
For this tribe, the best carbon defense play is purposefully setting fires — called controlled burns — that eliminate trees that naturally would not be in a certain part of the forest. For whitebark pine, a tree that does not grow well in shade, that means removing other types of trees that block the sun. The fires, which are low intensity and only at ground level, also prevent a build-up of vegetation that is essentially fuel for what can become an out of control and intense wildfire.
Controlled burns were common on the reservation until 100 or so years ago, when fire got a bad name and, therefore, suppressing fires became the norm.
“Our elders have been telling us for years to stop putting out fires,” says Tony Incashola, Jr., who oversees the tribe’s forestry agency. “Fire is natural. Back in the day, people did not have tools. Fire was their only tool for managing forests. People knew how to burn, what to burn and when to burn.”
She seems un-phased as the wild high mountain wind blows around her. Her long needles barely move. She’s used to holding her ground, staying strong so life can spring up around her.
But she has limits. There’s only so much she can take.
Fortunately, she has fans — Melissa Jenkins, Riley Polumbus, Tony Incashola Sr. and his son, and Eric Sprague, to name a few — who provide hope that she, healthy and resilient whitebark pine, will become the norm again in the west.
The Clark’s Nutcracker + Whitebark Pine
It’s a good thing the Clark’s nutcracker likes to eat. The small bird uses its short, hard, pointy beak to peck at whitebark pine tree cones so it can extract seeds, then push them into a hole under its tongue so they drop into the carrying pouch in its neck. Once it has filled the pouch with up to 100 seeds, the bird flies down to the forest floor and buries the seeds about an inch below ground — nearby and as far as 20 miles away. And then it repeats this, until it has hidden nearly 100,000 seeds each year.
The bird invests so much time and energy in this because the pea-sized seeds are one of its most important food sources. They are high in fat and calories, making them a staple for a bird that spends most of the year living near the tops of high mountains in the western United States, where there are not many food options from which to choose. Whitebark pine is one of the few things growing at high elevations in this part of the country.
Here’s the catch. The Clark’s nutcracker does not have a perfect memory. It can’t always find the seeds it buried.
But that’s good. Whitebark pine trees are the only pine trees whose cones don’t open to release their seeds. And the Clark’s nutcracker is the only animal that buries the seeds in such a way that they can germinate and, ultimately, become full grown trees that are essential to life.
People, for example, benefit from the fact that whitebark pine holds snow in place in the winter (thanks to its candelabra-shaped wide crown that provides shade, which slows snowmelt) and gradually releases it into rivers in the warmer months. The melted snow eventually makes its way to people, in the form of water to drink, to use for showering and more. Other tree species benefit, as whitebark pines — usually the first trees to grow at high elevations — block the wind and sun so other trees can grow.
And nearly 100 other animals win too, as they also like the heartiness of the seeds. Grizzly bears feed almost exclusively on whitebark pine seeds in years when the seeds are available, which they get to by crushing the cones, before denning in the fall.
So, don’t lose your appetite, Clark’s nutcracker. Our forests — and people and animals — need you.
Jill Schwartz writes from Washington, D.C., and is American Forests’ vice president of marketing and communications.