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.
Tony Incashola Sr. and his son, Tony Incashola Jr., enjoy the views of the landscape, including the high-elevation forests in the distance, at the Flathead Indian Reservation. The father-son team help lead work within the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to restore the reservation’s forests.
“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.”