Forests define the landscapes of the Northern Rockies, from the slopes of the Grand Tetons to the glacier-carved valleys of Glacier National Park. But as climate change makes the region hotter and drier, millions of acres of forests here are succumbing to extreme wildfires, drought and outbreaks of pests and disease.
American Forests is leading multi-state initiatives in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to conserve and restore these crucial forests. Our work currently concentrates on high elevation forests, where trees like the whitebark pine are rapidly disappearing due to wildfires, blister rust fungus and other threats.
Forests in the Northern Rockies face severe threats
Idaho, Montana and Wyoming boast a combined total of 55 million acres of forestland. Despite the formidable expanse of these forests, they are falling prey to a variety of threats:
- Climate change is triggering severe droughts that kill trees outright or leave them weakened and water-stressed.
- Weak trees are more susceptible to disease and pests such as bark beetles. Bark beetles are flourishing as warmer winters mean more survive each year, while a warming climate is expanding their range.
- A century of fire exclusion in fire-adapted forests has fostered an overgrowth of fire-prone underbrush, along with dense stands of thin, weak trees that fight each other for water and sunlight.
- The dangerous combination of overgrown forests, drought and pest outbreaks is fueling wildfires of unprecedented severity. Some forests are at risk of permanently shifting to landscapes of grass and shrubs.
- A nonnative disease, blister rust fungus, is wiping out pines in the five-needle family. Half of all whitebark pines in the U.S. are now dead, largely due to this fungus.
Why Restoring Forests in the Northern Rockies Is Important
Forests in the Northern Rockies are vital for local economies
Forests in the Northern Rockies are a mecca for skiers, anglers, climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts. In Montana alone, the outdoor recreation industry generates $7.1 billion in consumer spending each year and supports more than 71,000 jobs. Forests in this region also support tens of thousands of jobs in timber, conservation and wildlands firefighting and forest restoration. In Idaho, for example, forest products like lumber and pulp support roughly 11,000 jobs.
Forests in the Northern Rockies are essential for the water supply
Most of the water supply in this region originates in mountain forests. Forests absorb rain and snowmelt, and slowly release this water during the dry summer months. Trees also help filter water and keep it clear of sediment, while casting shade that prevents snow from melting too quickly. Whitebark pines and other high-elevation trees are particularly important for the regional water supply. They act like snow fences, creating snow drifts that slowly release water during warmer, drier months.
Forests in the Northern Rockies provide key wildlife habitat
These forests are home to North America’s most charismatic wildlife, including grizzly bears, Canada lynx, wolves, wolverines, mountain goats and more. Whitebark pines, which grow where few other trees can thrive, create forest habitats on otherwise barren mountain slopes.
Forests in the Northern Rockies help protect the climate
Forests in this region store vast amounts of carbon. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their wood and roots for hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years. Whitebark pines, for example, can live to be over 1,000 years old. This ability to capture and store carbon is declining, however, as wildfires and other threats devastate many forests in the region. Montana’s forests, for instance, have transitioned from being a carbon sink to a carbon source.
How We Are Restoring Forests in the Northern Rockies
We lead research and test new strategies to help forests withstand a changing climate
The climate in the Northern Rockies is changing so swiftly that many forests here will not survive without our help.
American Forests leads research on how to grow, plant and care for trees that can better withstand extreme climate conditions. This research informs our “climate-smart” reforestation and forest management practices. Some of these practices include:
- Planting genetically diverse collections of native species.
- Planting trees from one area in a new area where they’re expected to better survive in the future.
- Spacing seedlings to mimic natural tree regrowth after wildfire. Wider, more natural spacing reduces the risk of future fires.
- Using controlled burns and selective thinning to remove fire-prone underbrush and overly crowded trees. These actions also promote a mix of trees that will be more resilient in the future climate.
We have also pioneered methods to screen whitebark pines for natural resistance to the fatal blister rust fungus. This labor-intensive process involves collecting seeds from the wild, exposing seedlings to blister rust in nurseries, and selectively growing and planting only the most resistant strains of whitebark. American Forests is responsible for half of all disease-resistant whitebark pines that have ever been planted in the U.S. and Canada.
We build movements to restore and conserve forests in the Northern Rockies
As part of the U.S. Climate Alliance, American Forests supplies western states with research and expertise to help state governments better manage their forests for an uncertain climate future. We also work with the U.S. Forest Service to advance “shared stewardship” of forests that are owned and managed by multiple groups. Shared stewardship ensures that local, regional, state, tribal and national government agencies work together with each other and with non-governmental partners. Shared stewardship allows forest managers to jointly prioritize investments that can better address large-scale threats like catastrophic wildfires and blister rust fungus.
Our place-based partnerships restore healthy forests
We partner with the U.S. Forest Service and other key federal agencies, tribes and nonprofit partners on projects to reforest and manage forests across the Northern Rockies. For example, we work in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest and Flathead National Forest in Montana to plant disease-resistant whitebark pines in areas where forests are not naturally regrowing after severe wildfires.
Our Projects in the Northern Rockies
Custer-Gallatin National Forest
Climate change and decades of misguided fire policy are combining to ignite severe wildfires in Wyoming’s Custer-Gallatin National Forest. The 2006 Derby Fire burned 207,000 acres in the forest and nearby private lands, while the 2012 Millie Fire burned 10,000 acres.
American Forests works in the Custer-Gallatin to reforest areas that aren’t naturally regrowing after these fires. Our planting projects use several native tree species, including whitebark pines that have been screened for resistance to blister rust fungus, as well as limber pines, which are also being decimated by blister rust. In 2020, we are planting 81,500 trees in Custer-Gallatin.
Flathead National Forest
In Montana’s 2.4-million-acre Flathead National Forest, 90% of all whitebark pines have died from blister rust fungus, insect outbreaks and wildfires — a rate of loss that matches the broader Crown of the Continent region, in which the Flathead sits. This massive loss means that the valuable habitat that whitebarks provide has all but vanished. With so few trees left, whitebark pine forests cannot regrow on their own.
American Forests has worked in Flathead since 2012 to replant blister rust-resistant whitebark pines in areas deforested by wildfires. Our efforts restore “founder stands” of whitebarks that will eventually reseed the landscape.
Critical Tree Species for Forest Climate Adaptation
Western larches and western white pines are spectacular conifers that can grow up to 200 feet tall and live for hundreds of years. These species are particularly important in western forests because they’re well-adapted to wildfire. Yet larch forests are one of the forest types most vulnerable to climate change in the Rocky Mountains, while western white pines are declining due to blister rust fungus and other factors.
American Forests is researching and applying new climate-informed forest management methods to give larches and western white pine a fighting chance. Thinning overcrowded forests reduces the impacts of drought and wildfire, and creates a more desirable mix of tree species. Thinned areas are planted with genetically diverse seedlings that have a better shot of weathering more extreme climate conditions.
The Fight to Protect High Mountain Forests
Discover how two cats from very different habitats share an unlikely connection through the Rio Grande River and their need for forest restoration.
How Michael Durglo Jr. and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribe are working to restore whitebark pine populations.