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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.

This whitebark pine in Glacier National Park shows the characteristic red needles of a blister rust fungus infection. Photo credit: National Park Service

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.

High-elevation forests prevent snow from melting too quickly. They’re also popular with skiers. Photo credit: Jenny Nichols / American Forests

Endangered Canada lynx rely on dense forest cover with deep winter snows. Photo credit: Adobe Stock

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’ve also lead research to compile the most comprehensive data on reforestation potential in the U.S. ever produced, will help users make their reforestation projects more effective and cost-efficient. The Reforestation Hub, simplifies reforestation planning for policymakers, land managers, companies and anyone interested in growing trees to combat climate change. And to learn where we’re going to get those trees for reforestation? A study co-authored by 18 scientists from universities, nonprofits (including American Forests)businessesand state and federal agencies, looks into the the barriers to ramping up seedling production in the U.S. 

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. We’re also working with a variety of government agencies, nonprofit organizations and tribal leaders to create a restoration plan for whitebark pine.

Whitebark pine seedlings grow in the Coeur d’Alene nursery in Idaho. Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service

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Our Projects in the Northern Rockies

Flathead National Forest

Nearly half of the Flathead National Forest is designated wilderness. Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service

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.

Custer-Gallatin National Forest

A hiking trail passes through a burned landscape in Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Photo credit: Davidrh / Shutterstock

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.

Critical Tree Species for Forest Climate Adaptation

Western larch are one of the few deciduous conifer species. Photo credit: Debby Ford / Shutterstock

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.


Our Experts

Brian Kittler

Senior Director of Forest Restoration

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Eric Sprague

Vice President of Forest Restoration

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Brittany Dyer

California State Director

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Jon Dale

Senior Manager for Forest Restoration in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

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Austin Rempel

Senior Forest Conservation Manager

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Kendall DeLyser

Senior Manager of Forests and Climate

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Allison Guy

Senior Communications Manager for American ReLeaf

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