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This article is sponsored by American Forests.

In August, two American Forests researchers spent a week hiking 15 miles a day in the remote mountains of Beaverhead, Idaho, searching for increasingly rare treasure. It was there, among the fragrant sagebrush, that the team found their prize: whitebark pines, some spotted with lichen and scarred by fire, others carved into wild shapes by centuries of gusts of wind.

Whitebark pine (Ppinus albicaulis) is an iconic tree of the western mountains, the last species a Glacier National Park hiker or northern Rocky Mountain skier will see before the treeline. They are “the linchpin that holds these ecosystems together,” said Libby Pansing, a member of the research team and senior director of forest science and restoration at American Forests. Hardy enough to thrive in conditions that could kill other trees, whitebark pines help create high elevation forests that are home to dozens of species, from subalpine fir to elk and grizzly bear.

As tough as they are, however, time is running out for the white bark in the Beaverhead Mountains and beyond. Pansing has reported pines showing orange cankers on their branches or trunks and other signs of infection from a non-native disease called white pine blister rust. Come back in 10 years, Pansing said, and many of those trees could be dead.

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It’s a repeat scene in the western United States as the disease leaves behind white pine “ghost forests”. In some places, more than 90 percent of the white bark is dead. The species has also been weakened by climate change, which has exacerbated droughts, forest fires and bark beetle outbreaks. The situation is so grim that the US Fish and Wildlife Service will likely classify the white bark as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act this winter – an unusual step for a tree, and particularly unusual for a species. which has such a vast naturalness spans seven states.

There is hope, however, hidden in the genes of a few lucky pines. The so-called “elite” white barks have a natural resistance to blister rust and transmit this resistance to their offspring. But because elite trees are scarce, they won’t be able to repopulate the landscape without help. This help, according to white bark experts, must come in the form of large-scale programs to identify, propagate and plant disease-resistant white bark by the millions.

American Forests, the country’s oldest forest conservation organization, is taking a holistic approach to saving whitebark pine from extinction. The organization advocates for strong, science-based policies such as increased funding for blister rust-resistant reforestation and leads white bark restoration projects on the ground with partners such as the forest Montana Flathead National and the Bureau of Land Management in Idaho and Montana.

So far, American Forests has planted 900,000 blister rust-resistant white pine bark seedlings – nearly half of the total planted on USDA Forest Service land – and continues to plant around 30. 000 every year. As part of the American Forests’ Seed Collection Corps, the organization is also supporting efforts to collect healthy tree cones, a complex process that involves professional tree climbers, difficult to access mountain slopes and special mesh cages to protect the young cones from hungry birds and squirrels. Some cones are tested for genetic resistance to blister rust.

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Now the organization is aiming for an even bigger business. In collaboration with the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and the USDA Forest Service, American Forests is developing an ambitious broad national plan to bring back whitebark forests in the western United States.

As part of this plan, dozens of land management jurisdictions – including national parks, tribal lands, national forests, and Bureau of Land Management districts – will identify critical parts of their whitebark pine landscapes. who need restoration. Next, land managers will outline the steps they need to take to restore these core areas, whether it’s planting rust-resistant seedlings, thinning competing trees, or hanging bundles of pheromones to regrow. bark beetles, which can kill pines stressed by drought.

“It’s a unique grassroots movement,” Pansing said, “that we haven’t seen for the approach to recovery of other species.”

This plan – which will support the Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery planning – will ultimately define the activities and funds needed to restore the white bark of California to Wyoming. A wide range of funders, from foundations to businesses, have supported Whitebark Pine restoration efforts in specific locations. But the scale of a national plan will require much more, with needs ranging from research funding to tree planting and staff time.

The national stimulus package means more than just saving a special tree. Whitebark pine seeds are home to 40 species of birds and mammals, including Clark’s nutcracker, which targets these fat-rich treats and stores them in areas including recently burnt forests. This ancient relationship between bird and tree is the primary mechanism for dispersing and regenerating whitebark pine seeds.

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Many species use the seeds of the whitebark pine for food. Grizzly bears and black bears, for example, feed on white bark seeds to fatten up for the winter. On top of that, the shaggy shape of umbrella-shaped pines protects less hardy plants from the scorching mountain sun and strong, drying winds. This same sprawling shape also creates snow banks during the winter and shades the snow during the warmer months – creating a supply of fresh water that is especially important as climate change heats up and dries out the West.

Although Pansing has seen the skeletons of many whitebark pine stands killed by white pine blister rust during her years as a researcher, she is optimistic for the future.

“It’s terrible,” she admitted. “But we know what to do, we know how to deal with it, and it’s totally doable if we have the funds to do it.”

For more information on efforts to save Whitebark Pine and other forest restoration initiatives, contact [email protected]


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