Friday, August 8, 2008

Saving whitebark pines one tree at a time

Valley resident Charlie Webster has formed local group to lead rescue effort

Express Staff Writer

Click to enlarge (PDF) Express map by Coly McCauley Led by Wood River Valley resident Charlie Webster, a local nonprofit organization called the Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project is seeking to save prime whitebark pine trees from the threat of mountain pine beetle, which are working their way through local forests. For now, the new group is focusing its efforts in three main areas in the Sawtooth National Forest, shown on this map.

At the uppermost limits of the Sawtooth National Forest on narrow ridges and in remote alpine cirques, a complex, high-elevation ecosystem is unraveling.

Largely unseen by the outside world, the accelerating mortality of the lynchpin of this ecosystem—the whitebark pine tree—threatens to harm the many wild species that depend on it. The loss of these trees also has the potential to disrupt the snowpack-dependent water supplies our region relies on for irrigation and other uses.

Folks like Wood River Valley resident Charlie Webster aren't about to let that happen, at least not without putting up a fight.

"My thought is, it's better than nothing," he said.

Webster is on the frontlines of a local grassroots effort to save these magnificent whitebark pines—some which may be 1,000 years old or more—one tree at a time. During 10 days he spent in the field in the northern Sawtooth National Forest in July, the local ski instructor, computer consultant and videographer stapled nearly 400 "verbenone pouches" to healthy whitebark pine trees. He motorbiked, hiked and scrambled his way to reach the impacted stands.

Webster is doing this under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that he and a nonprofit group he helped found—the Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project—entered into with the Forest Service. This summer, Webster was aided in the effort by two locals who helped tack additional pouches to trees in the area.

In all, the trio placed 450 pouches, with two per tree.

The verbenone pouches are intended to fool the tree's natural enemy—the mountain pine beetle—and convince them to stay away from these healthy trees. Verbenone is a synthetic pheromone that copies a particular scent the mountain pine beetle emits when a tree is full of beetles. The idea is to make them think there is no more room in a tree. Verbenone must be reapplied each summer before mountain pine beetles begin their large summer flights from mid to late summer.

Recent studies—including one on U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands in the Poverty Flats area north of the Salmon River near Clayton—have shown positive results when verbenone pouches are used. The Poverty Flats study, led by BLM Challis Field Office ecologist Dana Perkins, has compared the survival rates of cone-bearing whitebark pine trees that have been treated with verbenone and those that have not.

The intent of Perkins' Poverty Flats suppression effort is to see how effective verbenone is in repelling mountain pine beetle attacks. During the past three years, her verbenone-treated trees have seen a 75 percent survival rate, while those not treated have only seen a 50 percent survival rate, she said.

"It's helping so far," she said. "It's working better than nothing."

The primary intent of these initial whitebark pine rescue efforts—including the local attempt led by the Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project—is to preserve as many cone-bearing whitebark as possible. Whitebark pine trees don't begin producing cones until they're at least 40 years old.

Perkins said mountain pine beetle epidemics, which are also impacting regional lodgepole pine forests and are responsible for the "red tree" epidemic in the Sawtooth Valley, require large trees in order to continue. It is hoped that by tricking the beetles into bypassing some fully grown trees, some cone-bearing whitebark will be saved until the infestation runs its course.

"It will continue until it runs out of food," she said.

But the beetle epidemic isn't the only looming threat to whitebarks. An introduced threat—white pine blister rust—has devastated whitebark forests in British Columbia, Montana and northern Idaho.

Forest ecologists are hard at work trying to identify blister rust-resistant strains of whitebark pine that could be the basis for future replanting efforts. But first, they need to save as many cone-bearing whitebark as possible from the threat of mountain pine beetle.

Perkins, who lives in the Stanley area, helped Webster staple some of the verbenone pouches on local whitebark pine this summer. She is also providing technical oversight for the program, which Sawtooth officials required as a condition of granting the MOU. She believes the value of the high-elevation trees makes the arduous effort worthwhile.

The whitebark pine is a slow-growing, long-lived stone pine of high-elevation forests and timberlines of the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada. The whitebark pine is one of five stone pines worldwide and the only one in North America. It occupies harsh, cold sites characterized by rocky, poorly-developed soils and snowy, wind-swept exposures.

Whitebark pine seeds are a high-fat, high-energy food source for many animal species. Red squirrels harvest cones and store them in "middens" on the forest floor. Black bears and grizzly bears raid these middens for the energy-rich food that the seeds provide. The Clark's nutcracker, a species of bird often seen in upper-elevation forests, also depends on the seeds and is largely responsible for their dispersal, as the seeds are wingless and require outside help to scatter.

The whitebark pine is also valued for watershed protection, Perkins said. In the cold, semi-arid mountain ranges of the northern Rockies, most annual precipitation falls as snow and the greatest amounts occur at high elevations. The physical position of trees on the landscape and the upswept branches of the crown provide shade to delay snowmelt and to retain snowdrifts until early to mid summer.

In many upper-elevation areas, whitebarks are the only species of tree capable of growing, Perkins said. Lower down it may be joined by subalpine fir, but that species' conical shape doesn't provide the same level of snowpack shade protection.

Webster, a 30-year resident of Blaine County, believes the whitebark pine is the region's equivalent of the California redwoods. For many years, the active outdoorsperson didn't know what kind of tree these broad-branched evergreens were. Only recently, when he began seeing them turn red and begin to die off did he come to learn of their importance.

Webster believes many locals are unaware they share their home region with such a magnificent tree species.

"It's as if we lived in the redwoods park and nobody told us about the redwoods," he said.

Webster hopes to expand his group's efforts starting next summer. He said donations and help from experienced outdoorspeople willing to hike into remote, rugged areas to staple verbenone pouches on trees would help the cause.

So far, Webster, Perkins and the group's treasurer, Jon Gilmour, have placed pouches in three locations near Galena Summit, from Dollarhide Summit to Prairie Lakes in the Smoky Mountains and around Smoky Dome in the Soldier Mountains north of Fairfield.

Webster said there's no reason they can't expand the effort to the Boulder and Pioneer mountains with a little more help and funding.

"There's no reason we couldn't protect 4,500 (trees)," he said.

For more information on the Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project, go to its Web site at

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