Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Whitebark rescue effort continues

Group hopes to expand project on Sawtooth Forest


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer

High on some of the most precipitous and rarely visited spots of the Sawtooth National Forest, ancient whitebark pine trees cling to life.

Theirs is a challenging and solitary existence, with gale-force winds twisting them into tortured shapes and heavy snows bending their boughs for more than half the year. Making matters more difficult for these long-lived specimens of the Idaho high country—at least in recent years—has been the steady march of mountain pine beetles.

Though a native of Idaho's pine forests, this diminutive species has been doing a number on the region's high-elevation whitebark pine stands. The beetles' red-needled handiwork is easily viewed while driving over Galena Summit, which divides the headwaters of the Salmon and Big Wood rivers.

Foresters and biologists say these magnificent trees provide numerous benefits to the ecosystem and to people in the valleys below. The loss of the trees could disrupt the snowpack-dependent water supplies our region relies on for irrigation and other uses, experts say.

Their plight isn't being ignored. For the second year in a row, Wood River Valley resident Charlie Webster will take to the high country to save as many whitebarks as possible. Between July and early August, the local ski instructor, computer consultant and videographer will be stapling hundreds of "verbenone pouches," meant to repel the beetles, to healthy whitebark pine trees in select spots of the Soldier, Smoky and Boulder mountain ranges.

Webster and two helpers tacked two pouches each on a total of 450 trees last summer. He motorbiked, hiked and scrambled his way to reach the impacted stands.

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

Webster and the group he helped found—the Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project—are operating under an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.

Last summer's efforts to protect 450 trees cost the group about $6,000. Webster said there's no reason they can't expand the effort to other whitebark pine stands in the Boulder and Pioneer mountains with more funding. He said finding enough people to help tack the pouches on isn't the challenge. Paying for the pouches is.

By following GPS coordinates to the trees they protected last summer, the group will begin tracking the success of its efforts. Though it may be too early to say for sure, at least one spot where the group has worked—on Smoky Dome in the Soldier Mountains—whitebarks still look healthy, Webster said.

To learn more about the Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project or to donate, go to whitebark.org.

Jason Kauffman: jkauffman@mtexpress.com




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