This is a love story about a small number of scientists and some pine trees in North America. I do not know if any hugging has taken place between the trees and the scientists, but tears of loss have been shed.
Diana Tomback got to know the trees as a young graduate student,
and over the decades her relationship with them deepened. Until
recently, she expressed that relationship in scientific
publications, where every statement is backed by a reference to
In dry language, her papers say that the
trees she has lived with for 30 years are going extinct. They will
outlast her, but maybe not her son. Because the tree is a keystone
species, it will probably take with it the Yellowstone grizzly,
which depends on the tree’s nuts to fatten itself for winter.
It will also diminish a bird, the Clark’s nutcracker, which
depends on the tree for food, and returns the favor by dispersing
It had been a very successful partnership,
Tomback says, enabling both species to spread across the Northern
Rockies and other high mountain ranges where they live.
Whitebark pine depends mostly on fires and blowdowns to create
openings for its seeds. In the past, fires would start at low
elevations and burn their way up the sides of mountains, creating
space for whitebark pine seedlings. But for almost a century now,
fires have been suppressed; as whitebark pines die of old age,
less-useful trees take their place.
doom has been sealed by blister rust, an Asian import that came to
the Pacific Northwest and western Canada in 1910. It quickly
destroyed the logging economy based on western white pine and sugar
pine, and now, it is destroying whitebark pine and related species.
The disease has been moving south and east into drier places: It
may soon infect the Great Basin’s bristlecone pines, the
oldest trees in the world.
Given our inability to allow
wildfire, and given the ingenuity of blister rust, there seems
little chance of saving the trees. But an informal network of
scientists has formed to do just that. Working with little funding,
they first focused on gaps in what they knew about the tree and the
disease that girdled the trees, killing them.
they turned activist, forming the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem
Foundation, with Tomback as unpaid director. She squeezes the work
in among her teaching and research at the University of Colorado,
The foundation’s aim is to restore forests,
which means setting fires or letting them burn, so that pine nuts
spread by Clark’s nutcracker can again find the sunny spots
they need to sprout. The researchers and their graduate students
are also walking the forest. Here and there in a stand of whitebark
pines ravaged by blister rust, they will find one or two healthy
trees. The foundation promotes the idea of collecting seeds to
restart the population.
Clearly, there is a lot of blame
to go around for the whitebark’s predicament. But Tombeck
refuses to play the blame game. Perhaps she sees herself as being
on weak intellectual ground, for there is nothing in her discipline
that says it is bad for blister rust to clear whitebark pine and
its dependent species from the landscape.
So she falls
back on federal law as a last resort. The Endangered Species Act,
she says, requires that the government keep species from going
extinct. But I don’t think the law is what drives her and her
fellow scientists either. In the midst of showing charts and
studies during lunch, she tells a story.
"I was with a
colleague at a conference. We were talking about the trends. We
were talking science, until I saw he was crying. He was crying
because these trees and the mountain world they created are
Left alone, the onrushing world that fire
exclusion and blister rust is creating may be better in some ways
than the one we live in. It will be simpler and more homogeneous,
she says. But Diana Tomback and her colleagues are in love with the
profile the whitebark pine trees make as you climb the side of a
mountain toward the top. They’re in love with the
relationships they know exist between that tree and the birds and
squirrels and grizzly bears.
Like the rest of us, they are
in love with nature as they originally found it. That has forced
them out of disinterested observation into the profane world of
values and competing interests, as they speak up for forests that
cannot defend themselves against foreign invaders and our