A tree-climber's tale of harvesting cones to save whitebark pines

  • A whitebark pine grows atop a rocky outcrop above Oregon's Crater Lake.

    Richard Sniezko
  • Nancy Bockino rappels from a large whitebark pine near Surprise Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Bockino is part of a team studying the trees and collecting their seeds, so new trees can be grown to counter a catastrophic kill-off caused by climate change, pine beetles and white pine blister rust.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • A climber collects cones from a whitebark pine in Montana's Bridger Range.

    Jason Burlage
  • Shot during the summer of 2009 in Wyoming's Gros Ventre Range, this photo was part of a project documenting severe whitebark pine mortality, evident in the large numbers of whitebark pine trees with red needles. For more information on the project.

    Wally Macfarlane
  • The whitebark pine's two biggest threats are blister rust, at left, a disease spread by an invasive fungus, and the pine beetle, right. Together, they have killed hundreds of thousands of whitebark pines, threatening to wipe out the species.

    Bradly J. Boner

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The current whitebark crisis alarms Western conservationists: A combined attack by fast-moving native mountain pine beetles and white pine blister rust, a slow disease spread by an invading fungus, is passing over the Rocky Mountains like a grim wind, leaving hundreds of thousands of the trees -- entire subalpine forests, many of them in iconic places, such as around Yellowstone National Park -- in skeletal ruin. A succession of warmer winters, hotter summers and precipitation shifts has left already-stressed trees especially vulnerable to the beetles, which are erupting in the largest outbreak ever recorded. Most of the news headlines shriek about how the beetles are wiping out lodgepole pines, but they pose an even greater threat to whitebarks.

The whitebarks and another high-altitude five-needled conifer -- the limber pine (Pinus flexilis) -- form a cornerstone of the region's ecology. Their seeds, which glisten like bits of ivory-colored lard, are a favorite of grizzly bears and Clark's nutcrackers, as well as of the tough little alpine squirrels on which martens, fishers and raptors prey. The birds carefully pick apart the rock-hard cones to get the seeds, and the squirrels patiently gather thousands and stash them in middens that they then cover with duff, stocked up for the austere winter months to come. Black bears haul themselves into the trees and perch in them, biting cones and extracting the seeds. Grizzlies, not built for arboreal pursuits, simply seek out the squirrel middens, digging them up and eating their fill -- devouring the cones whole.

Whitebarks are an important food source for Yellowstone-area grizzlies, and they also play a crucial role in regulating spring and summer runoff. The distinctive thick "bottle-brush" shapes of these trees and other five-needled pines catch and hold snowfall, and the snow lingers in their shade, melting slowly. When whitebarks die off, snow piles up on the newly unshaded ground, so that warm weather and spring rain bring chaotic floods rather than the gradual quenching runoff produced by a healthy forest. The familiar image of endangered grizzly bears, starving for whitebark seeds and dying in conflicts with men while seeking alternative food in the crowded lowlands, is only part of the bigger picture.

Humanity's role in the whitebark crisis is so clear that it seems to beg for divine retribution: So that the Lord could no longer bear, because of the evil of your doings, and because of the abominations which you have committed; therefore is your land a desolation, and an astonishment, and a curse, without an inhabitant ... (Jeremiah 44:22). But this kind of misanthropy is the featherbed of the modern nature lover, the lazy endpoint of every exhausting conversation about the mismanagement of the world. It's way too easy to be a misanthropist.

And it's wrong, at least in this case, at least so far. Earlier this year, for instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the whitebark pine meets the criteria for protection under the Endangered Species Act. A chronic shortage of federal money means that for now, it won't be formally listed as threatened, but the agencies and conservationists are mustering all their resources on behalf of the trees (see sidebar on page 18). As part of this effort, tree-climbers are paid to fan out in the high-elevation forests, harvesting whitebark pinecones so that the seeds can be used to grow new stands of whitebarks in U.S. Forest Service nurseries. So far, the rate of new planting doesn't come close to replacing the rapidly dying whitebark forests, but it's a start.

I got into picking pinecones thanks to a couple of guys -- Dave and Gabriel -- I met while rock climbing in Kootenai Canyon in the Bitterroots of Montana in 1994. They were both 15, spending long days in the canyon, swimming the creek, lounging on the rocks and sport climbing bolted 5.12s barefooted. I was 31, a trad climber, setting gear that included already-ancient hex nuts that I'd used on the sandstone of Alabama and Tennessee and hauled everywhere, from Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows to the Bitterroots. I had a worn-out pair of original Fire Boreals -- the earliest sticky-rubber climbing shoes -- clipped to my over-the-shoulder climbing rack, and could climb, at least on top rope, hard 5.9 in my Galibier mountain boots.

When I met Dave and Gabriel, and for long years after, I worked in the woods, thinning timber, logging on private land, and doing everything from treeplanting to digging fireline to building trails on public lands. When Dave and Gabriel reached their 20s, they figured out how to get contracts for the pinecone harvest -- a natural job for an expert climber. In 2002, I found myself, tied-off high in a ponderosa over Sleeping Child Creek in Montana's Sapphires, subcontracting for them.

Back then, we harvested mostly ponderosa pinecones, or spruce or larch cones, for silviculturists who were looking for seed from sturdy, healthy trees to reforest logging units or reclaimed mining ground, or places where fires had burned so hot that, left alone, the land would take decades or longer to recover.

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