Return of the King

Scientists finally have the seed they need to restore the beleaguered white pine — now they need a place to plant it

  • Historically, white pine grew in dense stands, overwhelming any human presence in the forest

  • A blistered currant leaf

  • Blister rust spores cause cankers in branches and trees

  • In the 1950s, scientists climbed to the tops of white pines and covered cones with cloth bags to protect cones from insects and to catch seeds

  • R.T. Bingham grafts cuttings, part of the white pine breeding program


COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — Just east of here, travelers on Interstate 90 pass a rest stop at Fourth of July Pass. Here, on July 4, 1861, Army lieutenant and explorer John Mullan and his crew, planning an early wagon road, carved the date on a giant white pine tree. The tree was struck by lightning a century later, and only the stump remains, but a handful of other trees still stand that would qualify for inclusion in a history museum.

These tall, wide-girthed white pines, distinguished by clusters of five needles and gray furrowed bark that breaks into small rectangular blocks, stand just off the rest area’s parking lot. Nicknamed the king pine, Pinus monticola once ruled forests around here at elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level, where powerful jet stream winds deliver 30 to 60 inches of rain each year off the Pacific Ocean.

“Loggers loved these trees because they grew so closely together,” says John Schwandt, a U.S. Forest Service plant pathologist. “I’ve heard stories of people walking through the trees with their arms spread wide and being able to touch two five-foot-diameter trees at the same time.”

Across the “Inland Empire” — from northeastern Oregon and eastern Washington across northern Idaho to western Montana — groves of king pine sheltered trees like Douglas fir, grand fir, hemlock and cedar, as well as herbs like wild ginger, prince’s pine, beadlily and wintergreen, along with ferns and orchids, says Schwandt. Today, he says, “the amount of white pine forest left is only about 10 percent of historic levels, and most of that is in plantations of young trees.”

Looking at this landscape today, it’s difficult to grasp what is now gone. Try to imagine the Arizona desert without saguaro cactus, or the Northern California coastline without its redwoods. That might give you an idea of the magic that is missing from these forests.

After years of effort, the Forest Service is finally armed with bags of seed to restore the white pine. Now, the agency needs a place to plant them.

A kingdom lost

The king pine, which grew 150 to 200 feet tall and four or five feet in diameter, fueled the Inland Empire’s logging heyday. Loggers harvested as much as 50,000 board-feet of lumber per acre — enough to build five medium-sized homes — from 100-year-old stands. Schwandt believes older stands yielded three times that much.

The first timber mill in the area buzzed into operation in 1880. Mill construction intensified as the railroads pushed through in the early 1900s. Logging giants like Potlatch, Boise Cascade and Weyerhaeuser built their empires on the white pine.

But logging alone didn’t cause the white pine’s demise. By 1943, something more sinister had moved far more quickly and destructively than a pair of loggers could whip a 10-foot saw.

In 1910, a timberland owner on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, imported white pine seedlings from France. The seedlings carried a fungus, which colonized the ubiquitous currant and gooseberry shrubs and then spread to the white pines. The fungus’ spores infiltrated the pine’s stomata, tiny pores in the needle through which the tree exchanges gases. The infection created lesions that appeared as yellow or red spots on the needles — hence the name, blister rust — and moved through a branch and into the tree stem. There, it formed a canker, which eventually girdled the tree and killed it.

Blister rust rapidly spread to the mainland. Although the white pine is a hardy species when it comes to native diseases, it succumbed to the new invader. Taking a cue from Eastern foresters, who had contained blister rust by nearly eradicating currant and gooseberry bushes, Western forest managers hired thousands of jobless men during the Great Depression to pull up the shrubs. But in the rugged West, eradication proved impossible. In 1967, the government gave up the battle after spending about $150 million over a 50-year period. And by the 1970s, the white pine had all but vanished from the Inland Empire.

Even as the white pine was disappearing in the wild, however, scientists were breeding a tougher version of it in the nursery. In the 1950s, Richard T. Bingham, a scientist with the Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine in Spokane, Wash., had occasionally noticed seemingly healthy white pines standing amid acres of dying trees. Suspecting the survivors might be immune to blister rust, Bingham began breeding the trees to amplify their resistance.

When researchers inoculated Bingham’s crossbreeds with blister rust spores, about two-thirds of the trees flourished — even though some showed blister rust symptoms. Geneticists have now identified seven different types of natural blister rust resistance which have been encouraged through the breeding program.

Slow progress

Though scientists have developed rust-resistant champions, there hasn’t been a lot of enthusiasm for putting them back in the forest. The demise of the white pine sent many lumber mills under, and those that survived found ways to process other types of trees. Veneered particleboard has replaced white pine in kitchen cabinets; aluminum is used for window and door frames; trim is made with hemlock, particleboard or plastic.

“White pine was the number-one species at the turn of the century, and up until recently, our number-one species as far as value went,” says Dan Miller, Potlatch Corporation’s silviculture manager in Idaho. “But much of its market is now gone.”

Potlatch, which owns 670,000 acres in northern Idaho, runs seven mills in the state, employing 2,500 people (HCN, 9/29/03: Timber companies borrow a tool from environmentalists). Only two mills saw lumber. The others produce plywood, particleboard, pulp and paper.

“The industry is now debating how valuable white pine may be in the future,” Miller says. “None of us has a crystal ball and we really don’t know. It would be 60 to 100 years before we could even harvest it.”

Marc Rust, director of the Inland Empire Tree Improvement Cooperative at the University of Idaho, estimates that government tree farms now produce enough seed for “about 2.5 million seedlings per year for planting.”

But restoration efforts, slow to begin with, are lagging even more. During the last five years, the Forest Service’s program has decreased from 7,000 acres of white pine planted annually to only 4,000 acres. “Even planting at the 7,000 acres a year level, it would take us 300 years to regain only 50 percent more of the historic territory,” Schwandt says.

“The bottleneck in the ’70s and ’80s was lack of seed,” he says. “Now there’s plenty of seed, but we have a lack of planting spaces.”

Because the trees grow best in open sunlight, restoring the white pine means cutting down the trees that have usurped its throne, such as Douglas fir, grand fir and hemlock. In the past, the Forest Service could move into areas that had been logged and replant them with white pine. But with the massive reduction in logging during the past decade, there simply aren’t many open, sunny places to replant.

And environmentalists are wary about restoring the king pine if logging other trees is part of the deal. “We are adamantly opposed to taking down 120-year-old stands of fir to plant white pine,” says Mike Petersen of The Lands Council, a nonprofit environmental group in Spokane, Wash.

Some researchers says it is possible to grow white pine without clear-cutting existing trees. “We don’t have to clear-cut from the top of the mountain to the bottom,” says Schwandt, “but we need to have some pretty good openings.”

Let it burn

Fire might provide a solution. White pine commonly was the first species to sprout in the ash after stand-replacement wildfires, which completely kill the existing trees in the forest. Because of its fast growth – white pine can grow four feet in a year — the tree is able to establish its reign before other species have a chance of getting started.

Until the last 70-odd years, the Idaho Panhandle had a history of such stand-replacing fires. Fire ecologists estimate that between 1542 and 1931, the Idaho Panhandle National Forests averaged 31,000 acres burned by wildfire every year.

Thanks in part to aggressive firefighting, the average between 1969 and 1998 amounted to only 665 acres.

Recent years have produced large fires, but mainly in drier forests, where white pine doesn’t grow. “How much have we burned this year that would grow white pine? We’re thinking 3- or 4,000 acres, on the outside,” says Schwandt. “The fires that we’ve had over the last 20 or 30 years haven’t provided us much in the way of restoration opportunities.”

But given time, Schwandt believes, nature will trump politics when the area is hit hard with fire, as it was in 1910, the same year blister rust arrived in North America. That summer, hundreds of fires in northern Idaho and western Montana were pushed together by hurricane-force winds into a galloping inferno that raced across 3 million acres in three days — much of it at mid-elevation in white pine territory (HCN, 4/23/01: The Big Blowup).

“Sooner or later, we’ll have some catastrophic fires where the white pine grew,” says Schwandt. “We just can’t keep fire out.”

The author writes from Missoula, Montana.

U.S. Forest Service John Schwandt, 208-765-7415

Inland Empire Tree Improvement Co-op Mark Rust, 208-885-7109, [email protected]

Return of the Giants: Restoring White Pine Ecosystems by Breeding and Aggressive Planting of Blister-Rust-Resistant White Pines, from which the photographs shown here were drawn, is available from Ag Publications, University of Idaho, P.O. Box 442240, Moscow ID 83844-2240, 208-885-7982, [email protected]

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