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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2009 was a big pinecone harvest year. I went back to the woods for the best month, starting out Sept. 1 on ponderosas in the dry sauna of the Black Hills of South Dakota, and ending the month with ponderosas in the snow, in the Ekalaka Hills of southeast Montana, with a long stretch in the middle for harvesting whitebarks on the Beartooth Plateau above Red Lodge, Mont.

Dave and Gabriel had been out earlier in the summer "caging" -- carefully placing plastic or metal mesh cages over developing cones on whitebark trees across Montana and into Wyoming. The foresters had picked out what they believed to be the best trees and flagged them with orange streamers, and the climbers then went up, hauling the pig, which at that point contained only a stack of cages and plastic zip ties to secure them on the branches around the cones. Caging has become necessary in most cases -- wild animals love whitebark seeds so much that most trees are stripped of their cones before they fully mature. Too often, a climber who has worked hard to scramble up into an uncaged tree in search of a valuable bushel of cones will find that somebody else got to them first: Clark's nutcrackers, maybe, leaving plundered cones that look like little exploded nut-brown afro-wigs.

Because I came late to the game that year, I missed some of the fun stuff: 50-foot-tall whitebarks in Montana's Flathead forests that grew as straight as lodgepole pines. Those were climbed with a long ladder pressed up against the tree, kept in place with the leverage provided by the climber's flip rope. Foresters hoped that the ladders would be less harmful to the trees than normal climbing methods, but Dave said they were a huge hassle. For one thing, you have to carry them for five miles or more up narrow trails. Then, the bottom of even the tallest whitebarks is usually a bristle-brush thicket of branches, and you simply can't get the ladder flat enough against the tree; the top of the ladder winds up feet away from the tree trunk. So the crew devised another not-very-intrusive method: "For some of those, we used the beanbag," Dave said, "throwing the beanbag with a string on it, way up and through the branches, letting it fall on the far side of the tree, then tying the climbing rope onto the string, hauling it through and over some fairly stout limb or around the trunk, then tying into the rope. Your partner sets up a standard rock-climbing belay, and you hug the tree and head up, busting through the lower branches with your helmet, shimmying and hoping. If you fall before you get to the bigger live limbs, he catches you."

We never really made a camp that September. The work was so scattered across the West that there were few nights spent in the same place. There were four of us by then: Dave, Gabriel, Jeff -- a Bitterroot Valley construction contractor, whom we had all known for years -- and me. I was the only one who had not been making a good living in construction prior to the collapse of '08, which hit the Bitterroot particularly hard. Dave had his own construction business and bought two houses during the boom times. Now his mother occupied one of them, and he was struggling to hold on to the other, where his wife and three children lived. Jeff went into the pinecone harvest business to try to hold onto his house.

There is money in this work: A climber harvesting most varieties of cones, including those from uncaged whitebarks, gets paid by the bushel. In a caged tree, where you might only collect a dozen cones, the climber is paid by the tree. The pay varies, but it beats the hell out of most laborer's or writer's wages; in a good year, when the trees are producing and the Forest Service needs cones, a strong climber can make a few hundred bucks a day.

This was nothing like my other woods work, the tree-planting of the 1980s, say, with its wild anarchist encampments, rife with beer and dope and drifters. Nothing like constructing trails, with the punishing logistics, tools, colossal backpacks, damp tents, tiny campstoves, cosmic levels of effort, innovation and exhaustion. Nothing like firelining, slashing, thinning, where you sometimes work for days alone, earplugs in tight, lost in the alternate universe ruled by the saw, the oil, the gasoline. This whitebark work was climbing, with its total insistence on focus; it was silent, except for whatever songs you could remember to keep you moving. It was not until late in the day that you noticed a sudden irritation with the rope, an enraging branch that lashed you across the face, a pole pruner that you could no longer hold upright, when you realized just how weary and hungry you were.

Nights we went our separate ways to cook and eat and clean up, and then gathered to sit around a small fire if there was a place to build one, drinking beer and telling stories, making plans. Dave was living in his ancient Volvo station wagon, and each night, he unpacked it, setting coolers and cookstove on the roof, and making a space on the folded-down backseats for his sleeping pad and bag. I did the same in my Chevy Blazer, with more room. A lot of nights, we all packed up after supper and convoyed to wherever we would be working the next morning. On those nights, too tired to clear a sleeping space, I just unrolled a pad and bag on the ground, waking later to the shift of the wind and a wild roil of stars. It had one thing in common with the woods work that had occupied so many of my years: It was a life stripped to the bone, lean and weathered, where a drink of water or a bowl of noodles or a cigarette really mattered. I had not lived that kind of life for awhile. It felt good.

I have no real faith that human beings, as a species, are capable of making the kind of choices that might ensure our presence in the distant future. Search as I might, I can uncover few historical precedents to nourish that kind of hope. In the long term, I -- like a lot of the people I know, like the ones I stand around with at campfires after work or hunting, or drink with in bars, or talk with as they walk home from the little church near my office -- foresee a whole lot more trouble ahead. Not just the rapidly unfolding ramifications of climate change, but also the faltering, debt-laden, rigged-with-inequalities economy we've created for coming generations. But in the moment, hope burns hot. I draw much of my hope for the whitebarks from the effort to save them, and the people dedicated to it. Tree climbers like my friends provide for their families while working from before dawn to after nightfall -- what rural Western old-timers call "from can't see to can't see" -- in whatever weather, and doing it day after day while the season lasts. Saving the whitebarks is a tall order, almost lost within the dense matrix of tribulations that we humans have created for so many of our fellow inhabitants on earth. But trying to do it, with all that it entails -- jobs, research, close observation of the systems that, in the end, support every human and non-human endeavor -- is the irrefutably right thing to do. When we are at our best as a species, this is the kind of work we do.

Trapper Peak is the tallest in the Bitterroots, a dramatic 10,999-foot tower of a mountain, like something out of the tales of the Brothers Grimm. There are sub-peaks around it, spires, cirques both hidden and obvious. In the late spring, you can buck old drifts at every north-facing bend in the logging road, and make it all the way to the trailhead to Baker Lake, hike up to snowline and ski to the summit, or jump a backbone ridge and wander the dangerous avalanche and cliff country that lies north and west. There's a secret notch, and if you start at Baker Lake, and skin or kick steps uphill on the steep snow-covered talus, you will emerge at a flat, from which there is a line that will take you straight to Gem Lake, and one of the main couloirs below the peak. In the summer, it's an elk and goat trail. The travel there is easy, among giant monarch whitebark pines that are cartoonishly huge and widely scattered, as if they need isolation even from each other. Most are still alive and thriving, and the sturdy, twisted old skeletons of their predecessors stand there still, their bare wood blasted and polished by centuries of powder snow, until it attains a smoothness and swirling depth of color that seems almost supernatural. I'd like to think that those trees, the living and the beautifully dead, will be around when humanity has moved beyond the juvenile cleverness of today, maybe even attained a kind of wisdom to match the gift of that place. I am working toward that goal, and so are a hell of a lot of other people.

Hal Herring, based in Augusta, Mont., has written about environmental issues for the past 14 yeas for High Country News and a range of other publications including The Economist and Atlantic Monthly. He's a contributing editor for Field and Stream magazine.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

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