Some trees inspire true love

  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.

Biologist 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 another paper.

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 the nuts.

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.

The species’ 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.

Recently, 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, Denver.

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 disappearing."

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 neglect.

Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He is the paper’s senior writer.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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