As you get closer to the top, the big tree sways in the wind like a ship on a moderate sea. Your flip rope hangs behind you–if you used it to protect every move, you’d spend all day in one tree and never make a dime. Climbing spurs are not allowed on these old survivor trees, these last healthy whitebark pines that have clung to the high country rocks and ridges for centuries. You simply climb, trusting the live branches, trying to dance lightly on the dead ones, keeping your highlead or trail rope clear of snags and tangles that could halt you at some crucial, spooky move between branches.
The job is to cage the cones on these survivor trees, to climb to the very crown of the tree, balance in the branches there, and pull an oblong rectangle of screen over the rich mahogany-colored cones, then fold the bottom corners of the screen to fasten the cage on the branch. The screen will protect the cones from the squirrels and the Clark’s nutcrackers that voraciously eat them every fall.
We’ll come back in a month, harvest the cones, and the U.S. Forest Service will use some of the seed to produce whitebark pines that might, just might, survive the one-two punch of an Asian-invader fungal disease and an outbreak of pine beetles that is killing them off so efficiently that the tree is now eligible for the Endangered Species List. The rest of the seed, its origins carefully documented, will go into a seed bank, in case the worst scenario–extinction in the wild–comes to pass.
I was away most of late summer, working in the high country from the Wind River Range to the Bitterroots, the Flathead and the Pioneers and back to the Wind Rivers. I am lucky to get this work, climbing trees, caging and harvesting whitebark and other cones, living outside, sleeping under the great wheel of stars, waking to the cold dawn and a fast pot of coffee, and back in the trees again. It’s days of pitch-clogged carabiners, stuck haulbags full of cages or cones, ibuprofen and sweat, hours ruled by rope and knots: figure eight, bowline, monkey’s fist (the arborists’ version, not the sailor’s), clove and Munter hitch. It’s also moments of wonder, tied off safely in the top of an ancient tree, boots on some rare sturdy perch, watching the nutcrackers fly in their peculiar swooping way, and hearing the unique sound of the wind in their wings, while the mountains stretch out around you for as far as you can possibly see.
Sadly, when you shift your eyes from the towering alpine rocks and peaks to the forest around you, the extent of the whitebark pine die-off is astounding. In many places, as in the Pioneer Mountains of southern Montana, it looks like the end has already come. An Asian fungus called blister rust came to the U.S. in a shipment of white pines from European nurseries around 1900.
It has been killing off our five-needle pines–the whitebarks, the limber pines, white pines and bristlecones, ever since. Over the past decade, the same outbreak of pine beetles that has killed millions of evergreen trees across the West has found the whitebarks in what was once their harsh high elevation sanctuary. With warmer years piled upon warmer years, the beetles are ascending to the subalpine country. The big stands of whitebarks, the only trees tough enough to grow at this altitude, have proved to be easy prey. We were harvesting whitebark cones in the Wind Rivers at over 10,000 feet, and the beetles have just started killing the trees there, the distinctive buckshot pattern of beetle “hits” (holes in the bark) weeping yellow pitch, are everywhere. For the silviculturists and foresters trying to save the whitebark pine, working in the high country year after year, climate change is not something that you argue about, or even discuss. It simply is.
So why do we care if the five needle pines die off? Most people, even in the West, don’t know they exist. White pines, long ago, were so relentlessly logged, (they make some of the world’s best lumber) a lot of us have never seen one. But as Aldo Leopold once said, “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts.” Whitebark pines (a completely different species from white pines), even though they have little use as lumber, do a whole lot of things that we are going to miss. Their seeds are big and glisten like bits of lard–everything that can eat them does so. The Clark’s nutcracker co-evolved with the whitebark. Squirrels, which are themselves eaten by everything from raptors to martens, depend on them. Black bears claw their way into the tops of the trees and chew the seeds out of the sap-covered spiky cones. Grizzly bears, poor climbers, ransack the caches of cones made by squirrels, and chomp the cones down whole, a feat that, holding one of these cones in hand, seems truly impossible. As whitebarks decline, grizzlies roam farther for food, run into human beings, and cause trouble. The removal of the big bear from the Endangered Species List, a goal of many biologists, wildlife managers, and politicians in the West, is directly tied to the grizzly having reliable food sources, way away from humans, which is exactly what the whitebark provides.
The whitebark pine, with its distinctive “bottle brush,” snow-catching shape is also integral to the supply of water across the West. The whitebark is the biggest tree, growing at the highest altitude. It shades the snowpack, and keeps the snow from simply piling up all at once and then melting all at once. Whitebark roots anchor soil and keep the mountains from eroding during runoff. The soil grows seeds and keeps the heights from becoming a barren waste of rock, a subalpine desert where snow will melt quickly and flood, rather than nourish, the places where we live and work. Whether you are an irrigator or a trout fisherman, or (like me) you are both, you depend on the whitebark, whether you know it or not.
Photo by Ellen Jungck
As for the rest of the five-needle pines currently under siege, I’d like to see them all survive and prosper. I’d like to think there will come a day when we have the monster white pines back, with their lustrous, straight-grained lumber, trees so strong that they were used for the masts on the warships of the sailing age. The limber pines now dying west of me are the lower-elevation security cover for one of Montana’s biggest elk herds. The bristlecone pines of the American southwest are the oldest living organisms known on this planet: a bristlecone in California, nicknamed “Methuselah,” was core-sampled in 1957 and found to be 4,789 years old.
I don’t know if we humans have any responsibility to make sure that these trees do not die out during a time when we call ourselves the stewards of the earth. I don’t know if the story of Noah’s Ark in the Bible is, as some say, just a metaphor, or if it is a mandate to us all. I only know that the kind of work I’m seeing the U.S. Forest Service do with the whitebarks, the genetic research, the establishment of rust-resistant plantations, the care and efforts to figure this problem out and solve it, is what human beings do when they are at their best, trying to maintain the systems that support all of us, from child to Clark’s nutcracker and all in between and beyond.
I’m proud to be a part of this work. I like living and working in the high country (and I can rank climbing a 110 foot white pine, just south of Glacier National Park, among my favorite work experiences), but I’m just a laborer, a sub-contractor climbing trees and picking cones for a short season. I don’t do the job to save the planet. Like the rest of our crew, I do it for the money, to save for a looming orthodontist bill, to put food on the table, gas in the truck and a used shotgun in my son’s hands for bird season. In the past 30 years, I’ve done almost every job that you can do in the woods, from logging to digging fireline to planting what must be a million genetically improved loblolly pines with a hoedad. It’s nice to work at a job that helps pay the bills, and might help save one of my favorite tree species at the same time.