Scientists say whitebark pines are one of the Northwest’s most iconic and ecologically important trees — the majority of which are found in rugged wilderness.
Wilderness areas are preserves where human disturbances are outlawed. And yet, whitebark pines face the possibility of extinction. And many of the tree’s threats are connected to human-caused climate change.
Our series on Wilderness continues with this report from our EarthFix team’s Devan Schwartz. He visited the Oregon Cascades to find out how the laws of wilderness are making it more difficult to defend the tree.
Over 80 percent of whitebark pines on the West Coast are found in wilderness. If you’ve ever visited Mount Rainier, Mount Hood or Crater Lake, you’ve probably seen its gnarled trunk and gray bark.
On a recent trip into Southern Oregon’s Mount Thielsen Wilderness, geneticist Richard Sniezko showed one off.
Sniezko: “Whitebark grows near the very top of the mountain and it’s best suited there.”
Whitebarks exist in an ecological niche. Their ideal terrain is often too high up and the climate too extreme for most plant species. But many birds nest in their cavities and their prickled cones produce a fatty seed squirrels and bears favor.
Scientists say the whitebark pine’s survival is threatened. One of its threats is a disease known as blister rust. Sniezko points out cankers formed by blister rust on a whitebark pine.
Sniezko: “You can have hundreds of cankers per tree or you can have one canker per tree. If that one canker’s in the right place, it can kill the whole tree. In some areas, you can probably have 90 percent or more of the trees maybe killed by blister rust.”
Sniezko works at the Dorena Genetic Resource Center in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Dorena is a Forest Service lab. Whitebark pine saplings grown here are infected with blister rust to check for resistance. Those saplings that are able to resist the disease can then be planted back in the wild.
That’s the idea, anyway.
But there’s one thing standing in the way: The Wilderness Act of 1964.
Oakes: “Wilderness areas have limitations on what we can do. It limits some of the restoration activities.”
That’s Russell Oakes, a Forest Service Silvaculturest with the Forest Service who is working to save the whitebark pine.
Oakes says the Forest Service has decided the Wilderness Act doesn’t allow for the planting of these disease-resistant whitebark pines in wilderness areas.
Oakes: “We’ve gone back and forth within the agency about whether we can or not. Right now, no.”
The issue came to a head last year in the Okanagon-Wenatchee National Forest in north-central Washington.
Entomologist Connie Mehmel proposed planting whitebark pines in a portion of the Pasayten Wilderness that was ravaged a decade ago by wildfire.
Mehmel: “We’ve got the old whitebark pine skeletons out there but none have come back.”
Mehmel didn’t expect opposition from conservationists. But a group called Wilderness Watch came out against it – and it was taken off the table.
Board member Gary Macfarlane wrote the comments.
Macfarlane: “This is gardening, it’s manipulation of wilderness. And wilderness is the one place that we made a decision as a society to let nature roll the dice – regardless of whether we think those dice are loaded or not.”
The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
And the Forest Service’s Connie Mehmel recognizes that planting on wilderness could indeed cross that line.
Mehmel: “It really is trammeling the wilderness. As we go about the process of planting trees, even for restoration, there’s controversy associated with that. This probably wasn’t the place and time, the controversy was really too great. We need to settle these issues of how we’re going to manage whitebark pine in wilderness before we take on a project like this.”
At Southern Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, there is more flexibility when it comes to whitebark pine restoration.
Botanist Jen Beck says half of their whitebark pines are within the boundaries of wilderness areas proposed for the park.
Beck: “The Forest Service is interpreting planting for restoration as trammeling of the wilderness. Whereas, I believe the Park Service considers trammeling being human-caused impacts — the introduction of a non-native disease, white pine blister rust, that has led to the demise of a whole ecosystem.”
Wilderness is meant to be a place free from human disturbances. But, as Beck contends, blister rust is a manmade disturbance; and it’s one that should be combated through planting disease-resistant whitebarks.
Beck: “We’ve conducted four park-wide restoration plantings to date, we’ve planted about 1,000 seedlings. So far, none of those have been within wilderness, but it’s definitely on the table.”
The story of the whitebark pine is, in some ways, the story of how the Wilderness Act has been unable to prevent human-caused disturbance of nature that’s been playing out on a global scale: ...Climate change.
Whitebark pines thrive in chilly mountain weather. And Crater Lake’s Jen Beck says warming temperatures are allowing disease and pests to thrive at the higher elevations where the tree had once been safe.
Beck: “The forecast isn’t very rosy. We consider it such an important species that we definitely do not want to see it disappearing from Crater Lake. So we’ll do what we can to keep it around.”
But even with these challenges, not all wilderness advocates think human solutions are a good idea. Again, Gary Macfarlane of Wilderness Watch.
Macfarlane: “That’s the idea of wilderness. We’re going to use a little bit of humility and restraint in these areas.”
Government biologists say the whitebark pine deserves federal protection — but higher priority species have created a backlog that could last through 2017.
So on the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the question is: will Wilderness protect one of the West’s most iconic trees, or will it speed its demise?
Copyright 2014 Earthfix