The Legacy of Whitebark Pine

Past, present, and future: how can we protect this snowscape staple?
By Paul Lask

Whitebark pine researcher, Nancy Bockino, shares a moment with a whitebark pine on Grand Teton National Park. Unceded Eastern Shoshone, Cayuse, Walla Walla, Umatilla, Cheyenne, and Shoshone-Bannock lands.
Photo by Colin Wann @creativeascents

This write-up was originally featured in our Spring 2024 Trail Break issue.

Imagine for a moment the very beginning of the potential 1,000 year lifespan of the whitebark pine, a tree that grows along high mountain slopes and ridges throughout western North America.

It starts with a bird called a Clark’s nutcracker. When whitebark pine seeds are ripe for dispersal, the nutcracker arrives with its dagger like bill, pries open the scales of tightly sealed cones, and transports the pea-sized seeds under its tongue to shallow soil caches all over the high mountain landscape. Throughout a summer, a single bird can stash tens of thousands of seeds.

In winter, by mysterious feats of navigation and memory, the nutcracker locates its hoards, unearthing the tiny mounds now buried deep under the snow. These seeds are hot commodities. One field guide notes that they have, ounce for ounce, more calories than chocolate. They contain minerals like iron and zinc and are over 50% fat.

Nancy Bockino admires the tree that fuels her conservation passion. Grand Teton National Park. Unceded Eastern Shoshone, Cayuse, Walla Walla, Umatilla, Cheyenne, and Shoshone-Bannock lands. Photo by Colin Wann @creativeascents

The Whitebark provides the backdrop for some of our greatest adventures. Unceded Eastern Shoshone, Cayuse, Walla Walla, Umatilla, Cheyenne, and Shoshone-Bannock lands. Photo by Colin Wann @creativeascent

A whitebark pine’s odds narrow when we take into account the dozen other birds and eight species of mammal relying on its seeds. These include the red squirrel, whose seed caches are raided by grizzly bears fattening up for winter. All this is going down in a harsh montane environment. Up at timberline, between five and twelve thousand feet, the soil is rocky and thin. The fortunate seeds that germinate and emerge as seedlings are hammered by winter storms, desiccated by harsh summer winds, and face multiple stressors which have contributed to their listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2022.

The lucky few that survive face risks as well, including a fatal invasive fungal infection called white pine blister rust, pine beetle outbreaks, and larger, hotter wildfires. Climate change is exacerbating all of this.

In a 2018 survey, American Forests noted there are as many dead whitebark pines as there are living ones with an estimated 325 million trees killed. With fewer trees on the landscape, each one that remains is “now at greater risk to any or all of the potentially damaging agents, simply due to the shrinking number of trees,” writes Kristen Legg, an ecologist with the National Park Service.

Because its range is stitched across majestic snowscapes in national parks and forests, the whitebark is often part of the setting for those of us who ski, climb, and recreate in the mountains. Yet many of us overlook or take for granted the pretty backdrop of gnarled old trees.

We might not realize or think too much about the fact that the shade of their crowns stabilizes and preserves snowpack, which is vital for watershed health; that their roots protect against erosion; and that they are entwined with wildlife through their harbors of habitat. Back in the early 1960s, Rachel Carson famously painted a nightmarishly quiet world robbed of songbirds. Scan a blanched whitebark forest and a similar dystopia begins to emerge.

To ward off a coming extinction, federal and tribal agencies have teamed up with conservation organizations and researchers to protect and restore whitebark pine forests. In 2017, the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation (WPEF) published a roadmap to guide restoration called the “National Whitebark Pine Restoration Plan.”

Guide and naturalist, Jesse A Logan, hugs a whitebark pine on a day out on Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Unceded Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Cheyenne, and Crow lands. Photo by Colin Wann @creativeascents

A skier glides through whitebark pine snowscapes. Grand Teton National Park. Unceded Eastern Shoshone, Cayuse, Walla Walla, Umatilla, Cheyenne, and Shoshone-Bannock lands. Photo by Colin Wann @creativeascents

This is a multifaceted project whose timeline is on the scale of centuries. Trees that are naturally resistant to blister rust are being caged, their cones shipped to nurseries, their seedlings planted back on the landscape. Living whitebark pines can be treated to protect against beetles. Surrounding timberlands can be managed in a way that reduces fire severity. The knowledge and tools are available, but inspiring the passion, getting people to care about a tree’s fate, arguably starts at the level of recreation.

In 2016, WPEF launched a ski area certification program to encourage ski areas and resorts to participate in the recovery of whitebark pine. Their approach includes recognizing the areas already participating in whitebark conservation, educating staff and managers on the ways they can help protect and restore, and offering guided snowshoe walks in which the whitebark is discussed. To date, WPEF has certified half a dozen ski areas—including the Yellowstone Club, which was the first area certified on private lands.

Jeff Cadry, environmental manager for the Yellowstone Club, says they have been transporting whitebark pines away from ski runs where they’re susceptible to damage from snow grooming machines. They have relocated over 500 hundred trees, and are looking to expand the operation.

Skiing, hiking, and camping under the canopy of a whitebark forest “feels magical,” Wes Swaffar, director of the Northern Rockies at American Forests told me over the phone. “Backcountry recreationists know this, and they need to share this with people.”

This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Andrew Bower, Climate Adaptation Specialist with the Forest Service in Washington state: “Ski areas throughout the west are probably the best opportunities for the public to see and appreciate and learn about whitebark pine.”

Nancy Bockino ponders legacy, transendence, and stewardship on Grand Teton National Park. Unceded Eastern Shoshone, Cayuse, Walla Walla, Umatilla, Cheyenne, and Shoshone-Bannock lands.

Photo by Colin Wann @creativeascents

WWA’s mission to inspire and empower people to protect America’s wild snowscapes is grown on this fertile political ground where recreation and conservation overlap. Given about 90% of whitebark pine forests are on public land in theUnited States, lovers of the snowy wilds currently hold a fragile multigenerational gift, whether or not they know it.

Say that tiny seed squeezed through its bottleneck of early challenges. It elbowed up, held on to its place in the ground, and in thirty years produced its first cone. This cone will take two years to fully mature. Fifty years later, a tree enters “peak cone production,” a manufacturing cycle that goes on for centuries. The tree just needs to remain. To do what it has always done.

Buffeted by screaming winds, pummeled by blizzards, “every tree is an expression of time and struggle,” nature photographer Quinn Lowrey notes in an interview with WPEF in 2022. Whitebark don’t “hide their past but wear it openly in the exposition of their form,” he adds. Its past consists of centuries of nourishment, safety, and stabilization for whole ecosystems. To bend from the weight of such shouldering is understandable.

The tenacity of this keystone species is what makes it so hard to fathom its endangered state. If we could learn to love something as more than a decorative screen we whiz past down mountainsides, bird watched, or walked alongside as we contemplate transcendence. If we could fully understand that in those moments we are having an impact. If we saw we had the potential to course correct. There’s precedent here—we’ve restored redwood forests, pulled the bald eagle and the American bison back from the edge of extinction; wolf packs move again across lands from which they were exterminated a century ago.

The group of whitebark pine’s human protectors are just as steadfast as the tree itself. Since the mid-90s, Legg, the National Park Service ecologist, has interacted with many of the same people in her research over the past three decades. Whole careers have been dedicated to this tree. “Like the tree,” Legg said, “these people are hardy, tough, steadfast, and so committed.”

Raising awareness that protection of this tree can start where we recreate. The lucky humans who recreate in whitebark forests can themselves be seeds. You can help grow a legacy, a hopeful tale of returning vitality to the mountains, something future generations will study as they too learn how to better relate to the natural world.

For more information, follow @fortheloveofwhitebark and catch the film, “Beloved Whitebark: Stalwart Witness” in this season’s Backcountry Film Festival program.