Friday, June 4, 2010

Whitebark pine rescue project expands

Effort seeks to preserve stately old trees in mountains surrounding the valley


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer


This map shows the four spots in local mountain ranges where participants in the Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project are trying to preserve whitebark pine trees. The latest addition to the project is in the southern Pioneer Mountains, indicated by the hashed area on the right.

While hiking in one of the most remote corners of the Pioneer Mountains near the headwaters of the Little Wood River drainage last summer, Sawtooth National Forest north zone botanist Deb Taylor made a significant find.

Taylor, who was surveying the backcountry area for a fuels reduction project, began to spot enormous whitebark pine trees and clusters of whitebarks dotting the high alpine landscape. Her discovery was made all the more surprising by the fact that many of the old trees—which are known to live up to 1,000 years or more—were alive and healthy.

Taylor marveled that such a remarkable setting—full of majestic whitebarks presiding over a landscape free of human activity—is located just one major drainage east of the populated Wood River Valley.

"It's so close and it's so wild," she said of the area this week. "Some of these trees I found are 28 feet around."

But it may not remain so pristine forever.

Across the Sawtooth National Forest and the rest of the northern Rocky Mountains, whitebarks have been dying off at startling rates in recent years as a natural enemy—the mountain pine beetle—infects more and more high-altitude stands. The catastrophic loss of so many of these stately, gnarled old trees at the skyline has alarmed many tree experts across the region.

Though some of the whitebarks in the upper Little Wood have already died or are in the process of dying due to the beetle infestation—indicated by the bright red hue of their needles—Taylor found many that have not.

The find was fortuitous. Because of Taylor's discovery, a local project seeking to preserve as many healthy old whitebarks as possible will expand into the upper Little Wood drainage this summer. The expansion has been made possible by forest health protection dollars that Sawtooth officials obtained from the national office of the U.S. Forest Service.

The funds were used to buy 3,000 "verbenone pouches," small packets that when stapled to healthy trees help repel the beetles. Two packets are needed per tree.

The verbenone pouches fool the tree's natural enemy—the mountain pine beetle—and convince them to stay away from healthy trees. Verbenone is a synthetic pheromone that copies a particular scent the beetle emits when a tree is full of beetles. The idea is to fool them into thinking there is no more room in a tree that's been chosen for rescue. Verbenone must be reapplied each summer before the beetles begin their summer flights.

For the past two years, the privately funded Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project has operated in three high-altitude spots in the Soldier, Smoky and Boulder mountains. This summer, the project—which is operating under an agreement with the Forest Service—will expand to the Pioneers. Early results are promising, with only 15 percent of selected trees dying.

The project will now protect upwards of 2,000 whitebarks in local mountain ranges this summer.

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The whitebark pine is a slow-growing, long-lived stone pine of high-elevation forests and timberlines of the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada. It is one of five stone pines worldwide and the only one in North America. It occupies harsh, cold sites characterized by rocky, poorly developed soils and snowy, wind-swept exposures.

Experts say the trees provide numerous benefits to the ecosystem and to people in the valleys below. The loss of the trees could disrupt the snowpack-dependent water supplies that the region relies on for irrigation and other uses.

Whitebark seeds are a high-fat, high-energy food source for many animal species. Red squirrels harvest cones and store them in "middens" on the forest floor. Black bears and grizzly bears raid these middens for the energy-rich seeds. The Clark's nutcracker, a bird common to upper-elevation forests, also depends on the seeds and is largely responsible for their dispersal, as the seeds are wingless and require outside help to scatter.

The person at the center of the local Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project is Wood River Valley resident Charlie Webster. For the past two summers, the local computer consultant has been stapling hundreds of the packets to healthy whitebarks. Though he's had help from others, stapling the packets has largely been his doing.

This summer, Webster will be joined by local Sawtooth officials who have volunteered to staple the pouches to trees during their free time. They include Taylor, Sawtooth forester Jim Rineholt, Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson, and Sawtooth National Recreation Area wildlife biologist Robin Garwood.

Garwood is also working on two other whitebark-related projects locally. Starting this summer and extending over the next 10 years, crews will be setting small prescribed burns in dense subalpine fir stands in local ranges to allow whitebark regeneration. Crews have also been collecting whitebark pine seeds to grow seedlings, which could begin to be planted in local mountains by 2012.

The federal money for the pouches will not be available for the areas where Webster and others are already stapling verbenone pouches. For those trees, the project is still seeking private donations to buy more pouches.

"We still are desperate for donations for the trees we are already protecting," he said.

The project is also seeking physically fit volunteers with access to GPS units and digital cameras to help staple pouches this summer. For more information on volunteering, call Webster at 726-2721.

Donations to help buy more pouches should be mailed to the Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project, care of Jon Gilmour, Box 5793, Ketchum, ID 83340.

Jason Kauffman: jkauffman@mtexpress.com




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