American Forests: Protecting rare pine trees from the ravages of a fatal disease
Michael Durglo, Jr., environmental director for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on Montana’s Flathead Reservation, never thought that whitebark pines would take such a central role in his tribes’ climate change strategic plan.
Slow-growing whitebark pines have long played second fiddle to profitable timber species. However, whitebarks are crucial for protecting local water supplies — and this role is becoming more important as climate change heats up and dries out western states. Whitebark pines act like snow fences on high mountain slopes, where they create snow drifts that slowly release water during warmer months. Their broad crowns also shade snow, preventing it from melting too quickly.
Unfortunately, whitebark pines are vanishing due to unprecedented droughts, wildfires, and bark beetle outbreaks. Their main threat, however, is a nonnative disease called blister rust fungus. In some forests in the Northern Rockies, blister rust has wiped out 90% of whitebarks. With more than half of the standing whitebarks in the U.S. now dead, these trees are on a path to extinction — unless we help.
Durglo, American Forests and their partners have collaborated to identify, grow, and plant whitebark pines that have been screened for natural resistance to blister rust. This labor-intensive process involves collecting seeds from the wild, exposing seedlings to blister rust in nurseries, and selectively growing and planting only the most resistant strains. The project is already showing success — American Forests is responsible for half of all disease-resistant whitebark pines that have been planted in the U.S. and Canada.
For Durglo, his work to bring back whitebark pines goes beyond watershed protection. “The whole process, and the tree’s resiliency, reminds me of us,” Durglo says. “Indigenous people have survived much trauma for many years, and we’re still surviving. So, for me, it became an intimate relationship with those trees.”
Did you know: Reforestation outside of cities, cropland, and pasture can sequester 48 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. This includes actions like restoring biodiversity corridors and riparian buffers along streams and on frequently flooded landscapes and post-fire restocking