Ride a chair up Mount Bachelor, hike to the top of Tumalo Mountain or drive up Paulina Peak and you’ll see Whitebark Pine. It’s a species under pressure from a fungus.
Libby Pansing has a passion for this scrappy species.
“It has this very gnarly, gnarled silhouette,” said Pansing, a forest scientist with American Forests. It’s the oldest conservation group in the United States.
“Whitebark Pine is iconic. It really is representative of many of the places that we think of as being wild in the west,” said Pansing.
Deschutes National Forest plant geneticist Matt Horning can spot the blight — blister rust infection.
“This is evidence that these populations were larger and healthier in the past and we’re seeing a decline,” said Horning.
It’s a downhill slide Horning is working to stop.
“If you remove Whitebark Pine from these elevations in Central Oregon, the ecosystems would look very, very different to the public,” said Horning.
Whitebark Pine in the Pacific Northwest has been in decline for decades, according to Andy Bower, the restoration program coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service.
White Pine blister rust was accidentally introduced to North America nearly a century ago, slowly killing the slow-growing pine.
“It’s a keystone species at high elevation,” Horning said. That means it provides food and cover for wildlife and protect the snowpack from melting off too quickly.
“It really is the lynchpin that holds together these ecosystems,” said Pansing.
The rust is throwing a wrench in the system.
“The rust is a fungal disease and it has a pretty complicated life cycle,” said Bower.
That’s led to a complicated effort to save the iconic trees. One of the ways the Deschutes National Forest is doing this is finding and tagging potentially resistant trees. One of those, tagged No. 80, lives on the southern slope of the caldera.
“This is harnessing the natural resistance that occurs but only at a low level,” said Bowers.
Restoration workers harvest the seed, study the level of resistance and grow the best of the best.
“We’re sort of nudging natural selection along,” said Bower.
Enter American Forests.
“Whitebark Pine is a particularly expensive tree to grow and plant simply because it’s difficult to germinate. It’s remote. It’s hard to access,” said Pansing.
American Forests has partnered with the Forest Service to plant upward of 5,000 seedlings on the Deschutes, including another 100 on the nearly 8,000-foot overlook at Paulina Peak.
“Oregon and Washington are in a very unique position to be able to take proactive measures to help protect these species before it turns into these large mass-mortality events that we’ve seen elsewhere,” said Pansing.
It’s an all-out effort to keep these trees off the threatened and endangered species list.
Whitebark Pine is found at Crater Lake National Park and at high elevations across the Western U.S. and Canada.