The return of the king | North West

Western white pine, as a species, was known as royal pine in the early 1900s due to its dominance over the landscape and the outsized role it played in the lumber industry.

And this particular tree was the fattest of the great, the largest known western white pine, a distinction for which it was called “the king.”

The reign of the majestic tree that towered over land owned by the Potlatch Lumber Company ended in December 1911, felled by loggers using chop saws.

It wouldn’t be long after that, two or three decades, that the rest of the kingdom would collapse.

White pine once dominated the mixed coniferous forests of northern Idaho, from the Clearwater Basin to the Canadian border, and parts of northeastern Washington and western Montana. The massive trees grow fast, tall and straight, and were a lumberjack’s dream. But they weren’t knocked down so much by the loggers. Harvest played a role, but it was an invasive disease, carried by tiny fungal spores, that unraveled the kingdom, brought giants to their knees, and changed a vast ecosystem, perhaps forever.

But a small army of loyalists, monarchists you might call, are working to restore the species to some semblance of its former glory. It is slow work that has been going on for decades and will take decades to come. Even that, white pine may never dominate the mid-elevation forests of northern Idaho as it once did.

To ensure a comeback, white pine enthusiasts are trying to keep alive the vision of restoration that relies on the participation of generations of forest and nursery managers for success.

For people like Don Patterson, loving white pine can’t be helped.

“It grows very quickly and very well and it is a good species of wood for the quality of the wood. It saws well in our sawmills, ”said Patterson, inventory and geographic information system manager for the Stimson Lumber Company in Coeur d’Alene and a member of the Inland Empire Tree Improvement Cooperative. “It’s a species that doesn’t have problems with other types of pathogens like root rot. And this is our state tree. It’s hard to be a forester in Idaho and not want to grow the state tree. “

To be clear, white pine is not absent from Idaho. Take a walk through the wooded parts of the Palouse and you can find the royal pine. But the trees don’t dominate the forest like they did when the first European settlers arrived, and they don’t reach the size and age that intimidated the early loggers. White pine blister rust does this.

The pathogen, inadvertently imported from Europe, arrived in the northwest around 1910 and quickly found a perfect home in the wetter interior forests of the Pacific Northwest. His two hosts were abundant. Ribes plants such as black currant and gooseberry provide a home in its first stage of life. The disease then moves to its secondary host, white pine. Having no shortage of hosts, the disease swept through the white pine stands.

Attempts to stop the spread by removing ribe plants were unsuccessful, and by the 1940s blister rust was rampant. In the late 1960s, forest managers largely abandoned efforts to stop its spread and instead moved to recover as many trees that could still be harvested as possible.

But in the 1950s, another strategy was underway. Scientist Richard T. Bingham began examining white pines that were apparently unaffected by blister rust. He collected seeds and pollen from these survivors for the purpose of raising trees resistant to blister rust.

“They would go through areas with blister rust and a lot of dying trees and find a healthy tree and mark it,” Patterson said.

Bingham raised the apparently resistant trees and subjected them to a series of blister rust screens. Trees that survived and were shown to be able to repel disease were considered winners.

“They said, ‘OK, now we know we have trees that show some level of rust resistance. If they intersect, we know that we are not going to dilute the resistance, and potentially we could amplify it, ”said Aram Eramian, director of the US Forest Service nursery in Coeur d’Alene, one of the seven nurseries of the national forest system.

These early nursery trials produced trees that were about 66 percent resistant to blister rust. It is with these trees that foresters are gradually trying to restore the species.

“Since the 1970s, all of the seeds we use to grow western white pine have come from resistant strains,” Eramian said. “It’s not total immunity, but it allows the seedling to grow to a rotational age, resist rust and mature.”

This process of breeding and breeding has been repeated over and over again, with the goal of producing white pines that are increasingly resistant to blister rust. While the work produced a high degree of resistance, performance in the field varied.

“We have continuously developed resistance to rust. We’re not sitting on our laurels 66%, ”said Mary Frances Mahalovich, the US Forest Service’s northern region geneticist who leads rust resistance screens.

However, the program does not try to achieve full resistance. Mahalovich said pushing too far could backfire.

“If you apply too rigorous a selection of white pine to improve strength, it will be like an arms race.” We don’t want to create a tougher blister rust strain that could potentially wipe out everything we’ve accomplished so far.

She said the goal is to always have blister rust, but that it behaves more like a native disease that kills some trees but does not wipe out large stands.

The Coeur d’Alene Forest Service nursery is growing around 350,000 rust-resistant white pine seedlings this year. The number is increasing or decreasing, depending on orders from the national forests of northern Idaho and western Montana.

The nursery operates essentially like a business. Eramian and his team cultivate a wide range of trees, shrubs, and trees depending on what is needed and paid for by each forest. Much like a farm, the profits from the previous year are used to grow the harvest for the following year.

“This entire house is rust resistant white pine – 150,000 to 180,000 seedlings – and it’s probably just one of three or four houses that have white pine in it.” Eramian said during a tour of the facility. “These probably started at the beginning of March. They will therefore grow all season here. Some will be packed this fall if it is wet enough for fall planting. The rest will go dormant here and will be packaged in December and put in freezers and shipped in the spring. “

A visitor noticed that the nursery, with all its young green shoots, seemed like a nice place to work.

“I tell everyone, we get fresh oxygen all the time,” he said.

Not only does the nursery grow white pine seedlings for planting, but they also continue Bingham’s work, striving for the right level of resistance through rust screens that last three to four years and Longer-term studies that track the performance of trees planted for as long as as 15 years.

“It’s a cross that was done last year,” Eramian said as he walked through a test plantation. “These two individuals have both passed the rust test, so we take the pollen from one and cross it with the flowers of the other.”

Nurserymen put bags on cone flowers. When the female cones are receptive, the workers use a syringe to inject a puff of rust-resistant pollen into the sac.

The best performing trees are placed in Forest Service orchards and used to produce seeds and pollen and possibly seedlings.

In the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, about 1,500 to 3,000 acres are planted with seedlings each year and, depending on the site, 20 to 60 percent of these are white pine.

“It is absolutely a priority to restore western white pine to the landscape of northern Idaho. This is one of our main goals and objectives, ”said Elisa Stamm, silviculturalist for the 2.5 million acre forest that stretches from about St. Maries to the Canadian border.

White pine loves the sun and needs openings of the type and size created by wildfires or timber harvesting. Now it only makes up about 2 percent of the forest. Historically, it was 20 to 40 percent, Stamm said.

She said the trees planted had a rust resistance rate of around 40 to 60 percent. In the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, forester Elizabeth Wood said the resistance rate is around 20 percent, but high enough to continue to make it one of the species planted after a fire and harvest.

“It’s a pretty fabulous tree,” Wood said, noting that it has attractive attributes to people and wildlife. “The seeds are nice and tasty and they produce quite nice wood. It sort of fits the multi-purpose ideology of the Forest Service.

Mahalovich said recovering white pine will require an ongoing commitment from people like Wood and Stamm, as well as private and public foresters to plant the tree.

“The most important thing we can do is plant trees that are more resistant to rust,” she said. “If we make a concerted effort to plant more, we’ll see more in the landscape. “

When the king was shot he was so big that the loggers took pictures with it, much like they could with a trophy bull moose. Three logs from its stem occupied an entire wagon. Trees of this size, probably over 300 years old, are a thing of the past. But Patterson said some of the earliest white blister rust pines are reaching exploitable size. Almost all sawmills in the area are designed to cut 2 by 4 lumber and other lumber. White pine was used to make boards.

But Patterson is confident that if enough white pine is planted on public, private, and federal lands, and some becomes available for harvest, the plants will adapt.

“The seeds for this were not really available except for the last 30 years, so resistant stands are 30 years old at most. Some of them are online and will be online. I think we will see a market rally as this happens. I’m not sure we’re that far away.

He sees his role in the restaurant business as a sort of cheerleader. As private logging companies plant white pine, Patterson said it would be up to larger landowners like the public, through the Forest Service, to really get involved.

“We’ve come to the point that we should be planting it, and planting it in droves to try and restore our forests here in northern Idaho.”

“I think there are people in the organization who would really like to see white pine grow. They tend to be old people who have been around for a long time, ”he said. “So, it will involve the youngest, and since it has not existed for a long time, we need an educational effort.”

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