LEWISTON TRIBUNE — Western white pine, as a species, was known as king pine in the early 1900s because of its dominance on the landscape and the outsized role it played in the timber industry. And this particular tree was the biggest of the big, the largest known western white pine, a distinction for which it was called “The King.” The reign of the majestic tree that towered above land owned by the Potlatch Lumber Company came to an end in December of 1911, cut down by lumberjacks using crosscut saws. It wouldn’t be long after that, two or three decades, that the rest of the kingdom would crumble.

CAPTION:  This white pine is about 100 years old. It has a natural resistance to blister rust and has been tapped by scientists in their effort to develop blister rust-resistant seeds and restore the species to the Northwest landscape.

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

But a small army of loyalists, monarchists you might call them, are working to restore the species to some semblance of its former glory. It’s slow work that has been underway for decades and will take decades more to complete. Even at that, white pine may never dominate the mid-elevation forests of northern Idaho like it once did.

To ensure a comeback, white pine fans are trying to keep alive the restoration vision that depends on participation from multiple generations of forest and nursery managers to be successful.

A cut above

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

“It grows very fast and very well and it’s a good timber species for wood quality. It saws well in our sawmills,” said Patterson, inventory and geographic information system manager for Stimson Lumber Company at 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 it’s our state tree. It’s tough to be a forester in Idaho and not want to grow the state tree.”

To be clear, white pine is not absent from Idaho. Walkthrough the timbered portions of the Palouse and you can find the king pine. But the trees don’t dominate the forest like they did when European settlers first arrived on the scene, and they don’t reach the size and age that awed early lumbermen. White pine blister rust sees to that.

The pathogen, inadvertently imported from Europe, arrived in the Northwest about 1910 and soon found a perfect home in wetter inland forests of the Pacific Northwest. Both of its hosts were abundant. Ribes plants like currant and gooseberry give a home in their first stage of life. Then the disease moves to its secondary host, white pine. With no shortage of hosts, the disease swept through white pine stands.

Attempts to stop the spread by removing ribes plants were unsuccessful, and by the 1940s blister rust was rampant. By the late ‘60s, forest managers largely abandoned efforts to stop its spread and instead moved to salvage as much of the still harvestable trees as possible.


Building resistance

But in the 1950s another strategy was underway. Scientist Richard T. Bingham began looking at white pine trees that were seemingly unaffected by blister rust. He collected seeds and pollen from those survivors in an effort to breed blister rust-resistant trees.

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

Bingham bred the seemingly resistant trees and ran them through a series of blister rust screenings. Trees that survived and showed they were able to fend off the disease were deemed winners.

“They said, ‘OK, now we know we’ve got trees that show some level of rust resistance. If they cross with each other, we know we are not going to dilute the resistance, and potentially we could magnify it,’ ” said Aram Eramian, superintendent of the U.S. Forest Service nursery at Coeur d’Alene, one of seven such nurseries in the National Forest System.

Those initial nursery trials produced trees that were about 66 percent resistant to blister rust. It’s with those trees that foresters are slowly attempting to restore the species.

“Ever since the 1970s, all the seeds we use to grow western white pine come from resistant stock,” said Eramian. “It’s not total immunity, but it allows the seedling to grow to a rotational age and hold off the rust and get mature.”

That breed-and-screen process has been repeated over and over again, in an effort to produce white pine trees ever more resistant to blister rust. While the work has produced a high degree of resistance, performance in the field has varied.

“We haven’t stopped developing rust resistance. We are not sitting on our laurels at 66 percent,” said Mary Frances Mahalovich, the geneticist for the northern region of the U.S. Forest Service who directs rust resistance screenings.

However, the program isn’t trying to reach total resistance. Mahalovich said pushing too far could backfire.

“If you apply too hard a selection in white pine to improve resistance it’s going to be like an arms race. We don’t want to establish a more resistant strain of blister rust that could potentially wipe out everything we have achieved so far.”

She said the goal is to still have blister rust but for it to behave more like a native disease that kills some trees but doesn’t wipe out vast stands.

Pine seedlings

Rows of white pine seedlings grow in a U.S. Forest Service nursery in Coeur d’Alene.

Pete Caster / Lewiston Tribune

Fresh air

The Forest Service nursery at Coeur d’Alene is growing about 350,000 rust-resistant white pine seedlings this year. The number goes up or down, based on orders from national forests in northern Idaho and western Montana.

The nursery operates essentially as a business. Eramian and his staff grow a wide range of trees and shrubs and trees based on what is needed, and what is paid for, by individual forests. Just like a farm, the previous year’s profits are used to grow the next year’s crop.

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

A visitor remarked that the nursery, with all of its young green growth, seems like a pleasant 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, it’s also continuing Bingham’s work, striving for just the right level of resistance through rust screenings that last three to four years and longer-term studies that follow the performance of planted trees for as long as 15 years.

“This was a cross that was done last year,” Eramian said while walking in a test plantation. “These two individuals both passed the rust-screening trial so we are taking the pollen from one and crossing it with the flowers on another.”

Nursery workers put bags over coneflowers. When the female cones are receptive, the workers use a syringe to inject a puff of rust-resistant pollen into the bag.

The most successful trees are placed in Forest Service orchards and used to produce seeds and pollen and eventually seedlings.


Plant it

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

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

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

She said the planted trees are showing a rust resistance rate of about 40 to 60 percent. On the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, silviculturist Elizabeth Wood said the resistance rate is about 20 percent, but high enough to continue making it one of the species planted following fire and harvest.

“It’s a pretty fabulous tree,” said Wood, noting it has attributes attractive to both people and wildlife. “The seeds are nice and tasty and it produces some pretty nice timber. It kind of fits with the Forest Service’s multiple-use ideology.”

Mahalovich said recovering white pine is going to require a continued commitment from people like Wood and Stamm, as well as private and state foresters to plant the tree.

“The most significant thing we can do is plant more rust-resistant trees,” she said. “If we make a concerted effort to plant more, we will see more of it on the landscape.”


Harvest time ahead

When the king was felled, it was so big that lumberjacks took pictures with it, much as they might have done with a trophy bull elk. Three logs from its stem took up an entire rail car. Trees of that size, likely more than 300 years old, are a thing of the past. But Patterson said some of the early blister rust white pines are reaching harvestable size. Nearly all sawmills in the region are set up to cut 2-by-4s and other framing lumber. White pine was used to make boards.

But Patterson has faith that if enough white pine is planted on state, private and federal land, and some of it becomes available for harvest, mills will adjust.

“The seed for that hasn’t really been available much except for the last 30 years, so resistant stands are at most 30 years old. Some of them are coming online and will be coming online. I think we will see a market pick up as that happens. I’m not sure we are that far away.”

He sees his role in restoration as sort of a cheerleader. While private timber companies do plant white pine, Patterson said it will be up to larger landowners like the public, via the Forest Service, to really make a commitment.

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

“I think there are people in the organization that would really like to see white pine grown. They tend to be some of the older people who have been around a long period of time,” he said. “So it’s going to be getting the younger folks on board, and since it hasn’t been around for a long time, there needs to be an education effort.”

This article was first published in the Lewiston Tribune.

See more HERE.