Nobody ends up in a place like this by accident. Of the few who do come, no one stays for long. Even the kindest months bring great fits of sleet and hail and snow, served up in hard slaps to the cheeks and chin and forehead. And if not that, then lightning comes, especially on summer afternoons, leaving even big men cowering like school boys with their hands over their ears, trying to protect against the percussion of the thunder. At such times there’s but one refuge, offered up by clusters of silvery-barked conifers known as whitebark pines. The last hint of upright before earth yields to endless sky. Even John Muir, famous for climbing 100-foot high Douglas fir trees during windstorms for the chance at a sway ride, found himself on plenty of occasions on his belly under whitebark, peering out through their ropy branches at some outburst of raging weather in the High Sierra.
When Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964 (doing so in what today seems impossible unity, voting in favor of it 446 to 13), what got protected in the American West was high country like this, lands of ice and rock and hurricane wind. Places where whitebarks rise like small miracles from cracks in the rock, holding on in soil so shallow you can scrape it away with a pinky finger. In a growing season barely two months long a whitebark pine will add girth at a rate of about a millimeter a year, roughly the thickness of a dime. Yet incredibly, this master of tenacity, this poster child of persistence, is disappearing. Where I live, in the Greater Yellowstone region, nearly all the whitebark will be gone in twenty years. And now, thanks to a warming climate, they won’t be coming back.
For the last thirty-five years, not a single one of my summers has passed without wandering through whitebark. It started in the late 1970’s, when I was working as a naturalist for the Forest Service in the Sawtooth and White Cloud ranges of central Idaho. My boss was a career Navy veteran in his late fifties named Chuck Ebersole, who, upon hiring me, immediately assigned two tasks. Number one was to read Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. The second was to climb a nameless peak Chuck had chosen in the middle of the Sawtooths, where I was to spend the night alone and return the next day to the ranger station to be quizzed about what I saw. Loading my new backpack with cans of Campbell’s Chunky Soup, I worked my way into the mountains, then started climbing, finally laying down my pack on a summit the size of a tool shed. Twenty yards below was a small, sturdy patch of whitebark pine. I sat out in the open on that peak for hours, well into the evening, watching storm clouds building to the west. It was no small comfort to know that, if the weather hit the fan, I could scamper down the rocks and hide beneath their branches.
To the east of my tiny mountain top, on the other side of the Salmon River in the White Cloud Peaks, a tree was growing that scientists would later proclaim to be the oldest whitebark pine on earth. By the time I arrived in Idaho, it was 1,251 years old. Living under a windswept plateau known as Railroad Ridge, the tree had pushed its soft terminal sprout from a crack in the rock some twenty years before Marco Polo set off for China.
From those first encounters with whitebark, I went on to have hundreds more, from the western shoulders of the Tetons to Glacier National Park, from Yosemite north through the Sierra and into the Cascade Range; from Mount Rainier to the Blue Mountains of Oregon and Montana’s Sweetgrass Hills. And finally, hours on hours spent with the trees across twenty-five years in the Beartooths.
* * *
It’s taken most of the morning to reach this particular stand of trees, an old favorite of mine high in the Beartooth Mountains. This is edge country: sprawling runs of tundra that separate Greater Yellowstone—the largest generally intact ecosystem in the temperate world–from the human world below, a land of tourists and cowboys and sugar beets. From here I can see seventy miles north to the Crazy Mountains, their white tips pushing into the summer sky. To the east, at the edge of the Crow Reservation, the Pryor Mountains lay crumpled on the Wyoming-Montana border like a fallen soufflé. And between the two ranges, an epic roll of grassland, stretching all the way to the far horizon.
As I expected, there are signs of blister rust everywhere. This fungus, accidentally introduced from Asia a century ago and deadly to five-needle pines, has already bled several of the windswept branches to the color of the dying. Not that such outbreaks haven’t happened before. But the warming, drought-prone climate that weakens the tree’s natural defenses also makes it harder for them to regenerate. If blister rust wasn’t enough, there’s also the pine bark beetle to contend with. A cold climate made the tops of Western mountains mostly off limits to tree-boring insects, so whitebarks evolved with little in the way of natural defenses to them. Today, though, pine bark beetles are not only here in force, but warmer weather is allowing them to reproduce twice as fast as before. In the Rocky Mountains alone, the insects have wiped out six million acres of conifer woods, creating what’s likely the biggest insect blight ever to hit North America.
Of course, when we tweak one strand of the web, the rest shudder. For thousands of years Clark’s nutcrackers have been dependent on the whitebark, each bird burying some twenty thousand seeds in shallow caches to feed on through the winter. What’s more, the nuts of the whitebark are the best of foods for grizzly bears; during years of abundant seed crops the trees may provide a bear with over half her calories. Unfortunately, this particular grizzly meal is disappearing at the same time another is also fading fast – spawning cutthroat trout, whose numbers are dwindling as streams are blown dry by drought.
Truth is, over the past decade lots of things around here have been shifting, unraveling. The little pika, or rock rabbit, which, in summer, cuts and dries piles of fresh cut grass on the flats of boulder piles – sometimes enough to fill a bushel basket – is seeing his usual summer crops taken over by less nutritional plants under this warming climate. Even worse, the blankets of snow that keep the animals warm in winter are growing thin. Soon the pika will also disappear. At the same time, far below the pika’s home, on the northern range of Yellowstone National Park, the wet places are drying out, taking with them the Columbia spotted frog. The blotched tiger salamander. The boreal chorus frog.
Saving individual species is one thing. But a planet? What the hell do we do with that? Still, to turn away from what’s happening – not just here, but around the world – is to abandon the part of our humanity that calls us to at least be witness to the losses. The question gets asked often these days about what future generations will think of us for not doing enough in the face of climate change. What they might find more maddening still is the way we kept pretending not to notice.
Years ago I was hiking through the wilderness about thirty miles south of here with an old friend – at the time he was nearly seventy – a fine naturalist and outdoorsman from southern Utah named LaVoy Tolbert. At one point he stopped, raised his arms and lifted his head toward the tree canopy, then turned back to me grinning like a ten–year-old. “Out in nature you’ve got 4.6 billion years of success – the best of everything, the finest the world has come up with, all around you, night and day. Go out for a stroll in the woods and you walk among champions.”
* * *
It’s been a fine afternoon with the trees, the day sweet and unruffled, not a hint of lightning or hail or hurricane wind. But the sun is dropping to the west over Yellowstone, and it’s time to shoulder my pack and head for home. I catch sight of the whitebarks one last time from a thousand feet below, seeing them huddled in a notch at the edge of the tundra like old women telling stories.
Right then and there I make myself a promise, swearing to never be afraid to miss them when they’re gone.
Gary Ferguson is an award-winning nature, science, conservation and adventure writer whose work draws from an intensely close and personal experience of place. Of his eighteen books, Decade of the Wolf was named the 2005 Montana Book of the Year and Hawk’s Rest was voted Nonfiction Book of the Year by Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. His latest, The Carry Home, is currently in production, and his biography of naturalist John Ripley Forbes is soon to be released. In 2008, Gary received the High Plains Book Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. He has been a William Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Montana, Visiting Writer at the University of Idaho, and a Seigel Scholar at Washington University’s School of Political Science. And, to our good fortune, he is a faculty member with the Rainier Writing Workshop.