Fight Club: A Ragtag Crew Races to Save Disappearing Trees
Backcountry activists in the Mountain West defend the whitebark pine against climate change and beetle attacks.
43@ 47' 31" N, 110@ 08' 11" W This is a tree that David Gonzales calls "the Fighter." It's rooted in the loamy soil of a high mountain pass in western Wyoming, poised at the edge of a clearing beneath a sheer volcanic scarp that locals call the Breccia Cliffs. In the summer, downy gray Clark's nutcrackershop purposefully among its branches. Elk bed down beneath it in the fall. Come winter, the frozen footprints of foxes and ermine speckle the snowfall around its trunk. But unlike these animals, the flitty faux-jays and the migrating elk, the Fighter itself is stoic, unmoving. Archimedean, even. Its position on this earth is fixed.
The Fighter is a whitebark pine, a high-elevation species of five-needle conifer that's mostly known these days for the trouble it's in. Throughout the northern Rockies, entire forests of whitebark are being wiped out by a pair of complementary afflictions: white pine blister rust, an invasive fungal disease that causes branches to swell with cankers, and the mountain pine beetle, a largely low-elevation pest that's increasingly "moved up" to infest subalpine trees, thanks to steadily warming temperatures. Needles on a dying whitebark turn red at first, then fall off, leaving behind only a bare tangle of branches. The Fighter is the last green tree from a grove of a few hundred, standing at the head of its now-gray phalanx like a general before a column of ghost soldiers. This is why David Gonzales gave the Fighter its name.
43@ 28' 51" N, 110@ 45' 50" W This is the hippie cafe in Jackson where I met Gonzales some months ago. On a Sunday morning in July the tables were filled with toned thirty-somethings munching gluten-free pancakes. Gonzales sat at a patio table with his ever-present collie mix, Pepi. We'd barely shaken hands before the other volunteers started showing up, a motley and Patagonia-clad crew donating their day off to the nonprofit startup that Gonzales calls TreeFight.
Gonzales's position on this earth is also fixed, relatively speaking. After three decades migrating around Texas and the Southwest--first as an adolescent, then as a cub reporter for the Dallas Morning News--he settled in Jackson in 1998, and the adjacent Tetons got into his blood. A gonzo skier and backcountry junkie, Gonzales clicked into Jackson Hole like a boot into bindings, and he has no intention of leaving. At 45, he's broad and scruffy, fond of the kind of rumpled performance apparel that makes everyone in Jackson look like they just came in from backpacking. Professionally, he's your quintessential mountain-town jack-of-all-trades: author of a popular coffee-table book on the region, a successful ski photographer, a filmmaker who has won awards for his documentary shorts.
The idea of running an environmental nonprofit never occurred to Gonzales until the fall of 2009, when a friend introduced him to GIS specialist and whitebark advocate Wally Macfarlane. As a skier, Gonzales was vaguely aware of the tree's plight. He'd noticed the burnt-red splotches staining the canopy while riding the tram at Jackson Hole Mountain. Macfarlane, meanwhile, had just completed an aerial survey of whitebark damage in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), working with retired Forest Service entomologist and renowned pine-beetle authority Jesse Logan. The project, cosponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Defense Council, raised eyebrows in Yellowstone management and conservation circles by suggesting that as much as 85 percent of all whitebark stands in the GYE had already suffered moderate to massive beetle kills--more than anyone had imagined. Gonzales was soon skiing into remote whitebark territory with Macfarlane and Logan, learning how climate change had prompted the infestation and wondering what could be done. "We were just saying, we're not going to throw up our hands and give up," he recalls. "We're going to try and do something, even if that means putting Band-Aids on trees."
TreeFight launched the following summer, after a friend in the National Park Service introduced Gonzales to a synthesized pheromone called verbenone. A nontoxic repellent popular with commercial foresters, verbenone mimics the scent that pine beetles emit to warn their brethren away from already-occupied trees. Ecologists in Grand Teton National Park had been tagging stands with verbenone packets for years, stapling them to individual trees with high cone production and rust-resistance, hoping to keep beetles away from the highest-value trees. Inspired, Gonzales arranged a partnership with the Forest Service to tag and monitor strategically selected stands in the surrounding Bridger-Teton National Forest. So in June of 2010, after some fundraising and a credit-card purchase of 700 verbenone packets, Gonzales led the first in a series of TreeFight "missions," heading into the high, wild backcountry around Jackson Hole.