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.
Gonzales is well aware of this, and it's why he sees verbenone as simply a means to an end, one front in a much larger campaign. In the years since TreeFight's founding, the group has expanded its focus well beyond verbenone-tagging. Last year TreeFighters trekked into the backcountry on a series of replanting missions, seeding one thousand whitebarks and planting two thousand new seedlings on Forest Service lands around Jackson Hole. They also partnered with ornithologist Schaming, leading troops of volunteers and students into the woods to help collect bird-call data for a population survey of Clark's nutcrackers.
If this last task sounds a bit Sisyphean--asking gaggles of middle-school kids to sit quietly in the woods for hours at a time--think of it as a metaphor for the whole of TreeFight's efforts. Because, as Gonzales freely admits, all of these missions are Band-Aids--the verbenone, the replanting, the nutcracker studies, all of it. Ultimately, the only sure steps to prevent the pine beetle's climate-driven advance are those that reduce carbon emissions. This is why, as far as Gonzales is concerned, "TreeFight's greatest value is bringing back evidence from these forests that our world is changing way more quickly than most people think." In other words, what he and his TreeFighters really want is nothing less than to turn whitebark pine into a national cause celebre for climate change.
To that end, the group is fanatically dedicated to churning out and disseminating new media. As we hiked to our targeted stand, passing the Fighter on our way, I could barely stop to pee without another TreeFighter rolling HD digital video of it. After TreeFight's first year, Gonzales produced a 20-minute documentary called Seeing Red. It showed at Telluride's popular Mountainfilm fest, then toured 52 cities in the Backcountry Film Festival, winning best environmental film and showing to more than 5,000 people. A second film is in the works. TreeFight also has plans for an app that would let backcountry recreationists help tag and monitor trees, sans verbenone--a sort of Facebook for foliage, where users can keep tabs on their favorite trees' health while showing off their photography skills. Last year the group armed schoolkids with smartphones and cameras and marched them into the woods to shoot geo-tagged "TreeArt," then made screen prints for display at a local arts festival. Needless to say, Gonzales and crew are social-media-savvy to the max, with tens of thousands of followers on social networks you haven't even heard of yet, like Pheed.
"David understands these new media ways of communication--he's wired into ways to communicate with the generation that matters," says Logan, who, along with Macfarlane, serves as an adviser to TreeFight. "He's coming up with really innovative ideas beyond stapling verbenone packets to get people involved and maybe impress on them that what we're doing is really driving this problem." At the heart of all this is the provocative notion that a gnarly little high-altitude tree can step up to become the next whale or polar bear. But if Gonzales is ignoring traditional eco-wisdom that cuddly megafauna make the best environmental spokesmen, he has a simple reason for doing so. "Trees can't move," he explains flatly. "They can't migrate with the seasons or climb higher to adapt to warming temperatures. And because of this, they're the most effective temperature gauge on the planet."
Shortly after noon, the TreeFighters and I reached a ridge crowded with still-verdant whitebark. We fanned out in pairs, with Pepi scrambling happily from group to group. It's a charismatic tree, you have to admit. Unmolested, a single pine can live a thousand years, and some older specimens have a sculptural, almost Seussian quality to them. Methodically, we started stapling the first of several dozen citronella-smelling packets, posing after each for a high-resolution, geo-tagged photo.
43@ 52' 39" N, 110@ 34' 39" W This is the rustic-posh Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park. A few months after our mission up Togwotee Pass, I went there to watch Gonzales give a presentation at Jackson Hole's inaugural TEDx Conference. He was endearingly terrified throughout, but he managed to hit the highlights, and a short clip from Seeing Red drew an audible chorus of whoas from the crowd. Naturally soft-spoken, Gonzales is slowly embracing the role of public speaker. He has since presented at the estimable Yale School of Forestry and hopes to bring TreeFight's message to new audiences this summer and beyond.
Later, over a post-conference beer, Gonzales acknowledged another advantage of a tree's essential fixedness. It allows us, he said, to form relationships with it that we simply can't with an otter or a giant panda. The comment reminded me of a quote from the Viennese philosopher Martin Buber: "[A]s I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation," Buber writes, "and the tree ceases to be an It." That kind of relationship is what turned Gonzales from a ski-bum auteur into an activist, and he's betting it can do the same for others. In the end, TreeFight's mission has less to do with fighting than with conversion: helping whitebark cease to be an It before whitebark ceases to be.
This story originally ran as "Fight Club" in the May-June 2013 issue of Audubon magazine.