“Foremost, there was the problem of climate change. Yellowstone’s grizzlies until recently acquired a huge portion of their nutritional energy from just four sources: elk meat; army moths; cut-throat trout, a native fish; and the seeds of whitebark pine, the ancient Pinus albicaulis, which grows only on high, cold, windswept ridges and peaks in the Northern Rockies. … Most important was the loss of the pine seeds. Three-quarters of the whitebark pine forests in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem died during the ten year period 2007 to 2017, as bark beetles expanded their range with warmer winters, encroaching on the whitebark ecosystem. The fat-rich seeds were critical to female bears putting on weight before hibernation.
Foods do not exist in a vacuum. Every food has attached to it a certain risk. And all foods are not equal in value. Whitebark pine seeds, which ounce for ounce provide more calories than chocolate were likely an irreplaceable food source, not least because they were extraordinarily safe to eat. There are few humans in the remote whitebark stands of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and therefore to feed in whitebark country is to dine in peace.
At the limits of its range, near tree line in the Nothern Rockies, the whitebark is stunted, gnarled, wind-bent, and resembles elegantly crafted bonsai. At lower elevations, with less attrition from the elements, it rises to some sixty feet. Most conifers are conical, but the whitebark is rounded, with a spreading shape and wide crown common to deciduous trees, which gives the whitebark forest a welcoming lushness, a sense that here is shade and green comfort. The whitebark is the only stone pine in North America—there are four other species, endemic in Eurasia—and like all stone pines it is slow-growing, long-lived, sometimes surviving more than a thousand years. The needles, thickly bunched in groups of five, catch the wind and whisper in a manner different from other pines. (I’ve noticed that every species of pine has its own music.) Within the needles you will find pink cones hard as stones that remain closed unless a direct brute forces comes along to open them. Most other pines in North America open their cones freely for their seeds to be blown on the wind. But not the whitebark.
Aesthetic appreciation of whitebark is in no small part informed by an intellectual appreciation of its formidable age and of the places where it grows, in the wildest, most rugged, most remote heights, in the most inhospitable environments, in the least expected places, where for centuries it has been bashed with snow and ice and wind and occasionally struck by lightning and swept by wildfire. This appreciation grows with the understanding that every stone pine coevolved with a specific bird whose beak has the necessary strength to open the cones. The tree and the bird are symbiotic, obligate mutualists. In the case of Pinus albicaulis, its obligate mutualist is the Clark’s nutcracker, Nucifraga columbiana, a clever jay with a grating metalic call and a daggerlike bill that flits in the highest branches of the tree where the cones bud. This easy access to cones at the terminal reach of a whitebark is probably an adaptation specific to its relationship with the bird. Clark’s nutcrackers, unable to accomplish transoceanic flights, carried the seeds over the Beringian land bridge and moved them southward across North America, to the limits of the whitebark pine range today in the Northern Rockies. Humans, grizzlies, and whitebark: their story on this continent started together in the Pleistocene.
On a typical day in whitebark country the nutcracker races among the crowns of the ancient trees, calling kraa-kraa, stabbing away at the bright pink cones, busting open the fat-rich treasure inside, filling with seeds the pouch under its tongue. It caches the seeds by the thousands in soil across the forest. The seeds it doesn’t remember to retrieve—and its memory is so exceptional that it retrieves most of the caches—germinate. Thus a whitebark pine forest is born from the singularly random accident of the bird’s forgetting. Since nutcrackers are high-elevation birds that prefer open spaces for their caches, the seeds almost always germinate in the coldest, rockiest places. The whitebark pine, via the Clark’s nutcracker, is a colonizer, tree island initiator, and thereafter nurse tree for other species to populate the understory. The whitebark, like the sagebrush and like the cryptobiotic soil of the desert, holds in place the land, stabilizes soil, prevents erosion. It captures snow that its broad canopy keeps shaded into the early months of summer, meeting out the flow of melt.
So there is a perfect system of balance. Into it is added a chattering scrambling manic rodent, the red squirrel, whose survival in the high country also depends on the seeds of the whitebark pine. Red squirrels knock the cones from the trees, and bust them open with minute claws and gnawing teeth, but the cones they don’t immediately eat they hoard for winter. Behind the red squirrel comes the grizzly. The bears listen for the chatter of the squirrels, chatter they have learned to interpret to find the locations of the hoarded food. The bears strike at their leisure, raiding the cone treasure, gorging on the seed fat. You can imagine the ridiculous protests of the squirrels, their laughable leaping about, though in a healthy whitebark biome there is enough food for all. It is a system of interdependency: a tree connected to a bird to a squirrel to a bear.”
That balance is no more. With climate change, the whitebark pine is dying: the bark beetles are killing the trees.
“The beetles kill by cutting off the circulation system of the tree, starving it of nutrients and water, and once embedded in a whitebark they can snuff it in less than a month. The beetles produce an antifreeze to survive winter cold. Above eight thousand feet in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem the climate in the past produced day after day of temperatures thirty to forty below zero Fahrenheit, sustained cold that killed the beetles. Those winters of deep freeze are no more. It’s remarkable today if the high country of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has sustained periods of ten to twenty degrees below zero. The future is a dying conifer biome across the high country of the Northern Rockies.
The needles of the dying whitebark had turned rust red. Other trees, long gone, were death spires, pale white, their branches shed. It is a ghost forest, a silent forest where the nutcrackers do not call, and the squirrels do not chatter. We walked deeper into the ghost forest, snow fell steadily, and I lagged behind. I was looking at the dead trees, thinking of the complex interaction of forces and agents that killed them.
It’s not so complex, I told myself. It’s godforsakenly simple. The industrial system is what killed the whitebarks—the system that with no end in sight warms the atmosphere, the system in which we are all implicated and which has made vile coddled dependents of generation after generation born into it with no idea of an alternative.”
This Land is the story of how we are indeed ruining the American West, and the world, with our belief that we “own” nature, that nature consists of “resources” to be exploited. It is a sordid, horrific, page-turner of a tale, a tale of the beauty and incomprehensible complexity of the natural world and our inability to control our worst impulses to use and abuse this world until there is nothing left but dust.
I have learned more about the amazing nature of the American West, and how we are failing to appreciate it from this book than I ever imagined I would. The stories of corruption and cruelty, I wish I didn’t have to know. And I am inspired by and so grateful for the heroic acts of the activists who are fighting to save this incredible land.
Everyone should read this book. Everyone.
Illustration by Misaki Ouchida.