The REPLANT Act would protect whitebark pine, a keystone high-elevation tree species
By Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests

Melissa Jenkins, formerly with the U.S. Forest Service, inspects a whitebark pine tree in Montana.

You might have seen the alarming news that disease and climate change have so decimated whitebark pine that this iconic tree species is now proposed for inclusion on the federal Threatened and Endangered Species list. We can save the whitebark pine. And we must. This should start with one big policy move: passing the bipartisan REPLANT Act to accelerate replanting of whitebark pine on America’s national forests.

To understand the urgency of this solution, we must first understand the problem. You see, the whitebark pine is like many trees. It has evolved over millennia to thrive on mountain summits across the Western United States, from the Rockies and Cascades down through the Sierra Nevada. These trees are hardy. They survive and thrive in poor soils and harsh conditions that most trees would never withstand.

The primary threat to the whitebark pine is an invasive pathogen called blister rust. In some of these areas more than 90 percent of whitebark pine are infected.

Now our rapidly warming climate is pushing the whitebark pine over the edge. Warmer weather in high mountain areas means less moisture, worsened outbreaks of the voracious mountain pine beetle and more wildfire. Add all these stresses together, and the survival of whitebark pine has reached a tipping point.

Given that roughly 70 percent of whitebark pine range falls within the National Forest System, the U.S. Forest Service has the lead role in saving this threatened tree. This begins with planting lots more whitebark pine each year to replace those that have been lost. Recent analysis shows that our national forests have 1.9 million acres of reforestation potential within the range of whitebark pine across the western states. That is enough to plant more than 500 million trees.

But capturing this potential is a challenge, because whitebark pine seedlings are expensive to produce, and the areas that need replanting are often remote. More funding is needed to lead the recovery effort.

The bipartisan REPLANT Act can help. This historic legislation would remove an outdated cap on the federal Reforestation Trust Fund, thereby quadrupling annual funding available to the U.S. Forest Service up to $120 million. That is enough to plant and naturally regenerate 120 million trees per year, including lots more whitebark pine.

In addition to planting more whitebark pine, it is imperative to replant specially cultivated seedlings that have natural resilience to blister rust and other forest health threats. This is accomplished by collecting seeds from resilient “survivor trees” and growing them into seedlings in nurseries.

Skilled tree climbers place cages around the cones of whitebark pines in the summer to prevent animals from eating the seeds. The seeds are collected a few months later and brought to tree nurseries.

Increased funding from the Reforestation Trust Fund can help here, too, because it also helps to support and expand federal nursery capacity. That means additional funding through the REPLANT Act can be used by the U.S. Forest Service to ramp up production of resilient whitebark pine seedlings.

We need these special trees. Whitebark pine provide a key food source for grizzly bear and other species that roam these mountains, because whitebark pine seeds have as much fat as a stick of butter. Whitebark pine also help to maintain snowpack, which is good for skiers and helps to regulate drinking water supplies that flow from these mountains. Whitebark pine are an ecological keystone.

Whitebark pine recovery can also fuel economic recovery from COVID-19. Every $1 million invested in reforestation can support as many as 39.7 jobs in rural communities throughout the whitebark pine range that urgently need them.

My organization, American Forests, has been working to protect whitebark pine since 1999, including hosting a National Whitebark Pine Summit in 2017. We have planted 700,000 whitebark pine in the United States and Canada — 40% of all whitebark pine plantings since 2006 — and have seen first-hand the potential to save this species by using science-based forestry practices. We are nearing completion of a science-based recovery plan, in partnership with the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation and U.S. Forest Service, to identify priority planting areas for the whole whitebark pine range. The groundwork is laid for recovery.

Leadership for whitebark pine is coming from all directions. This includes a new nursery for resilient seedlings developed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe, and leadership from the Bureau of Land Management to accelerate replanting and tree protection. Corporations including CLIF Bar, Salesforce and Eddie Bauer are providing private match funding for federal dollars, such as a project this year to plant 50,500 whitebark pine on the Custer-Gallatin National Forest.

Saving whitebark pine will save our summits, and help support economic recovery. When you consider the public benefits at stake and many diverse partners at the ready, it is clear whitebark pine recovery is the kind of initiative America needs to Build Back Better together. Let’s pass the REPLANT Act and get to work.

*All photos taken by Morgan Heim and Jenny Nichols for American Forests

American Forests inspires and advances the restoration of forests, which are essential to life.