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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

'Ponderosa' Explores The Evolving Understanding Of Montana's State Tree

A new book about ponderosa pine trees, written by a pair of Montana forest researchers, offers insight into past mistakes and current policies.

If you’ve spent any time outside in the western U.S., you’ve probably seen a ponderosa pine. It’s the tree with bark that looks like puzzle pieces.

Logging and fire suppression practices during the 20th century devastated ponderosa pine forests. But, now, thanks partly to the work of educators and researchers like Carl Fiedler and Stephen Arno, the book’s authors, things are changing.

"I think there’s a better understanding of forest ecology, far better now, among foresters, than there was when my career started in the woods in the 1960s," Arno says.

Arno is a former research forester with the USDA Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula.

"And then also there’s much more national appreciation of the importance of sustainable forests," according to Arno. "Because without the public backing, good forest management—which costs more than just going in and plucking out the best trees and leaving the rest—it doesn’t matter whether it’s public or private lands, there’s some economic sacrifice in doing the right thing in the forest."

Arno and Fiedler’s book is titled Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West’s Most Iconic Tree. The book explains why the low-intensity fires that used to burn through ponderosa pine forests were important and how things have changed.

"We can trace this pattern of fire back more than two thousand years, based on tree ring records from giant sequoia, which occur with ponderosa pine in the forest in California," Arno says. "And our ponderosa pines here, on the pitch stumps and even some living trees, record fires back to the late 1400s. And most of these ponderosa pine forests experienced fire at intervals of somewhere between five and 30 years. And this swept the forest floor clean and killed a lot of the small trees, and particularly the firs that compete with ponderosa pine. And so there wasn’t a lot of fuel accumulated. Therefore when fires occurred, for the most part, they were just on the ground with pretty low flames. Unfortunately, then when foresters decided to put all fires out, it was pretty easy to put those kinds of fires out."

Fiedler, retired University of Montana research professor of forest management, says fire suppression created a different type of forest across the West. And these new forests are now at risk for mega wildfires.

The area burned by wildfires in the West decreased from the 1930s until 1982 because of fire suppression, but then large fires became fairly common.
Credit Courtesy Charles McHugh, U.S. Forest Service
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The area burned by wildfires in the West decreased from the 1930s until 1982 because of fire suppression, but then large fires became fairly common.

"Historically, ponderosa pines were sort of a source of life for Native Americans, in terms of heat, shelter, and food. And also to the early settlers and explorers," Fiedler explains. "And what’s the ironic thing is that today, those very forests are threatening the people who live in them, because of fire. This forest is indeed a different forest, a fundamentally different forest. And it’s not sustainable. And so if we’re looking for true, long-term sustainability, we as a society will need to address the current problems. Because if we do not, we’ll continue to see the kinds of fires we’ve been seeing in the southwest in the last decade or two, and more will likely come here to the Northwest."

Although "Ponderosa" tells the story of how humans changed the forests, the book is also a tribute to the tree Fiedler and Arno spent much their careers studying.

"Ponderosa pine is really a special tree, even in a world-wide viewpoint," Arno says. "Most environments that are as droughty as where ponderosa pine grows, the soils often are just largely rock. In other parts of the world these conditions usually produce some kind of a brushland, like chaparral, or juniper, or even small contorted pines. But ponderosa stands out as a great exception because even under these horrible conditions it’s capable of producing a beautiful, big tree and that lives several hundred years, given some care so it has room to grow and prosper."

Fiedler says ponderosa pines can live long and prosper, given the opportunity.

"The oldest living ponderosa pine is in the Wah Wah Mountains in southern Utah. It’s 950 years old. Closer to home, in 1926 a large ponderosa pine was cut near Arlee that was aged at 1,100 years."

Chérie Newman is an arts and humanities producer and on-air host for Montana Public Radio, and a freelance writer. Her weekly literary program, The Write Question, is broadcast on several public radio stations, and available online at PRX.org and MTPR.org.