Elusive Summit County ponderosa pine bears fruit after 10 years to help secure its survival
September 17, 2017
An environmental enigma in Keystone at least a decade in the making was finally cracked this past week, and the unpredictable event could have ramifications for generations to come.
The ponderosa pine features prominently across the Western United States, but within Summit County is a bit of an arboreal marvel. The thick, orange-barked conifer that's been called "a Clint Eastwood of a tree" due to its lean, rugged appearance is hidden in plain sight, and a singular patch is nearly all that remains of the mysterious foliage in the Dillon Ranger District.
Actually locating the slender evergreen locally, however, requires finding a pine needle in a tree stack of its cousin — the omnipresent lodgepole. But in spite of environmental challenges, sustain the tree has, even if its lone site of any significance in the area only makes up about 10 acres near the county landfill.
"It's maybe 100-to-120 trees total, so it's pretty small," said Sarah Pearson, the reforestation guru of the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest. "In terms of forest, that's nothing. And in fact, looking at the imagery, it's hardly considered a forested stand."
Which is why the 30-year timber improvement specialist — 22 of them here in the region's national forest — has been eagerly watching the diminutive tree collective for years with some optimism. The hope was that it would finally bear fruit in the form of a quality pine cone crop and she could help aid its long-term survival should a catastrophic incident like a large-scale wildfire ever strike the last group of holdouts.
Fifteen years since the previous harvest, the county's final ponderosas on public lands at long last complied and rewarded the patience with 16 bushels of cones. The consenting act will now ensure the tree's prolonged existence.
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"I think I've been trying to collect cones there for 10 years," said Pearson. "This is why it was kind of a big deal for me. You always have to kind of pay attention and take advantage of all the opportunities that you get."
Due to U.S. Forest Service constraints, transferring seeds from one zone or wilderness district to another is forbidden, so mining what's already there is one of the few options to eventually restore a species. The largest quantity of ponderosa in the White River, between 200 and 300 acres, lives in the neighboring Eagle District north of Dotsero, for instance, but because those trees are at a lower altitude they are not fully adapted to survive in Summit County.
The experts say maintaining a mixed forest is key to safeguarding against total loss if either an ailment or hungry insect rolls through town with a particular craving. It makes the ecosystem more resilient, especially for the limited variety within the Dillon District, and in the specific case of the ponderosa it has the added benefit of being both fairly drought- and fire-resistant.
"In the arid, high-elevation mountain, we have less species to begin with that can live here," explained Bill Jackson, ranger for the Dillon District. "So we're already starting at a lower diversity level compared to the Northeast, Southeast or Southwest. That's why this pocket of ponderosa is pretty important, and if we can help it along it allows us to maintain that diversity."
To do that, though, seed must first be obtained and sent off for processing, seedling production and seed bank storage at the federal agency's tree nursery in Nebraska. And before the fortuitous collection last week, the previous ponderosa seed from the area stemmed from the 1960s and was fully exhausted during prior replanting efforts at two forest campgrounds in the district.
Why the ponderosa pine has struggled so mightily in the area is somewhat puzzling as well. The tree tends to thrive in hot, drier climates and can grow at elevations approaching 10,000 feet.
That it's also seemingly taken to the one site in Keystone is equally curious. Anecdotally, forest staff theorizes that the Tenderfoot Mountain area is often the first to dry out on the county's north end each year from the amount of direct sunlight.
"I call it 'The banana belt of Summit County,'" said Jackson. "It just seems hotter and sunnier right there in Dillon, though it is pretty bizarre. But it's probably one of the reasons why they're still there — the habitat is good for it."
Extracting the seeds and yielding starter trees for eventual reforestation activities takes two years unto itself, and Pearson isn't sure yet when she'll file the formal request. Once ready though, selecting where to plant the trees to give them their best chance at success is the next decision — one that also comes with consequential implications because, again, it's unclear the next time the mature trees will offer another chance to stockpile more cones.
"Everyone wants to know, 'What are you going to do with it?'" she said. "It's hard to say, but the big thing is just to have it, and we should have seed for another 10-to-20 years now, at least. But when you get something good, you have to take advantage of it because theoretically you may not have another chance for eight (to 10) years."