Fire and the forests: Retired foresters’ book discusses role of ponderosa pine in the West

Retired forest ecologists Carl Fiedler and Steve Arno have recently released a book entitled, "Ponderosa: People, Fire and the West's Most Iconic Tree." The men recently talked about their project on the private forest lands that Arno's family has been nurturing for decades in an effort to the restore the natural, park-like condition to the ponderosa pine stand.

“Our road has been nearly the whole day through the woods, that is, if beautiful groves of (ponderosa) pine trees can be called woods. … The country all through is burnt over, so often there is not the least underbrush, but the grass grows thick and beautiful.”

– Rebecca Ketchum, 1853, on the Oregon Trail

FLORENCE – In the Bitterroot Valley, it would be hard to find a piece of private land more fitting to talk about ponderosa pine.

And beyond that, it would certainly be nearly impossible to find two men more well versed in the role the iconic tree has played through the centuries and the challenges its forests face today.

Sitting in lawn chairs – fittingly in shade provided by a nearby towering ponderosa pine – retired forest ecology research scientists Steve Arno and Carl Fiedler are enthusiastically offering a constant stream of interesting information about the pine forest they both hold dear.

The two have authored the recently released “Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West’s Most Iconic Tree,” which chronicles the history, ecology and allure of the original ponderosa pine forest in the western reaches of North America.

The book also profiles the century-long transformation of the modern forest and the missteps humans have made along the way that has placed the beloved species in a space where it is vulnerable to insects and wildfire.

“Of all the forest types, the ponderosa pine is the most messed up,” Arno said. “It has missed the most fire cycles. … That has led to the current nightmarish situation of overgrown forests that are prone to huge wildfires.”

The shade the two enjoy is cast across the lawn at Arno’s home, just west of Florence.

Surrounding his house is a 60-acre forest of well-spaced, second-growth ponderosa pine that the research biologist’s family has been nurturing since 1973.

“When we moved here, you basically couldn’t see more than 50 yards,” Arno remembered. “It was so unbelievably thick.”

As they established their home, the family made the decision to restore the forest to its historic roots. With chainsaws, farm tractors and a great deal of sweat, they opened up the canopy to create a forest that featured an open grove of towering pines with enough smaller trees below to perpetuate it for centuries.

They had no way of knowing it back then, but they were pioneering restoration techniques that would soon be used across the West.

By the 1980s, forest ecologists, including Arno and Fiedler, had shown that a park-like ponderosa pine forest was what Native Americans had depended on for survival for centuries and one that first European pioneers would embrace.

The forest near Arno’s home also opened the doors for new understanding when the young scientist noticed that fresh stumps of old-growth trees being harvested on a neighboring property showed scars of repeated low-intensity surface fires that dated back to the early 1600s.

In the 1970s, that pattern of frequent, low-intensity fire was largely unknown. As a new Forest Service scientist, Arno would spend years studying the fire history in a variety of forest types.

“We learned that these big old trees were the result of frequent fire that kept the understory cleared and the fires of low intensity,” Arno said.

Years of fire suppression that allowed for understory to fill with young trees and brush led to huge, uncontrollable wildfires that started occurring with more frequency in the 1980s.

The researchers tell the story of the loss of the original ponderosa pine forests through heavy logging in the early days and subsequent fire suppression that transformed the wide open groves of large trees into a forest overgrown by small trees invaded by pine beetles and ravaged by fire.

They also delve deep into the potential restoration of the forest to its former glory.

“We’ve tried to make this an optimistic story and not one filled with doom and gloom,” Fiedler said. “We are cognizant and very concerned about the current condition of the pine forest in the West.”

Adapted to flourish for centuries in an arid climate with poor soils, the ponderosa pine is a marvel in nature.

“There is not another place in the world that has big stands of trees like these growing in the variety of climate and soils where ponderosa pine thrive,” Arno said. “We’ve come to recognize that people recreate and live in ponderosa pine forests more than any other forest type in the West. Ponderosa pine are at a lot of people’s doorstep.”

In 1908, schoolchildren in Helena voted to select the ponderosa pine as the state tree. Four decades later, the Montana Legislature made it official.

Well before then, Fiedler said Native Americans were singing the virtues of a tree that was important to them from its very top down to its roots.

From its wood, they crafted snowshoes, digging tools and cradle boards. Its needles provided cushion for sleeping and boiled down concoctions to treat various maladies. The inner bark and pine seeds provided food. Its roots yielded a blue dye. And the tree’s pitch offered waterproofing, a type of glue and torches to light the night.

For the first settlers in western Montana, the timber the huge ponderosa pine produced was the largest export crop for many years.

“Even today, the ponderosa pine is visually recognizable for those who venture into the forest,” Fielder said. “For many people, the ponderosa pine is their favorite tree.”

One of its allures is its ability to grow in places ranging from bare rock to grassy savanna to moist forestlands.

The final section of the researchers’ book profiles some of the memorable places they found unique trees and groves of ponderosa during their travels in every western state and British Columbia.

In Montana, they offer readings about eight different areas from Kramer Memorial Pine Grove not far from the Alta Ranger Station southwest of Darby to a notable stand in the Custer National Forest near Ekalaka, in the broken countryside of far southeastern Montana.

“We hope that people gain a better understanding of how the ponderosa pine has always been an integral part of the West,” Fiedler said. “It has always played an important role in the lives of the people who inhabit this place.”

The book is published by Missoula’s Mountain Press. It costs $20.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.