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Jim Rineholt Interview

Jim RineholtJim Rineholt is a forester with the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. For the past decade he and the Forest Service have been dealing with the pine beetle infestation that has devastated the lodgepole pine forests of the West. Bruce Reichert conducted this interview in the summer of 2012.

What exactly have you been doing in response to the pine beetle infestation?
As trees die, we have to eventually remove them or else they'll become hazardous trees. So that has entailed quite a bit of my work here recently. And we've also had to replant trees in some of the camp grounds. We've actually restored some of the areas by adding new paths and trails to keep people on trail, so they don't trample everywhere. And because of that, trees have been able to really take root and are growing quite successfully.

And so in some camp grounds we're actually going back in and thinning, because they are becoming so thick and dense, which is typical of lodgepole pine. So we're trying to think ahead and keep those trees healthy so they are less susceptible to mountain pine beetle attacks as they get older.

"What we're seeing is pretty unprecedented. I always say, it's a bad time to be a tree right now with climate change."The Sawtooth NRA is essentially lodgpole pine, right?
Yeah, lodgepole pine likes to grow in the higher elevations. It is tolerant to cold; it can withstand frost pockets, whereas other tree species can't; and it can grow in gravelly soils. In fact, if you even close off an old road, they'll come right back in; so they're a pretty hearty tree species. And they also do not last very long, because either mountain pine beetles or fire usually will take them out. But they do need those disturbances so they can regenerate, which is part of the ecology of lodgepole pine. So as long as there have been lodgepole pine, we've had mountain pine beetles.

Lodgepole pine will grow up to 200 years old when it reaches maturity, but in most parts of the forest here, they are either between 80 to 120 years and that seems to be about as long as they'll grow. And it's either fire has gone through or else mountain pine beetles have taken them out.

How does a mountain pine beetle do its dirty work?
Mountain pine beetle is a native insect, and what happens is that usually the female beetles will initiate the attack. They are looking for a suitable host tree to enter, to mate and to lay eggs for the next generation. And bark beetles communicate through pheromones, and so when a suitable host tree is found, hundreds upon hundreds of other bark beetles enter that tree with what we call a mass attack. Normally, if trees are healthy, they have a lot of water resins or sap. As the bark beetles drill into the tree, the sap will start to stream out, and they'll try to push those beetles out; but if the tree is just so overwhelmed by the number of hundreds and hundreds of bark beetles, then the defense mechanism just becomes overwhelmed, and the tree will eventually die.

So the bark beetles will lay their eggs and the larvae will hatch. They feed crossways just underneath the inner bark, in what we call the phloem, which disrupts the food from the needles to the roots. The bark beetles actually spend most of their life cycle in underneath the bark of the tree. And then they'll merge again the following summer — usually about the first of July — and they'll emerge and look for new trees to attack and continue the cycle.

Dead trees near Little Redfish LakeWhen the mountain pine beetle reaches epidemic levels like we've had, then even healthy trees can be attacked; whereas, normally in low levels where there are not too many bark beetles, the trees will be able to usually survive and pitch them out. And sometimes they will be successful underneath the bark; they will only go maybe 2 or 3 inches before they eventually just run out of steam and die from all the sap and the water.

But once a tree is successfully attacked, there's nothing you can do?
That's correct. Once a tree is successfully attacked, there is really nothing that can be done at that point. They carry a blue stained fungus which actually starts growing into the wood pores and clogs the xylem tissue or the wood pores, the water conducting cells, and so that just kind of seals the fate of the tree. Sometimes a tree will only get attacked on maybe one side, maybe the north or east side where it's cool, and so a lot of times we have what we call strip attacks; and the tree will normally survive; but then usually that bark is stripped off from woodpeckers going in after the bark beetles and the larvae.

Just about every western state has been impacted by the mountain pine beetles, and Canada too. So what we're seeing is pretty unprecedented. I always say, it's a bad time to be a tree right now with climate change. it just enabled them to really explode in population, especially in the higher elevations and our white bark pine eco-systems. It usually takes about 2 years for them to produce the next brood, but because of the longer, hotter summers, they've been able to do that in one year.

So the populations up in the higher elevations have actually been able to really explode, so we've seen quite a bit of mortality in the white bark pine, which is considered a sensitive species to wildlife. Some of those trees were up to 800 to 1000 years old. So it is alarming to see those trees just in one summer be taken out. We've started collecting cones, and we're growing new seedlings now in the nurseries; and for the first time we actually went up and planted some seedlings up at the head of 4th of July Creek where we had a large burn up there in 2005. And we're going to be repeating those efforts to try to restore that eco-system.

Explain the pheromone patches and how they work.
When the bark beetles attack a tree, they don't want to eat themselves out of house and home; so the pheromone changes to a basically "no vacancy" signal; so any new beetles that are coming in fly by that tree and will continue on. So we've been pouching where we can, putting up these little pheromone patches on the trees up in the high elevations and some critical habitat areas.

Pine beetles infesting a treeIsn't it tricky to thin lodgepole pine?
You can thin lodge pole pine, but you have to do it very, very lightly. You can't break up the canopy too much because they will eventually be susceptible to wind throw, but if you thin them at a young age and they are able to establish fuller crowns, bigger root systems, then through time they will look good. But you have to do that at a young age. To do it when they are mature is a little bit more difficult.

Does the public understand the need to thin lodgepole pine before a wildfire takes them out?
What I've learned during this infestation and working with the public is that a lot of folks just think the forest should stay the same. But there are changes happening. There are insects and disease out there; trees grow up, trees die. But then when it happens all at once, like we experienced early 2000, then that is quite alarming to the public.

It's always dynamic, always changing, and the big thing with infestation is that it just happens at once, and that's what became very upsetting to the public. And then they realize that, hey, maybe I do need to cut some trees for defensible space, because it is getting harder and harder to fight fires. And they're more intense than we've ever seen before.