Fight Club: A Ragtag Crew Races to Save Disappearing Trees

Backcountry activists in the Mountain West defend the whitebark pine against climate change and beetle attacks.

43˚ 47’ 31” N, 110˚ 08’ 11” W This is a tree that David Gonzales calls “the Fighter.” It’s rooted in the loamy soil of a high mountain pass in western Wyoming, poised at the edge of a clearing beneath a sheer volcanic scarp that locals call the Breccia Cliffs. In the summer, downy gray Clark’s nutcrackershop purposefully among its branches. Elk bed down beneath it in the fall. Come winter, the frozen footprints of foxes and ermine speckle the snowfall around its trunk. But unlike these animals, the flitty faux-jays and the migrating elk, the Fighter itself is stoic, unmoving. Archimedean, even. Its position on this earth is fixed.

The Fighter is a whitebark pine, a high-elevation species of five-needle conifer that’s mostly known these days for the trouble it’s in. Throughout the northern Rockies, entire forests of whitebark are being wiped out by a pair of complementary afflictions: white pine blister rust, an invasive fungal disease that causes branches to swell with cankers, and the mountain pine beetle, a largely low-elevation pest that’s increasingly “moved up” to infest subalpine trees, thanks to steadily warming temperatures. Needles on a dying whitebark turn red at first, then fall off, leaving behind only a bare tangle of branches. The Fighter is the last green tree from a grove of a few hundred, standing at the head of its now-gray phalanx like a general before a column of ghost soldiers. This is why David Gonzales gave the Fighter its name.

43˚ 28’ 51” N, 110˚ 45’ 50” W This is the hippie cafe in Jackson where I met Gonzales some months ago. On a Sunday morning in July the tables were filled with toned thirty-somethings munching gluten-free pancakes. Gonzales sat at a patio table with his ever-present collie mix, Pepi. We’d barely shaken hands before the other volunteers started showing up, a motley and Patagonia-clad crew donating their day off to the nonprofit startup that Gonzales calls TreeFight.

Gonzales’s position on this earth is also fixed, relatively speaking. After three decades migrating around Texas and the Southwest—first as an adolescent, then as a cub reporter for the Dallas Morning News—he settled in Jackson in 1998, and the adjacent Tetons got into his blood. A gonzo skier and backcountry junkie, Gonzales clicked into Jackson Hole like a boot into bindings, and he has no intention of leaving. At 45, he’s broad and scruffy, fond of the kind of rumpled performance apparel that makes everyone in Jackson look like they just came in from backpacking. Professionally, he’s your quintessential mountain-town jack-of-all-trades: author of a popular coffee-table book on the region, a successful ski photographer, a filmmaker who has won awards for his documentary shorts.

The idea of running an environmental nonprofit never occurred to Gonzales until the fall of 2009, when a friend introduced him to GIS specialist and whitebark advocate Wally Macfarlane. As a skier, Gonzales was vaguely aware of the tree’s plight. He’d noticed the burnt-red splotches staining the canopy while riding the tram at Jackson Hole Mountain. Macfarlane, meanwhile, had just completed an aerial survey of whitebark damage in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), working with retired Forest Service entomologist and renowned pine-beetle authority Jesse Logan. The project, cosponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Defense Council, raised eyebrows in Yellowstone management and conservation circles by suggesting that as much as 85 percent of all whitebark stands in the GYE had already suffered moderate to massive beetle kills—more than anyone had imagined. Gonzales was soon skiing into remote whitebark territory with Macfarlane and Logan, learning how climate change had prompted the infestation and wondering what could be done. “We were just saying, we’re not going to throw up our hands and give up,” he recalls. “We’re going to try and do something, even if that means putting Band-Aids on trees.”

TreeFight launched the following summer, after a friend in the National Park Service introduced Gonzales to a synthesized pheromone called verbenone. A nontoxic repellent popular with commercial foresters, verbenone mimics the scent that pine beetles emit to warn their brethren away from already-occupied trees. Ecologists in Grand Teton National Park had been tagging stands with verbenone packets for years, stapling them to individual trees with high cone production and rust-resistance, hoping to keep beetles away from the highest-value trees. Inspired, Gonzales arranged a partnership with the Forest Service to tag and monitor strategically selected stands in the surrounding Bridger-Teton National Forest. So in June of 2010, after some fundraising and a credit-card purchase of 700 verbenone packets, Gonzales led the first in a series of TreeFight “missions,” heading into the high, wild backcountry around Jackson Hole.

Which is what we were heading out to do that crisp July morning. At the cafe, Gonzales gave a half-dozen volunteers a quick tutorial on how to staple a packet, photograph the tree, and record its GPS coordinates. Although our troop was on the small side, TreeFight leads rotating groups of volunteers on about a dozen missions each summer, sometimes taking out teams of 20 or more. These missions, it turns out, play to the strengths of Gonzales’s natural peer group, the kind of folks who are happy to spend a day bushwhacking uphill through grizzly country with a backpack full of gear. Among the crew of outdoor badasses gathered at the hippie cafe was pro skier and cover girl Lynsey Dyer, an outspoken cheerleader for TreeFight who has lent some rock-star cred to the fight to save the whitebark. Another was a wide-eyed second grader tagging along with his dad. Gonzales is quick to point out that today’s second graders will bear the brunt of climate change as adults. On the way to the trailhead, I asked whether he thought the little guy could handle the rigors of TreeFighting. “I hope so,” he said. “He’s my ideal audience.”

39˚ 43’ 01” N, 105˚ 07’ 54” W This is the boxy regional headquarters of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver, where officials announced in the summer of 2011 that whitebark pine deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act. The species was formally declared “warranted, but precluded,” an increasingly popular designation that basically puts whitebark on a waiting list for full protection and a recovery plan, awaiting the day when the agency can afford it. The decision did give the whitebark’s plight a certain PR boost, however, and it mandates an annual assessment of the species’ status. This past January two Montana-based conservation groups filed a lawsuit in federal court to force Fish and Wildlife to bypass this waiting list. Barring a dismissal or a surprise change of policy from the agency, the court will consider the case later this year.

Until then, the whitebark enjoys Fish and Wildlife’s second-highest priority, reserved for threats that are “imminent and of high magnitude.” Among the reasons for this: the importance of whitebark pine nuts to pre-hibernation grizzly bears. In fall grizzlies in the GYE will gorge on troves of the high-fat seeds, hidden by squirrels in cone caches called middens. In excellent cone years before the current beetle infestation broke out in the 1990s, whitebark seeds could account for an astonishing 97 percent of the annual nourishment of any given grizzly in Yellowstone National Park. When cone counts are down, fewer bears occupy the high country during their hungry season, leading to more human–bear dustups, which are potentially fatal for both sides.

Whitebark seeds are also a favorite snack of the Clark’s nutcracker, an ash-colored corvid whose needlenose beak evolved for the very purpose of prying open the pine’s stubborn cones. The tree and bird are mutualists, with whitebark almost totally dependent on the nutcracker’s food-storage habits for its seed dispersal. The birds, for their part, eat seeds from several different pine species, thriving even at lower elevations and in whitebark-free parts of the West. But early research suggests that the whitebark’s collapse in the GYE may still have a profound impact on nutcracker populations. Taza Schaming, a doctoral researcher from Cornell University, has collected preliminary data suggesting that Clark’s nutcrackers, like some other corvid species, may not breed in years following notably poor cone production. An indefinite stretch of bad cone years, then, could spell trouble for nutcracker numbers, and because the birds essentially plant each new generation of trees, this would all but doom any potential whitebark rebound.

The Fish and Wildlife Service report also describes how beetles and blister rust manage to kill trees, destroying rings of bark around the trunk and branches, preventing the flow of nutrients and water. Prominently featured is this breezy line: “Currently, there is no known way to stop whitebark pine mortality caused by white pine blister rust and mountain pine beetle.” But wait a minute—what about all those packets of verbenone?

43˚ 47’ 11” N, 110˚ 08’ 03” W This is the trailhead for our TreeFight mission up Togwotee Pass, in the shadow of the Breccia Cliffs. As we hit the trail that morning, Gonzales confided in me verbenone’s dirty little secret. “My line about it,” he said, “is that verbenone might actually be better at attracting people to trees than it is at repelling beetles.”

And herein lies the real motivation behind TreeFight. Verbenone is indeed largely unproven. Among its critics is beetle guru Logan, who argues that there’s not enough data showing that trees tagged with the chemical fare any better than trees without. “I think in the long term it doesn’t make a bit of difference,” Logan says. He’s one of several biologists who have already declared whitebark functionally lost in significant portions of the GYE. In the best of scenarios, verbenone may postpone the inevitable infestation of a few trees—maybe long enough for a cold snap to curtail the beetle population, or to buy time while the Forest Service plants a few stands of nursery-bred, rust-resistant saplings. In the worst-case scenario, it may be doing nothing at all.

Gonzales is well aware of this, and it’s why he sees verbenone as simply a means to an end, one front in a much larger campaign. In the years since TreeFight’s founding, the group has expanded its focus well beyond verbenone-tagging. Last year TreeFighters trekked into the backcountry on a series of replanting missions, seeding one thousand whitebarks and planting two thousand new seedlings on Forest Service lands around Jackson Hole. They also partnered with ornithologist Schaming, leading troops of volunteers and students into the woods to help collect bird-call data for a population survey of Clark’s nutcrackers.

If this last task sounds a bit Sisyphean—asking gaggles of middle-school kids to sit quietly in the woods for hours at a time—think of it as a metaphor for the whole of TreeFight’s efforts. Because, as Gonzales freely admits, all of these missions are Band-Aids—the verbenone, the replanting, the nutcracker studies, all of it. Ultimately, the only sure steps to prevent the pine beetle’s climate-driven advance are those that reduce carbon emissions. This is why, as far as Gonzales is concerned, “TreeFight’s greatest value is bringing back evidence from these forests that our world is changing way more quickly than most people think.” In other words, what he and his TreeFighters really want is nothing less than to turn whitebark pine into a national cause célèbre for climate change.

To that end, the group is fanatically dedicated to churning out and disseminating new media. As we hiked to our targeted stand, passing the Fighter on our way, I could barely stop to pee without another TreeFighter rolling HD digital video of it. After TreeFight’s first year, Gonzales produced a 20-minute documentary called Seeing Red. It showed at Telluride’s popular Mountainfilm fest, then toured 52 cities in the Backcountry Film Festival, winning best environmental film and showing to more than 5,000 people. A second film is in the works. TreeFight also has plans for an app that would let backcountry recreationists help tag and monitor trees, sans verbenone—a sort of Facebook for foliage, where users can keep tabs on their favorite trees’ health while showing off their photography skills. Last year the group armed schoolkids with smartphones and cameras and marched them into the woods to shoot geo-tagged “TreeArt,” then made screen prints for display at a local arts festival. Needless to say, Gonzales and crew are social-media–savvy to the max, with tens of thousands of followers on social networks you haven’t even heard of yet, like Pheed.

“David understands these new media ways of communication—he’s wired into ways to communicate with the generation that matters,” says Logan, who, along with Macfarlane, serves as an adviser to TreeFight. “He’s coming up with really innovative ideas beyond stapling verbenone packets to get people involved and maybe impress on them that what we’re doing is really driving this problem.” At the heart of all this is the provocative notion that a gnarly little high-altitude tree can step up to become the next whale or polar bear. But if Gonzales is ignoring traditional eco-wisdom that cuddly megafauna make the best environmental spokesmen, he has a simple reason for doing so. “Trees can’t move,” he explains flatly. “They can’t migrate with the seasons or climb higher to adapt to warming temperatures. And because of this, they’re the most effective temperature gauge on the planet.”

Shortly after noon, the TreeFighters and I reached a ridge crowded with still-verdant whitebark. We fanned out in pairs, with Pepi scrambling happily from group to group. It’s a charismatic tree, you have to admit. Unmolested, a single pine can live a thousand years, and some older specimens have a sculptural, almost Seussian quality to them. Methodically, we started stapling the first of several dozen citronella-smelling packets, posing after each for a high-resolution, geo-tagged photo.

43˚ 52’ 39” N, 110˚ 34’ 39” W This is the rustic-posh Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park. A few months after our mission up Togwotee Pass, I went there to watch Gonzales give a presentation at Jackson Hole’s inaugural TEDx Conference. He was endearingly terrified throughout, but he managed to hit the highlights, and a short clip from Seeing Red drew an audible chorus of whoas from the crowd. Naturally soft-spoken, Gonzales is slowly embracing the role of public speaker. He has since presented at the estimable Yale School of Forestry and hopes to bring TreeFight’s message to new audiences this summer and beyond.

Later, over a post-conference beer, Gonzales acknowledged another advantage of a tree’s essential fixedness. It allows us, he said, to form relationships with it that we simply can’t with an otter or a giant panda. The comment reminded me of a quote from the Viennese philosopher Martin Buber: “[A]s I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation,” Buber writes, “and the tree ceases to be an It.” That kind of relationship is what turned Gonzales from a ski-bum auteur into an activist, and he’s betting it can do the same for others. In the end, TreeFight’s mission has less to do with fighting than with conversion: helping whitebark cease to be an It before whitebark ceases to be.

This story originally ran as “Fight Club” in the May-June 2013 issue of Audubon magazine.