Community Agriculture Alliance: Lodgepole pine, a story of resilience
Sometimes it seems that lodgepole pine doesn’t get the respect it deserves. In the wake of the recent mountain pine beetle epidemic, some people question whether it’s a good thing to plant lodgepole seedlings on their property. “Won’t the beetles just get them?” they ask.
Others question its value as lumber, since they have become accustomed to paying loggers to harvest them, and “Isn’t climate change going to make them extinct around here, anyway?”
Let’s take a deeper look at this remarkable and resilient tree that is such an integral part of our local forests, and in the process, let’s attempt to address some of these concerns.
Lodgepole pine forests cover more than 1.5 million acres in Colorado, or approximately 7 percent of the state’s forested lands — that is roughly the same percentage in Routt County of pure lodgepole, about 72,000 acres.
They can grow between 6,000 and 11,000 feet in elevation but tend to grow best between 8,000 and 10,000 feet.
The common name of “lodgepole pine” derives from, logically enough, the use of this species by Native Americans in tipis. The scientific name of our local lodgepole pine is Pinus contorta var latifolia Doug.
There are four varieties of lodgepole recognized by scientists. The variety on the California coast has a very twisted form, and it was this twisted form that David Douglas, a famous Scottish botanist, was thinking of when he gave the species name “contorta.”
The mountain pine beetle epidemic appeared devastating to us, but our lodgepole forests have evolved around the beetle and around other environmental disturbances like wind and fire.
Lodgepole pine is considered a “fire dependent” species, meaning it actually requires fire to compete effectively on the landscape with other tree species. Its bark is relatively thin, and the tree contains various chemicals, such as turpins, that burn very well, even when the tree is alive and green.
Fires in lodgepole tend to be big and hot, killing whole stands of trees at once. But lodgepole pine produce serotinous cones, and these special cones have a waxy substance that seals the seeds within, releasing them only when the cone is heated by fire or by the heat of the ground on a very hot and sunny day. The seeds left behind the fire can produce as many as 20,000 seedlings per acre.
The young lodgepole pine grows quickly — as much as a foot per year for the first 20 years of life, making it our fastest-growing native conifer.
Lodgepole pine is a strong wood and often is used in the manufacture of structural studs and two-by-fours. It makes attractive paneling and trim, and a market has developed around the use of the blue-stained beetle-killed wood. The standing dead trees have held up remarkably well and still are being harvested and used for these products.
Climate change and its effects on our local lodgepole forests are difficult to predict. The lodgepole forest historically has rebounded from insects and fire, and our local forests appear to be doing the same right now. There is a surprising amount of green mature lodgepole still growing among the dead stems, and young lodgepole seedlings are sprouting and growing in the areas recently harvested.
It is likewise difficult to predict if a beetle epidemic as severe as the one we just experienced will occur again. So, if you are thinking of planting a tree that has adapted to local conditions during the past 10,000 years, grows fast and makes a strong and usable wood, lodgepole pine still is a good bet.
John Twitchell is a district forester with Colorado State Forest Service in Steamboat Springs.
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