Skiers at Snowbowl might notice a new sign at the head of the Whitebark Pine Traverse this winter, one calling attention to the devastation of whitebark pine by blister rust and pine beetles. The sign marks not only the path to two new ski runs cut last year, but also a long-running Forest Service restoration project that inspired the traverse's name.
"This is a dual thing where not only are we trying to reestablish whitebark pine on ski areas, but we're also trying to inform the public of the plight of white bark pine so they know what they're skiing through," says Forest Service Research Ecologist Robert Keane.
Keane says he launched the project more than 10 years ago in response to a massive die-off in high elevation pine forests. Snowbowl was one of six sites he and fellow Forest Service researcher Russell Parsons identified in the mid-'90s to explore possible treatments for struggling whitebark. But Snowbowl differed from the other sites in its ability to serve as a public education platform. Restoration called for thinning of competitive subalpine fir, Keane says, which resulted in more runs and clearer tree skiing for Snowbowl's clientele.
"The runs were identified in our last master plan that was accepted by the Forest Service back in 1996," says Snowbowl co-owner Brad Morris. "Working together, we were able to get the runs in and get the study plots going."
While the sign may draw more public attention to the project this season, Keane says his work is not quite over. The last step necessitates a 40-acre prescribed burn on two stands of whitebark. For the past decade, weather and funding have prevented the Forest Service from conducting the burn.
"We were supposed to burn those two units this fall and the air quality shut us down," Keane says. "This was the first really good prescribed burning window we had, and we couldn't get it done. Three days later we had snow...It's been like that for the last 10 years."
If and when the burn does happen, Keane says he can begin expanding the restoration project to other ski areas in Montana. Right now, Discovery and Big Sky are at the top of his list.