If Methuselah was capable of memory, the nearly 5,000-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine would recount a different world. The tree first sprouted from arid ground at the tail end of the Stone Age. Few visitors posed any threat to the tree or its neighbors. Civilizations had just begun to transition from tools made of rock to those of metal. Sawmills and cranes and the felled forests to follow were millennia away.
Methuselah had started its life at an opportune time — and from a fortunate vantage point. With a view almost 10,000 feet above what would someday be called the Owens Valley — one of the eponymous basins that form the Basin and Range region — the tree would bear witness to the waves of humans who’d eventually crash into the country’s intermountain terrain, and all the ways the West would irrevocably change as a result.
The name Methuselah is biblical, taken from the son of Enoch who lived the longest life of anyone depicted in the Old Testament. But even at the described 969 years, that storied Methuselah couldn’t come close to outliving this tree. Great Basin bristlecone pines are the oldest living organisms on Earth. They are only found in the most parched pockets of California, Nevada and Utah, born of conditions considered uninhabitable for most other species.
Even when faced with abysmal amounts of water and carbon dioxide, the minimalists thrive. Harsh winds hurtling at 100 miles per hour shape them into gnarled knots of sun-bleached bark that could be mistaken for driftwood were they not still attached to their roots. That dense exterior doubles as a coat of armor resistant to pests and rot. Against almost all odds, they live.
One in six trees native to the contiguous United States faces extinction. This level of threat has been long overlooked.
Bristlecones are in good company in the West. OldList, a database kept by the nonprofit organization Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research, records a total of 65 ancient trees in the western United States. Many, like Methuselah, have stood for thousands of years. Sentries in the soil. Yet, none are immortal. Methuselah is currently listed as the oldest living tree, but up until some 60 years ago, it ranked second. In 1964, a geologist cut down Prometheus (another bristlecone, this one named for the Titan responsible for sharing fire with humans in Greek mythology) with permission from the United States Forest Service. Human error seems the most lethal force in the world.
Humanity’s relationship with trees is complicated. There’s reverence, with names inspired by holy texts and powerful gods. But there’s also negligence and plant blindness — a term coined by two botanists about 20 years ago that speaks to how desensitized humans have become toward members of the plant kingdom. What they are, what they’re called, what their purpose is, how they got here. But last August, the scientific journal Plant People Planet published the first comprehensive study of the country’s native trees. The results showed as many as one in six trees native to the contiguous United States face extinction. And that level of threat has been long overlooked.
Of the 881 known tree species native to the contiguous United States, nine are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. But this new research has found that more than 100 native species are currently threatened. While the scientific community is coming to terms with what humanity stands to lose in the years ahead, this is still news to many. “The world is going to greatly change over the next 100 years,” says Wesley Knapp, a botanist and co-author of the study. “It’s probably important we get reconnected to nature because we’re not apart from it. We are a part of it. And until we connect to that and we realize our decisions do make an impact in the world, we’re going to have a hard time.”
A closer look at what native trees can do for the West is long overdue. Though we might not like everything that we see.
There was once no choice but to care about trees. Before Europeans colonized the country and before American settlers pushed westward, trees dotted prairies and climbed mountainous faces in forests dense enough to put what we see today to shame. Spruce, pine, aspen, willow, juniper.
Elder women of the Ute Tribe in the Great Basin would ride up mountains on horseback to spend days peeling bark off of ponderosa pine trees. It could be pounded or boiled for its sap, which helped preserve meat and treat infections. It could be made into tea. It could be julienned, plucked, frayed or chopped into a textile used to weave baskets or build cradleboards for parents to carry their babies in. These trees were a cornerstone of life, and are remembered by the name of Utah’s Uinta National Forest, derived from the Ute word for pine.
Ute people seldom killed trees, only taking the amount of wood they needed. You can still find many pines with centuries-old scars standing in western mountain ranges today. Some marks stretch eight feet high; unmistakable reminders of how possible it is to take from the Earth without taking it apart.
In 1806, two years into Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s journey as the first white explorers to cross the Continental Divide and behold the West, the explorers saw some of these trees for themselves. Clark wrote in his journal that the team had traveled three miles up a mountain along Idaho’s Clearwater River on horseback. Up to 12 feet of snow obscured their paths.
There was no map for colonizers to follow — they were the ones tasked with creating one. The only waymarks to help Clark navigate were “the trees which had been peeled” by Indigenous people. The pines became their guides. Word of the region’s natural beauty and promise traveled quickly after Lewis and Clark returned to the East. It launched a new American dream: go west.
There was once no choice but to care about trees.
Sentiments changed once settlers actually went. The influx of people and resulting government policies devastated the Indigenous communities who maintained the forests and the forests themselves. John Muir, a famed naturalist who helped found the National Park System and the Sierra Club, wrote of that change in an 1897 issue of The Atlantic. The trees he had once described as “lordly monarchs proclaiming the gospel of beauty” were clear-cut, burnt, and largely reduced to ash.
Settlers saw western trees as resources and tools — a way to build communities and create livelihoods. But they also saw them as disposable. Muir wrote: “... when the steel axe of the white man rang out in the startled air their doom was sealed. Every tree heard the bodeful sound, and pillars of smoke gave the sign in the sky.”
Forest fires took the sky hostage. The thick haze of smoke erased the moon, stars and mountains from view. Black stumps lined the lowlands. Yet despite how disastrous the damage had been, it also proved hopeful. People began to realize the role native trees play in the West’s environment. Because once so many had perished, farmers noticed how the mountain streams dried up in summer and thrashed out of control in spring. It became clear that the native trees knew best; they effectively filtered and conserved water by preventing runoff. It made sense. This was their home first. They knew how to maintain it.
Realizations that resulted from years of pillaged forests paved the way for monumental leaps in environmental preservation. About 20 years after Muir wrote of all that deforestation, the federal government founded the National Park Service. In 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act became law and ensured the government would play a larger role in preventing abuse of the nation’s natural resources. The common belief went from assuming that trees were expendable to understanding that they are a finite resource. One that humanity cannot afford to lose.
Native, nonnative, invasive
Native trees are necessary to unlock otherwise inaccessible knowledge — tools to revisit the past and predict the future.
The tissue that lies just beneath a tree’s bark grows thicker by a single ring each year, save for rare instances when environmental stressors become so severe they stall growth altogether. Those rings store data, keeping the score of a year gone by. The same way forensic anthropologists can study human skeletal remains to decipher a specimen’s age, sex or ancestry, dendrologists study a tree’s rings to understand climate. Core samples of native trees can tell a researcher what the weather was like at each year of a tree’s life. Wider rings are won in warm, wet years while thinner rings result from the cold and dry.
These findings help piece together past climate patterns, and may predict future ones, too. Maybe even the ones we’ll see take hold of the Colorado River. As the 40 million people dependent on the river still have no end in sight of the drought that’s already plagued the basin for 22 years, trees offer a look into what might be next.
Samples of more than 60 Great Basin bristlecone pines show that the current megadrought mimics one that took place more than 1,800 years ago. It impacted the river for 10 to 24 consecutive years at a time, pausing only for short periods before it returned in full swing. The pattern implies that communities ought to prepare for worse than what’s currently anticipated.
Megadroughts may have existed for millennia in the West, but the presence of harmful greenhouse gasses and record-breaking rising temperatures could make future droughts unprecedented in scale. Core samples act as warnings, maps for what’s to come, but not unless we preserve them. And there are a few hurdles currently standing in the way.
“What we’re facing in the mountainous regions of the West are long-term drought and other effects of climate change coupled with invasive plants and insect species and diseases,” says Abby Meyer, executive director of Botanic Gardens Conservation International’s United States branch. “It’s a multifactored situation.” Meyer also co-authored the same study as Knapp. She’s found that threats to native trees are spreading rapidly in the West — primarily pests and diseases — exacerbated by climate change, which induces new conditions within environments that lead to more favorable circumstances for them.
Not all trees are created equal. Many, like the Russian olive and the Tamarisk tree, can contribute to droughts by sucking up water from soil or watersheds to cool themselves down. Yet many others actually reduce desertification. They prevent the ground from desiccating under harsh, dry conditions by shading it with their canopies; they moderate water intake; some are even thought to attract rainfall. Juniper trees siphon off water access to a single branch while in a drought, sacrificing a part of themselves in order to survive. Douglas fir can withstand drought and wind erosion with extensive root systems, which reach deep into the earth for water most others can’t access and anchors the tree firmly in place.
We are lucky enough to know what an environment with no shortage of native trees looks like. What we’re still learning is how it could feel to live without them.
This ability to ease the blow of unfavorable conditions is where the distinction between native and non-native or invasive trees matters. Those that exist because of the environments they grow in have a better chance of maintaining a symbiotic relationship with all elements present in that landscape. Even fire.
The Congressional Research Service found that in 2021, the West experienced more than 20,000 wildfires across six million acres of land. Rather than pulverize that land into mounds of ash, forests are still standing. Survival mechanisms achieved by native trees over time help them live even after burning. Ponderosa pines have thick bark that fits tightly like puzzle pieces around the tree’s core. Lodgepole pines carry cones sealed shut in a thick resin that only melts and releases seeds in the event of a fire — replenishing the terrain with new growth. We are lucky enough to know what an environment with no shortage of these native trees looks like. What we’re still learning is how it could feel to live without them.
Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and Montana have all seen a decline in the population of quaking aspen, a tree that survives by springing up clones of itself across massive root systems. A grove in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest is one of the largest living things on the planet, with nearly 50,000 sprouts spanning 100 acres. Called “Pando,” which means “I spread” in Latin, scientists and journalists can’t determine for certain what is causing the grove’s decline. Colorado alone has experienced a 13 percent loss of the species in less than 20 years, with older aspens falling victim to drought and higher temperatures, while young aspens compete for resources and are faced with overgrazing by large mammals.
Bark beetles are another culprit. The pests have long held claim to forests of the West, responsible for the death of countless trees across millions of acres in recent decades. Bark beetles have done enough damage in Montana that the trees now expel — rather than consume — 20 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. Warmer temperatures give the beetles a higher chance of survival and encourage reproduction, which have made recent outbreaks more severe.
Those outbreaks impact more species than just the aspen. Whitebark pine trees are a meal of choice for mountain pine beetles, the most destructive of all bark beetles in the West. They’ve chipped away at enough whitebark pines — which ordinarily thrive in California, Nevada and Wyoming through harsh enough conditions to rival the resolve of bristlecones — to dwindle the population by more than 50 percent. It’s a keystone species, meaning an entire ecosystem depends on the trees’ survival. It’s now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Threats to the West’s native trees are also threats to its economy. A loss of trees can mean erosion, depleted soil, intensified droughts, landslides and even increased building costs due to material demand — all coming with big price tags. When it comes to pollution, the decrease in air quality that coincides with a loss of forest — as shown by Montana’s barren mountains — threaten people’s ability to make a living. Industries that depend on workers’ access to the outdoors are compromised.
That’s a big sector to risk. Landscapers, farmers, construction workers, miners, ski patrollers — those who spend the majority of their workday outdoors — account for more than four percent of the nation’s workforce.
With exposure to enough carbon dioxide, among other pollutants, any number of those laborers could wind up facing serious health concerns and diseases that affect the respiratory, cardiovascular, immunological, hematological, neurological and reproductive systems. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an international nonprofit focused on environmental advocacy, found in 2020 that hospitalizations and premature deaths due to environmental pollution come at a high cost: $3.8 trillion annually, along with the pricelessness of human life.
The common belief went from assuming that trees were expendable to understanding that they are a finite resource. One that humanity cannot afford to lose.
Losing native trees also means toying with the future of American agriculture. The West takes the lead in producing the country’s agricultural exports, with California alone accounting for more than 11 percent of food grown nationwide. Droughts have made dust storms more intense and more common over the past couple decades, leading to soil depletion and erosion. These intense winds uproot growing crops, send pesticides and other chemicals airborne and cut precious labor hours by obscuring visibility.
More than 200,000 square miles of American land is vulnerable to soil erosion in the current climate than in the past. The majority of those square miles fall in the West. And the majority of trees built to withstand that erosion are native trees familiar with the climate, like Douglas fir, with their anchors of roots. They’re a tried and true solution. Just as the shelterbelt of 100 million trees planted across the Great Plains acted as a windbreak to quell the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, more native trees in the West could shield one of its most vital industries from collapsing almost a century later. If we only let them.
In search of ghosts
What we know of the next century’s effect on trees in the West — and across the country — is uncertain. But efforts that arose out of the 1800s prove that it’s possible to rescue native species from the brink. It’s rare to hear of such success stories. But when they materialize, they change everything.
Michael Eason led a team of botanists out across Big Bend National Park in Texas last spring in search of a ghost. The lateleaf oak tree hadn’t been seen in 10 years. It was presumed extinct by the time Eason went looking. But, to his own amazement, he found it. The tree stood 30 feet tall with thick, fuzzy leaves and wildfire scars along its trunk. His discovery became the only living specimen of the rarest oak species in the country.
“I personally think that we owe it to the generations that are going to follow us that we conserve the habitat that we have,” Eason says. As associate director of plant conservation and research at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, that goal of preservation guides his daily work. “When you recognize that we’re losing those things, it’s like you’re losing a part of humanity.”
The lateleaf, like most oak trees, can’t be banked in botanical gardens since its acorns cannot withstand the preservation process. That makes discoveries like Eason’s paramount to the possibility of conserving this family of native trees.
And while the lateleaf Eason found is native to Texas, it’s become a point of inspiration for trees in the western United States. Of all the native families of trees in the West facing decline, Meyer says oak trees are faring among the worst with disease and insects. But if even the rarest oak on earth can rise from the ranks of the dead, it’s safe to believe others can, too.
This story appears in the April issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.