Imagine thousands of gallons of toxic defoliants sprayed over the forests of Glacier National Park.
Picture work crews, armed with Pulaskis, grubbing up millions of native plants.
While that’s unimaginable in the modern, preservation-minded Glacier, it was reality only a few decades ago.
Today, park crews preserve native plants, even fostering them in a nursery. But from 1939 to 1961, Glacier was a battleground in a futile war that ranged throughout the West on blister rust, a fungus that kills white pine, whitebark pine and limber pine trees.
The strategy was to eradicate ribes - native plants including gooseberry and currant - that act as a host for blister rust fungus spores.
Imported on nursery stock from Europe around 1910, blister rust quickly spread throughout the West, killing pines by the thousands, particularly in the Northwest. In response, the federal government embarked on a colossal can-do campaign against nature.
But the fungus prevailed, forever changing the face of Glacier. Whitebark pine, which once covered a fifth of the park and fed creatures from nutcrackers to grizzly bears, was devastated.
Research ecologist Kate Kendall and technician Jen Asebrook have spent several years uncovering the full extent of the ribes war in the park. They’ve found documents indicating 2 million ribes plants were destroyed on 21,000 acres of park land over the 32-year period.
They also found that at least 15,474 gallons of chemical defoliant were used on the plants between 1949 and 1961.
The blister rust control crews weren’t using a mild herbicide, either. They packed pump-spray canisters of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T - the same chemicals used in Agent Orange, the infamous, highly toxic defoliant used by the U.S. military in Vietnam.
“It was way bigger in scope than I imagined,” Kendall said of the ribes eradication efforts in the park. “I was amazed.”
Given the extent of the blister rust control program, Kendall is also amazed at how it has become just a faint memory. The records she and Asebrook uncovered were scattered in old cabinets and closets and as far away as Forest Service archives in Moscow, Idaho, and the National Archives in Washington.
Kendall said their estimates are “definitely minimums, because we are missing some of the records.”
She noted that the park’s archives contain only a handful of photographs of blister rust crews in action.
Kendall became interested in the blister rust program while doing a long-term study to compare historic and modern populations of whitebark.
Although it may seem extreme by modern standards, Kendall is reluctant to judge the authorities who declared war on blister rust.
“They were fighting an exotic disease, but it was at the expense of native plant species,” she said. “I don’t think we can second-guess their efforts; they were doing what they thought was right at the time, given the information available to them. But it’s a fine line in managing parks: How much do you intervene, even in a human-caused problem?”
Kendall’s whitebark pine mortality statistics clearly show that the blister rust campaign was a failure in Glacier, just as it was elsewhere in the West. Roughly 45 percent of the park’s whitebark pine is dead, and of the remaining trees, 73 percent are infected with blister rust.
And it was an expensive failure. Kendall and Asebrook determined that at least 20,000 man-days were spent on blister rust control in Glacier alone.
“When all was said and done, it probably put a hell of a lot of people through college,” said Kurt Bucholtz, a former park employee who spent several years in the blister rust control program. “It put me through college, and it put me through graduate school.”
But Bucholtz started on the park’s “BRC” crew in 1963, after land managers had given up on ribes eradication. Instead, he and about 40 other young men earned their pay spraying infected whitebark pine trees with chemical antibiotics. The tree treatment program was also deemed futile and was abandoned sometime around 1971, Bucholtz recalls.
“All that effort and time and energy we put in, it was well-meaning,” he said. “We thought we were saving trees - just like when you fight fire, you think you’re saving the forest.”
Fire suppression, Kendall asserts, is another major reason for the downfall of whitebark pine. The tree, which normally grows in harsh, high-elevation areas, has historically regenerated in burned areas. Modern managers rarely allow those high basins to burn.
Ironically, blister rust control crews, hardened by days of hiking and working with Pulaskis, a combination hoe-ax used in firefighting, often were diverted to fight fires.
“They turned out to be good firefighters,” said Clyde Fauley, a former Two Medicine Valley ranger who packed in supplies to blister rust control crews in 1953 and 1954.
Fauley was in charge of an entire blister rust control program in Yosemite National Park from 1959 to 1965.
“They had programs in a lot of different parks,” said Fauley, who now lives in Lakeside. “The funds for that were fantastic over the years.”
Bigfork resident Ross Titus worked on a 75-man Forest Service blister rust crew in the Cabinet Mountains in 1950 and 1951.
“We never had the sense that it was not worthwhile, we were working so hard,” Titus said. “We did not know the Forest Service would eventually decide they were not getting control of the blister rust. We did not have enough information to know that perhaps it was futile.”
Titus remembers it as a rough job involving all-day scrambles up steep slopes. Crew members were often excellent hands with a compass, able to establish transect lines running vertically and horizontally on a slope. The crews would work within the lines, meticulously covering every square foot, grubbing out gooseberry and currant plants with a Pulaski.
“When you couldn’t get them out of the ground, you carried a little bottle of some sort of herbicide with a brush, and you just sort of painted them,” he said.
Kendall knows of no evidence that the chemicals used in Glacier caused health problems for former crew members. And she is uncertain about the long-term ecological effects of ribes extermination efforts. She has yet to review data from an extensive field study she conducted last summer near Old Man Lake at the site of one of the earliest and most intense ribes eradication efforts.
Using a detailed 1939 map, Kendall’s crew revisited the site, setting up their own ribes count.
“They weren’t eradicated,” she said. “There still were a few.”
And the whitebark pine?
“It’s devastated,” Kendall said. “It’s more or less a ghost forest. There are trees that are still alive, but most of the trees are dead and dying.”
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