Farragut State Park is about to get little patches of the mighty white pine forest that once covered most of North Idaho.
“Back in the day, white pine was king of the forest,” said David Leptich, a regional wildlife habitat biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
A century ago, foresters penned rapturous descriptions of cathedral-like stands of western white pine that towered 200 feet above the forest floor. Timber barons moved into North Idaho to capture the tree’s commercial value.
But by the 1920s, a blister rust from Asia was attacking and killing Idaho’s stands of white pine. Wildfire suppression also took away the openings in the forest that white pine need to regenerate. Today, less than 5 percent of the region’s white pine forests remain.
Idaho Fish and Game embarked on efforts this spring to return blister-rust resistant varieties of white pine to Farragut. The agency had 70 acres logged to create the open, sunny stands that white pine need to get established.
The sight of logging trucks rolling out of the 4,000-acre park prompted calls to Fish and Game from members of the public, who wondered what was going on.
“It’s kind of like remodeling your kitchen. It looks like a disaster in the beginning,” said Leptich, as he hiked through a heavily logged area on the park’s northwest side. “But this is the ugliest it gets.”
In six years, the site will look much different, he said. Blue-green foliage will mark the growth of young white pines. Over time, a diverse and resilient western white pine forest should emerge, he said.
“We’re replacing some of those missing pieces on the landscape,” Leptich said. “We lost so much so fast.”
The blister rust was found near Vancouver, British Columbia, in the early 1920s, and within two decades it was devastating white pine stands in Glacier National Park. The rust attacks the trees, which develop cankers on their bark. Most eventually die.
The federal government tried to halt the spread of blister rust in the 1930s by using Civilian Conservation Corps employees to uproot wild currant and gooseberry bushes, which are a host species for the rust. When that failed, the focus shifted to developing trees with genetic resistance to blister rust.
White pines are valuable ecologically because they grow into complex stands that persist for 200 or 300 years, Leptich said. They survive drought and root diseases better than the Douglas fir and grand fir that grew up in their stead.
But the effort to get white pine back into Farragut has reinvigorated a long-standing public debate about logging at the park.
More than 200,000 people visit Farragut each year. Most visitors use the recreational areas along the shoreline of Lake Pend Oreille. But the northwest corner of the park, where the logging is taking place, also draws hikers, mountain bikers, mushroom pickers and horseback riders.
“Some people object to the park cutting any trees,” said Marsha Ritzheimer, president of the chamber of commerce in nearby Bayview.
Ritzheimer said she supports judicious logging in Farragut to thin dense stands of trees and make the forest healthier and more resilient to wildfire. But her views are her own and don’t represent the chamber as a whole, she said.
Last year’s Cape Horn fire burned more than 1,000 acres northeast of Bayview and destroyed six residences, illustrating the danger wildfires pose to the unincorporated community on Lake Pend Oreille, she said.
“Bayview is very vulnerable because we’re surrounded on three sides by trees,” Ritzheimer said.
But longtime park neighbors Harvey and Marcelle Richman are upset by the logging. They frequently ride their horses and walk their dog in the park’s northwest corner. The shady, wooded trails they enjoyed now pass through what are essentially clearcuts, the couple said.
“I’m not an anti-cut guy,” said Harvey Richman, a retired attorney who served on a past citizen advisory committee on forestry issues in the park. But Richman said he questions the philosophy of cutting down trees to plant more. He wondered if Fish and Game benefited financially from the logging.
“They’re changing the complexion of the park,” Richman said.
Receipts from logging the 70 acres will total about $160,000 – money that will go into a Fish and Game fund for additional forest restoration in the 1,400 acres of Farragut that the agency oversees, Leptich said. The remainder of the park is owned by Idaho Parks and Recreation.
Leptich said he understands the high level of public interest in the logging, which is why Fish and Game held two meetings in Bayview to explain the white pine restoration objectives. The General Services Administration affirmed timber harvest as a management tool for the park during a federal review in the 1990s, Leptich said.
“You have to think of forest management in a time frame that spans hundreds of years, not the 20 years your family has been coming to Farragut,” he said.
To address pockets of root rot, Leptich said the 70 acres were logged more aggressively than what would typically happen in the park. One of the logged areas is 40 acres and the other is 30 acres. In the future, the openings for white pine plantings will be smaller in size, he said.
During the recent logging, islands of trees and brush were left as cover for whitetail deer and elk moving through the area. Other tree species were left, too. They’ll become part of the white pine ecosystem, which was dominated by white pines but included other tree types.
White pine seedlings will be planted within two years, Leptich said. Future thinning will preserve the open sites, allowing young trees to get established.
In 30 years, the trees will be about 65 feet in height. At maturity, they’ll be as tall as 15- to 20-story buildings.
“My great-grandkids might go out there and see a western white pine legacy forest like it was in the late 1800s,” Leptich said. “It will take that long to get there.”
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