When the bark beetles were in full swing I copped an attitude against lodgepole pines. They seemed weak and a waste of space in the forest. But I have come to understand their important role in fire ecology habitats and have adjusted my attitude.
Though short-lived, lodgepole pines, Pinus contorta, are the most common Rocky Mountain tree species north of New Mexico because they are fast growing, reproduce prolifically, and can inhabit almost any soil.
Lodgepoles produce normal cones and also serotinous cones, which are sealed shut with resin. Lodgepoles’ normal cones shed their seeds any time of year, but their serotinous cones need a wildfire to open. The heat melts the resin and the cones open, shedding their seeds, which quickly germinate.
Lodgepole’s regrowth after fire is so crowded it has earned the name “doghair stands.” The good news is they quickly protect the soil and provide habitat for other species. These thick stands eventually burn again and the whole cycle repeats itself.
Because doghair stands produce tall, yet small diameter trees tribal people used them for tipi poles – thus the name lodgepole. They also hauled their belongings on a travois, created with two lodgepoles and leather slung over a horse. Lodgepole’s inner bark (cambium) was also a crucial source of food and medicine each spring when the sap rose.
When white settlers moved into the West, the abundant lodgepole provided them with building materials, especially logs for cabins and fencing. As a neighbor who operates a post and pole business stated, "Lodgepoles are the staff of life."
The recent widespread beetle kill was due to several converging factors: our warmer and drier climate, many lodgepole stands reaching the end of their 100-plus-year life cycle, and overcrowded forests due to years of fire suppression. The earth couldn’t support all those trees so something had to give. Contrary to what I once thought, lodgepoles are not “a waste of space” and the beetles are not ”bad.” They are simply part of the earth’s complex balancing act.