Walking up the back side of Mount Sentinel on a hot autumn day in Missoula, my first smell of a ponderosa pine forest was immediately intoxicating and has left me reminiscing to this day frequent walks in the woods surrounding that town. Every now and then, from my home 500 miles to the east, I can catch a whiff of that smell as the summer breeze blows in smoke from a distant fire or I wander the Missouri breaks where smaller, but no less magnificent, ponderosas dot the landscape.
The Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa of the Pinaceae family) was named the state tree of Montana in 1949 due in part to its role in Native American survival (they ate the seeds and inner bark, used the trunks for dugout canoes, and used the pitch for a healing salve) and also in part to its pivotal center stage role in the development of the well known Montana logging industry, a dominant economic force to this day.
Ponderosa pines are found throughout western North America as far east as the Black Hills of South Dakota, as far north as central British Colombia, and south through central Mexico. In Montana, the species is dominant in the more mountainous regions and is located in sparse pockets throughout the eastern Montana landscape, notably in the rougher landscapes with more acidic soils. The species is characterized by its clusters of three (or sometimes two with the more eastern varieties) needles. Mature trees average 100 to 150 feet in height with a large irregular crown and orange-brown bark.
Historically, Ponderosa pine forests burned every two to three decades, allowing the younger trees to emerge and thrive, and clearing away the litter and downed trees that make a western forest susceptible to wildfire. The fires would occur naturally or would be set by the Native American inhabitants. However, fire management philosophy instituted by the United States government over the past century threatens to change the natural rhythm of the ponderosa pine forests. Quick suppression of all wildfires has led the forests to become cluttered with litter and make them a high hazard risk for wildfire, leading to the record wildfire seasons that we have witnessed in the last 10 to 20 years.
The suppression strategy also leads the forests to evolve differently than they naturally would, with Douglas fir threatening to take over the predominant Ponderosa pine communities. Infestations of bark beetle and disease also threaten our western forest stands.
Strolling through a properly managed “p-pine” community is akin to walking through a parkland filled with a natural essence that cleanses your mind. It is amazing to consider the impact that this species has had on the long heritage of Montana – we seem to take so much for granted with this noble species that dots the landscape. Take some time to enjoy the forest on a hot day in late summer or early autumn and you will be relaxed and invigorated by the thought of what one simple tree has done and can continue to do for a quickly evolving culture.