Lodgepole Pine

 Freshly opened cone of lodgepole pine tree.  Image was taken during a prescribed burn on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington. 

Freshly opened cone of lodgepole pine tree.  Image was taken during a prescribed burn on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington. 

Anyone who has visited Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park has encountered lodgepole pine.  It may not be elegant, but lodgepole pine is perhaps the most adaptable tree in North America.   Besides occupying all but the northern portion of Yellowstone National Park, lodgepole pine can be found on the Oregon coast, in the Sierra de Juarez Mountains of Baja, Mexico, and in Yukon Territory, Canada.   In Washington, lodgepole pine is abundant on the east side of the Cascades at upper elevations.  Lodgepole can be found growing on dry sandy soils, and in squishy wet meadows.  There are five subspecies, which in part explains the tree's wide range.   That the scientific name is at odds with the common name is an expression of the differences in where and how the tree grows.  The scientific name Pinus contorta is inspired from the coastal form which is frequently "contorted" by the wind.  The common name lodgepole is inspired by the interior subspecies which grows tall and straight, and was used as teepee poles by Native Americans.  

 Dense young lodgepole pine stand in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.  This stand was established following the fires of 1988.  Photo from 2011. 

Dense young lodgepole pine stand in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.  This stand was established following the fires of 1988.  Photo from 2011. 

Lodgepole pine can survive low intensity surface fires fueled by light materials like grass.  Crown fire is more typical in lodgepole pine forests, and the trees do not survive, as the bark is very thin.  That fire opens the cones of lodgepole pines by heating the resin that holds the cones together, spilling the seeds- a condition known as serotiny, is well known.  However, serotinous cones are not at all universal.  Trees in the Sierra Nevada of California do not produce serotinous cones, and in Oregon the characteristic is uncommon.  Where serotinous cones occur most often is in the Rocky Mountains, where resides the subspecies Pinus contorta latifolia.  Within a single tree there may be both ordinary and serotinous cones.  By having cones that open seasonally, the tree has the ability to reproduce between fires.  By having serotinous cones, chances are at least some seeds remain un-burned to start the next generation of trees, following a stand replacing fire.  The post fire environment offers abundant sunlight and mineral soils which is preferred by lodgepole pine for regeneration.  The tree can succeed in nutrient poor sites, that result after high intensity wildfires.  Once established, the next generation of lodgepole pines begin producing cones at five to seven years of age, resulting in quick establishment of stands.   Mature lodgepole pine forests produce thousands of cones with seed production reaching 300,000 per acre. 

 Although lodgepole pine has very thin bark and little protection against fire, it can survive low intensity fires as evidenced by scarring seen here.   The ground cover is kinikinik, a shrub that does not readily burn.  Middle Fork of Toat's Coulee, Pasayten Wilderness, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA.  

Although lodgepole pine has very thin bark and little protection against fire, it can survive low intensity fires as evidenced by scarring seen here.   The ground cover is kinikinik, a shrub that does not readily burn.  Middle Fork of Toat's Coulee, Pasayten Wilderness, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA.  

Because of its ability to reproduce early and abundantly following fires, pure stands of lodgepole pine often occur.   Commonly trees grow very close together in a condition popularly known as "dog hair".  In over-crowded stands trees are spindly and put on poor growth.  Over time weak trees die and disturbance mechanisms including insects, disease, wind and snow load work to reduce the number of trees.   The mix of live and fallen dead trees can be a prescription for a hot fire that kills all of the trees and things start over.  The second time around the spacing may be more favorable, as there is less seed.

 Four years after the Table Mountain Fire, lodgepole pine seedlings carpet the forest floor in the Naneum Meadows area on the Cle Elum R.D. of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA. 

Four years after the Table Mountain Fire, lodgepole pine seedlings carpet the forest floor in the Naneum Meadows area on the Cle Elum R.D. of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA. 

Lodgepole pine can live to be over three hundred years old, but seldom does.  Typically, at eighty to one hundred years of age, and eight inches in diameter, lodgepole stands are attacked by bark beetles, particularly the mountain pine beetle.  Bark beetles are about the size of a grain of rice, but they can attack by the hundreds.  The defense against bark beetles is to squirt pitch to trap the beetles in the sticky substance.  This strategy fails when the beetles are too numerous.  Beetles burrow through the bark, inoculating the trees with a fungus they carry in their mouth known as blue stain, and laying eggs in an arrays known as galleries.  Beetle larvae tunnel under the bark feeding on the cambium and the phloem, which is made more palatable by the blue stain fungus.  In recent years, mountain pine beetle epidemics have killed millions of acres of lodgepole pine forests across western Canada and the United States.  That these epidemics are so large has to do with the continuity of trees that can be considered ripe for taking, exacerbated by climate change.  Shorter, warmer winters means more survival of larvae over winter, and a longer season in which to grow and turn out another generation.

 Mountain pine beetle attack on lodgepole pine.   Although always present, beetle attacks reach epidemic proportions in some years.  At the "red" stage trees are highly flammable and continue to be so, until the needles fall which takes two to three years.   Naches R.D., Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA. 

Mountain pine beetle attack on lodgepole pine.   Although always present, beetle attacks reach epidemic proportions in some years.  At the "red" stage trees are highly flammable and continue to be so, until the needles fall which takes two to three years.   Naches R.D., Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA. 

Lodgepole pine is usually accompanied by other conifers.  In the early years after a fire it may compete with Douglas-fir and western larch for territory.  Later on shade tolerant subalpine fir, pacific silver fir and Engelmann- spruce may come up under a lodgepole canopy and eventually dominate.  An alternative scenario is that saplings of subalpine fir sometimes survive crown fires within mature lodgepole stands.  Heat is most intense high in the canopy, and the fire may skip over microsite areas at ground level.  In this scenario subalpine fir essentially steps around the succession process. 

 A subalpine fir tree occupies an opening in an aging lodgepole pine stand.  Subalpine fir is tolerant of shade and can establish beneath the pines.  This tree has a chance of surviving the next fire, whenever it happens as the energy release will be most pronounced high in the canopy.  Pasayten Wilderness, Washington. 

A subalpine fir tree occupies an opening in an aging lodgepole pine stand.  Subalpine fir is tolerant of shade and can establish beneath the pines.  This tree has a chance of surviving the next fire, whenever it happens as the energy release will be most pronounced high in the canopy.  Pasayten Wilderness, Washington. 

Lodgepole pine is not considered to be one of the more palatable plants for wildlife, however it is an important food for spruce grouse and snowshoe hares in winter.  When young lodgepole is tall enough for the trees stick out of deep snow, hares feed on needles.  What is good for snowshoe hares is good for lynx a predator of the hares.   Black bear, squirrels and porcupines are known to eat the cambium layer of lodgepole pine.  Quite a few mammal and bird species eat the seeds, most notably red crossbills.   Beetle attacked trees are targeted by woodpeckers that go after larvae.  While lodgepole pine trees offer something in the way of food for wildlife, often stands are so dense that little else grows beneath the trees.

 A male black-backed woodpecker delivers a larvae from a wood-boring beetle to it's nestlings within a cavity excavated in a living lodgepole pine tree. Wood borers are far larger than bark beetles.  Borers feed on dead wood, seldom killing live trees.  Fires and  bark beetles set up feeding and nesting opportunities for woodpeckers.     Black-backed woodpeckers seek out recent burns in the higher elevation forests for the foraging opportunity. 

A male black-backed woodpecker delivers a larvae from a wood-boring beetle to it's nestlings within a cavity excavated in a living lodgepole pine tree. Wood borers are far larger than bark beetles.  Borers feed on dead wood, seldom killing live trees.  Fires and  bark beetles set up feeding and nesting opportunities for woodpeckers.     Black-backed woodpeckers seek out recent burns in the higher elevation forests for the foraging opportunity. 

As a forest product lodgepole pine is used for dimensional lumber, veneer, and pulp.  The wood is slightly yellow in color, soft and easy to work.   At Vaagen Brothers mill in Colville, Washington lodgepole pine is considered to be the second most valuable tree after western larch.   Vaagen makes studs, and ships the wood waste off to a plant that makes ice cream cartons.   Often lodgepole pine has a bizarre deformity that is problematic for lumber, but has a decorative application.  Western gall rust causes a softball size canker to grow on the trunks and limbs.  These cankers make for interesting stair railing posts, and furniture.  They can be seen at Old Faithful Lodge.   From a forestry perspective, the challenge with lodgepole is not one of having too few trees, but rather having too many.   They need to be thinned either naturally or by human hands if they are to grow into merchantable wood.

 Lodgepole pine thrives on fire, because of it's ability to readily recolonize burned areas.  Wolverine Fire 2015, Entiat R.D. of Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA

Lodgepole pine thrives on fire, because of it's ability to readily recolonize burned areas.  Wolverine Fire 2015, Entiat R.D. of Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA

 High intensity, stand replacing fire is typical of lodgepole pine forests.  Tree seedlings appeared the following summer.  Table Mountain Burn, Cle Elum R.D., Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA. 

High intensity, stand replacing fire is typical of lodgepole pine forests.  Tree seedlings appeared the following summer.  Table Mountain Burn, Cle Elum R.D., Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA. 

 Serotinous cones stay closed until enough heat is applied to melt the resin that binds the cone scales together- a fire adaptation.   This characteristic is not universal within lodgepole pine.  Within an individual tree some cones may open normally, while others are serotinous.  

Serotinous cones stay closed until enough heat is applied to melt the resin that binds the cone scales together- a fire adaptation.   This characteristic is not universal within lodgepole pine.  Within an individual tree some cones may open normally, while others are serotinous.  

 Lodgepole pine is able to grow in both well drained soils, and swampy ground.  The yellow-green trees seen here are lodgepole pines growing besides willow, and Engelmann-spruce at Summit Meadows on the Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon.   Photograph taken in late fall.   

Lodgepole pine is able to grow in both well drained soils, and swampy ground.  The yellow-green trees seen here are lodgepole pines growing besides willow, and Engelmann-spruce at Summit Meadows on the Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon.   Photograph taken in late fall.   

 Western gall rust,  Peridermium harknessii,  causes galls and cankers to form on the branches and boles of lodgepole pine.  The fungal disease is spread from tree to tree by wind-borne spores, with major infections happening every five to ten years. 

Western gall rust, Peridermium harknessii, causes galls and cankers to form on the branches and boles of lodgepole pine.  The fungal disease is spread from tree to tree by wind-borne spores, with major infections happening every five to ten years. 

Primary source material:  Lotan, James E. and Critchfield, Willam B. 1990, Lodgepole Pine, in USDA Forest Service Handbook 651, Volume 1, Conifers.

Technical review:  Constance J. Mehmel, Forest Entomologist, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.