Act: Inspiration

White Pine: The Natural and Human History of a Foundational American Tree

January 12, 2023

bookcoverFrom White Pine by John Pastor; Copyright © 2023 John Pastor. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C


My father was a carpenter and a cabinetmaker. Like any good cabinetmaker, he could distinguish different species of wood just from the smell and texture of sawdust in the shop or on the jobsite. The most abundant sawdust in his shop (and there was a lot of it) was from white pine. My father carried the resinous scent of white pine sawdust with him. We had white pine furniture in our living room, slept in white pine beds, and placed our clothes into white pine bureaus. After he returned home from World War II, he framed our house with white pine two-by-fours and paneled the walls in the living and dining rooms with tongue-and-groove pine planks, which he got cheap at the lumberyard because everyone else had switched to using drywall. In my childhood, these walls were a creamy white with a few sepia knots where the branches had once emerged from the trunks. Over the years, the planks darkened so slowly that I didn’t notice the change until I moved away to college and then to grad school and beyond. Each time I went home to visit, I noticed that the panels were slowly and steadily turning a rich burnt sienna, like pumpkin pie.

Later, I and my friends and colleagues worked in primeval forests  on Blackhawk Island in the Wisconsin River. One stand contained large old-growth white pines. The huge trunks of these trees, between two and three feet in diameter, were free of branches for sixty feet or more above the forest floor. Each pine could easily have provided three clear sixteen-foot logs, prime timber for the region’s sawmills. But most likely, the loggers who cut the vast pineries of central and northern Wisconsin in the 1800s did not bother with this particular stand, because it was too small. In addition, floating the pines down the Wisconsin River through the canyons and falls of the Wisconsin Dells immediately downstream just wasn’t worth the effort or the danger of logjams. And so, these pines have remained untouched to this day.

Every time we walked into this white pine stand, I felt as if we’d entered a different world. The air was cool and fragrant. The crowns of the pines towered above us and above sugar maples in the understory. During autumn, the maple leaves glowed a scarlet red made even more vivid by their juxtaposition with the deep green pine needles above them. Over the centuries, the dead pine needles and sugar maple leaves that fell to the forest floor decayed and built a black humus that smelled faintly sweet and resinous, like my father’s workshop. The images and smells of these big white pines over a maple understory in autumn remain for me the essence of what forest means.

I am happy that the loggers spared this stand and regret that more old-growth stands were not so spared. I continue to enjoy hiking and canoeing through remaining old-growth pine stands in wilderness areas around Lake Superior and elsewhere. At the same time, I admire the courage and skill of the loggers who felled the pines from Maine to Minnesota and transported them via oxen, horses, and rivers to the mills. And I obviously have fond remembrances of the look, feel, and smell of the paneling and furniture my father made from the beautiful white pine lumber milled from trees not unlike those that grow in this stand.

Such conflicting thoughts—whether to preserve or harvest, to enjoy the landscape or a product—are not unique to me personally. These conflicting thoughts underpin the challenges of making environmental policies that both conserve the beauty of our landscape and guide sustainable harvest of natural resources to support ourselves. White pine is a model species to help guide our thinking about these problems. Throughout this book, we’ll trace how white pine helped shape American environmental thought, from both Native American and colonial perspectives before and during the American Revolution, through the era of clear-cutting, to attempts to illuminate the details of its complex natural history, and finally to historic and current efforts to preserve and restore it. Even in areas where no white pines are found, how we think about the landscape we live in has been shaped in part by our interactions with white pine over the past several centuries.

Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is a spectacular species, the largest tree in the North Woods, the one that towers over all others. The North Woods is an immense forest encompassing nearly a million square miles and stretching from the shores of Newfoundland to the prairies of western Minnesota; it is bordered by the eastern hardwood forest to the south and the boreal forest to the north. The range of white pine nearly completely overlaps with the territory of the North Woods, where it can be found in pure stands or, more commonly, in mixed stands of sugar maple, yellow birch, beech, red oak, or hemlock. White pines over forty inches in diameter and 150 feet tall were not uncommon in forests from Maine to Minnesota before the logging era. Trees of such sizes can occasionally be found today in protected wilderness areas, although trees one hundred feet tall and two to three feet in diameter are more common. Under optimal conditions and without crown fires, white pine can live to be three hundred years old or greater.

By virtue of its abundance, large size, and long-life span, white pine dominates the North Woods and underpins its stability and resilience to fire and storms. Along with hemlock and sugar maple, white pine is what ecologists call a foundation species of the North Woods. Foundation  species are widespread plants of large sizes that exert considerable control over the transfers of energy and nutrients throughout the food web. They also structure food webs by providing physical habitat for animals, plants, and fungi and control the microclimate that, in turn, modifies the metabolic rates of animals and plants that coexist with them. A foundation species comprises many individual plants that interact with the food web around them in different ways at different stages of their life cycles. Outside of the North Woods, Douglas fir, redwood, saguaro cactus, big bluestem, and kelp are examples of foundation species in their own ecosystems.

Rare and uncommon species, rather than foundation species, have been the primary focus of conservation biologists. Because foundation species are abundant, we often take them for granted and are not usually concerned about their conservation. A rare species, however, doesn’t have the biomass to control and sustain a food web the way a foundation species can, and there are usually only one or two foundation species at the base of most food webs. When they disappear, the food webs they support can rapidly go awry. By the time we recognize that a foundation species is diminishing, it may be too late to do anything about it. Climate change, increased harvesting, the spread of exotic insects and diseases, and many other factors are together threatening numerous foundation species, lending an urgency to their conservation.

White pine has also been a foundation of the cultures of the North Woods, both of Native Americans and European settlers, for the past four hundred years. The Algonquin peoples recognized connections between white pines and other species that they revered, such as bald eagles, a view not unlike the ecological concept of a foundation species. Similarly, white pine played an outsized role in the development of the American character. As the botanist and author Donald Culross Peattie wrote, “No other tree has played so great a role in the life and history of American people.” White pine was used to build the ships and houses, barns, and bridges of America from the 1600s through the Civil War and beyond. Before and during the Revolutionary War, white pine was also a symbol of American independence from the king of England: a white pine image adorned many Revolutionary War flags, including the one raised at Bunker Hill. To these utilitarian and patriotic values, Henry David Thoreau added the value of wilderness after he saw what the loss of white pine did to Maine’s North Woods. He also began the first scientific study of white pine seedlings and the role white pine plays in the recovery of forests from logging.

The loss of mature forests to white pine logging in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries helped spark a significant transition in the nation’s view of the relationship between man and nature. The destruction of forests was a crucial theme in George Perkins Marsh’s development of the idea of watershed protection. Influenced by both Thoreau and Marsh, the Hudson River School of painters created huge canvases of both wild and denuded forest landscapes that also became a force for conservation. White pine (or, as we shall see, its absence) features prominently in some of these paintings. The ideas of Thoreau, Marsh, and the Hudson River School led directly to the establishment of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, the first and still the largest wilderness preserve east of the Rocky Mountains and the location of some of the last uncut white pine forests in the Northeast. The establishment of other wilderness preserves, many also the last remaining strongholds of uncut white pine, followed shortly thereafter.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Volney Spalding, professor of botany at the University of Michigan; Bernhard Fernow, head of a federal agency that was the precursor of the Forest Service; and Gifford Pinchot, the first chief forester of the US Forest Service, were establishing the scientific basis of white pine’s natural history and management.

A few decades later, the planting of millions of white pine seedlings on cutover land by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) helped the North Woods landscape recover from indiscriminate logging. Even more important, the restoration of white pine and other trees helped the young men of the CCC regain a sense of self-worth and helped the nation recover socially from the Great Depression.

These shifts in how we viewed and interacted with white pine reflect the contradictions that have made conservation such a lasting challenge. We love our Paul Bunyan heritage and the beauty of white pine lumber, but we get that wood by harvesting large trees, exactly the sort many people want to preserve. Enormous fires after logging of both eastern and western white pine (a close relative) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to Smokey Bear and the Forest Service’s “no burn” policy, yet research by a Forest Service ecologist in the 1960s showed that natural white pine forests require a complex fire regime to sustain them. With the demand to protect homes and cabins from wildfires, that complex disturbance regime has to be created by harvesting timber. Today, everyone hopes that the cabin Grandpa built deep in the North Woods beneath the big pines will be in their family for generations to come, but many don’t know (or still don’t believe) that the warming climate may threaten the survival of the white pines surrounding that cabin. All these threats to and demands of white pine are happening simultaneously, and each amplifies the effect of the others.

Today, government foresters, landowners, sawmill owners, and conservation organizations such as the Nature Conservancy are discovering new ways to manage white pine that mimic natural processes more closely. It is hoped that these approaches will sustain not only white pine but also other species, watersheds, and landscapes that depend on this foundation species of the North Woods. These approaches recognize that a white pine forest is not simply a warehouse of timber but also a protector of watersheds and habitat for game and nongame animals, that fire and other disturbances can both destroy and sustain these forests, and that white pine forests are a foundation of the cultures of the people who live in them.

This is true not only for white pine but for other foundation species and the ecosystems they are a part of as well. By telling the utilitarian, cultural, and scientific stories of white pine, I will explore how a foundation species defines and inspires our views of nature and how we live within a landscape dominated by it. I hope these stories will show how white pine can be a model for the conservation of other foundation species and the ecosystems and people they support.


Teaser photo credit: Native eastern white pine, Sylvania WildernessMichigan. By Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service – This image is Image Number 1397002 at Forestry Images, a source for forest health, natural resources and silviculture images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service., CC BY 3.0 us,

John Pastor

John Pastor is an ecologist and professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, where his teaching and research focus on the natural history and ecology of northern ecosystems. Pastor is the author of Mathematical Ecology of Populations and Ecosystems, is co-editor of Large Mammalian HerbivoresEcosystem Dynamics, and Conservation, and has authored or coauthored 22 book chapters and over 120 papers, mostly about the North Woods. He is co-chair of the... Read more.

Tags: ecosystem restoration, forest conservation, keystone species