The next range to the East of the Wasatch is the Uintas. I think I’ve only mentioned this range a couple of times, probably last summer when blogging about a couple of bike races that pass through it. That’s a shame, because the Uintas are a spectacular range in their own right, and despite their neighbor-status, are very different from the Wasatch.
The first, and most obvious, difference is their topography. The Uintas are one of only a handful of Great Basin mountain ranges (out of ~200) that run East-West. And unlike the Wasatch, they feature real, honest-to-goodness, rolling, forested foothills.
Tangent: The other nearby- but far less well-known- East-West range is the Raft Rivers, up in Northwest Utah along the Idaho border. Though many of the lower “trails” in this range are thoroughly ATV-trashed, the upper reaches of the range are seldom visited and make for wonderful hiking, with a combination of pleasant forest and wide-open rolling grassy slopes that lead up to a a couple of long crests with views clear down to the Newfoundland Mountains and beyond.
The Raft Rivers also feature the most extensive, pure woodlands of Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany I’ve hiked through. The range is beyond the Northern and Western limits of the range of Gambel Oak, thus lending support to my what-if “theory” about Cercocarpus that I went on about last summer.
Because of its foothills and its proximity to Salt Lake, the Western end of the Uintas attracts XC skiers. The Wasatch is great for “up & down” skiing, but most XC is confined to snowed-under roads. But the Western Uintas feature a series of rolling, forested trails in the 7,000 – 8,000 foot range that make for nice, long XC ski tours.
But the other big difference between the Uintas and the Wasatch is the trees. The Uintas have pines. Not just isolated, occasional pines along the rocky crests, but true pine forests, something we never get in here the Wasatch.
When you drive up into the Uintas along Mirror Lake Highway the first pine you’ll notice is Ponderosa (pic right), plenty of them, along the highway. But the Ponderosas in the Western Uintas are planted, mostly back in the 1930’s or so, and sure enough, if you hike, bike, ski or snowshoe away from the highway for more than a couple hundred yards in any direction, the Ponderosas disappear, and what you’re left travelling through is a native pine of the this range, Lodgepole Pine, Pinus contorta.
Tangent: The Eastern end of the Uintas does support native Ponderosa, the origins of which- according to Professor Chuck- were the subject of much disagreement among botanists for many years. But that’s another story.
Lodgepole (pic left) is one of the most common pines in Western North America. It’s one of only 2 native 2-needled pines in Utah, the other being Colorado Piñon, Pinus edulis, and the 2 are a cinch to tell apart. Lodgepoles grow arrow-straight in dense mountain forests, while Colorado Piñons grow twisted trunks in semi-desert woodlands. I can’t think of anyplace the two trees grow anywhere near each other.
There are so many interesting things to blog about Lodgepoles, including their role in periodic fires, their (sometimes) serotinous cones (pic right = non-serotinous cone), and the hardships they’ve suffered in recent decades at the hands of bark beetles, but for this post I’m going to selfishly zero in on the three things that make Lodgepoles most interesting to me.
3 Cool Things
The first is extremely self-focused; when I go to ski a trail like North Fork or Norway Flat, I’m visiting the closest pine forest to Salt Lake. For years I lived in Colorado, and hiked, biked and skied in pine forests almost daily, taking pines for granted. And though the PLT forests of the Wasatch are wonderful, they like that certain something of a pine forest. Pine forests are lighter than spruce-fir forests, with a special kind of filtered sunlight you don’t get in any other kind of forest. And then the smell. Even in Winter, when the direct sun hits a snow-free patch of needle-covered ground, the resinous scent instantly takes me back 15 years to the sunny forests of the Colorado Front Range.
Pine forest lines-of-sight are freer and more open than in PLT forest, creating a sense of being able to see things clearly a couple of hundred yards away while still shaded and “sheltered” by the forest, something you rarely experience in a dark Wasatch PLT forest. And in this sense, the Lodgepole forests of the Uintas feel like my quickest, easiest escape to someplace that is somehow really different, which brings me to the 2nd cool thing…
All About The Boreal Forest
Botanists divide the forests of North America into a few different types. Different books define these types variously, but almost all sources define the forests here in Utah and Colorado as something like “Rocky Mountain Montane Forest.” With a few exceptions, most of the forested places I’ve blogged about fall into this category. Another type is “Sierra Montane Forest” which I blogged about last summer during our Tahoe Vacation. Each of these, and another type, Northwest Coastal Forest, covers huge areas of Western North America, and varies considerably over its respective range. But the most extensive Western Forest of all is the most Northerly, the Boreal Forest.
The Boreal Forest stretches across Canada from Labrador to the Canadian coastal ranges and up into Southern Nunavut and the Alaskan Interior. It’s a vast, dark, cold forest, constituted by just a handful of tree species. The Northern 2/3 is dominated by Spruce (White and Black) and Larch, but the Southern 1/3 comprises North America’s most extensive pine forest, a broad, trans-continental swathe of Pines, dominated by Lodgepole in the West, and its close cousin Jack Pine, Pinus banksiana, to the East.
And I should mention that the North American Boreal Forest is just a part of a broader, circumpolar Boreal forest that rings the entire Northern hemisphere. Clear across Siberia, the Urals, Scandinavia, the vast Boreal forest continues, albeit with slightly different species. (The most common Eurasian-Boreal pine is our old friend Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris.)
Lodgepole spans well beyond the Boreal Forest, down the spines of the Rockies and the Sierra, and into the Northwest coastal forests of Washington and British Columbia. But its stronghold, its base, its home is the mighty Boreal North, and its presence in these Southern forests are extensions from that stronghold.
Tangent: Lodgepole has also been introduced in many areas outside of North America, including Europe, South America, and most importantly, New Zealand. Naturalized Lodgepoles have created extensive forests in New Zealand, which have, sadly, out-competed and pushed aside forests of native trees.
I blogged a couple weeks ago about how the desert of Southern Arizona is really more of a fringe of the true Sonoran desert. While the forests of the Uintas can’t really be characterized as Boreal, their Lodgepoles represent the southernmost extension of Lodgepole into Utah and the Great Basin. If you drive just 50 or 100 miles North, they’re all over the place; Lodgepole is the most common tree in Wyoming. When you hike in Yellowstone, or the Tetons, or the Wind Rivers, you’re hiking in Lodgepole. But here in Utah, they end in the Uintas, and their presence always seems like- if not quite a “fringe”- then perhaps an echo of the vast Boreal Forest to the North, and I often return home from a day in the Uintas with thoughts of caribou, permafrost and taiga in my head…
Side Note: Lodgepole does occur a bit further South in Utah, in isolated stands up to ~30 miles South of the Uintas, but nevermore- to my knowledge- in real forests. Outside of Utah it extends significantly further South. Along the Colorado Front range it reaches clear down and into Northern New Mexico, and in the Sierra it pops up- after a ~250 mile break- in the San Gabriel Mountains continues in isolated mountain pockets even into extreme Northern Baja. These SoCal-Baja stands are almost certainly remnants from Lodgepole’s more southerly Ice Age range. But here in the Great Basin, the, Uintas mark Lodgepole’s effective Southern limit.
The third cool thing about Lodgepole is its story of post-glacial dispersal and evolution. Depending on who’s counting, there are between 3 and 6 subspecies of Lodgepole. For this post, I’ll go with 4, since I’ve seen 3 of them, and the 4th is pretty well-accepted. Here in the Rockies, the Lodgepoles are all P. contorta latifolia, which extends North along the Canadian Rockies into the Yukon and clear to Alaska.
Over in the Sierra is P. contorta murrayana, (pic below, left)which, though slow-growing, is the stoutest and most impressive of the subspecies. In the Northwest, and extending up along the coast into the Alaska panhandle is P. contorta contorta, and the 4th race, P. contorta bolanderi, or Bolander Pine, is a dwarf subspecies which grows only on the terraces behind Mendocino. Awesome Wife and I visited Bolander Pine last June; it’s the only pine in the world with no resin canals in its needles.
The reason for all these subspecies is that that Lodgepoles survived the last ice age in several different refugia (ice-free areas.) Traditionally it was assumed that our latifolia survived in the Southern Rockies, but recent genetic research indicates that it may have survived in 2 or possibly 3 distinct refugia. The first, less controversial, 2 were in the Southern Rockies, and then somewhere closer to home here in the Great Basin. The 3rd, more questionable, refuge may have actually been up in the Yukon, where a population may have survived the last glacial period either in an ice-free, glacier-surrounded range, or an ice-free area North of the ice sheet.
But contorta’s story is also fascinating; it appears to have survived in 2 distinct refugia. The first was almost certainly along the Pacific coast South of the ice. But the second appears to have been some kind of a “Pine Atlantis”, in that it was located somewhere West of the ice, out on part of the continental shelf which later became submerged as the ice sheets melted and sea levels rose a few hundred feet.
Lastly, bolanderii is mostly closely-related to contorta, and appears be a recent adaption to local soil conditions.
This whole, 20,000-30,000 year saga is but a blip within a greater evolutionary story, the speciation of Jack Pine and Lodgepole. These species are still closely related enough to create fully-fertile hybrids where they meet up in Alberta and Nunavut, and seem to have diverged sometime in the last couple of million years, during the last “Ice Age”.
Let’s Define “Ice Age”
The term “Ice Age” gets thrown around pretty liberally. When most of us hear or use it, we’re thinking about the last “glacial period”, which peaked about 18,000 years ago, when Salt Lake City was under 1,100 feet of water (Lake Bonneville) and Manhattan was under about a mile of ice. But before that, maybe around 50,000 years ago, was another, largely “ice-free” interglacial period like today, and before that was another glacial period, and so on and so on clear back for the last 2.5 million years. This 2.5 million year-long stretch is the real “Ice Age”, and it appears to have been (and still be) the 3rd major “Ice Age” over the last billion years.
Over the course of this current “Ice Age”, the original Lodgepole-Jack Pine ancestor species was sundered repeatedly by advancing ice sheets into Eastern and Western populations, leaving us with the two closely-related species of two-needled, Boreal pine we have today.
This multi-level, drawn-out evolutionary epic, with its various sub-plots and lost refugia and delayed reunions, reads almost like a soap opera, and as I think back on so many of the other evolutionary stories I’ve blogged about- White Fir and Joshua Trees and Scrub Oak and Moose and Cougars and Dandelions and Black-Headed Grosbeaks and House Finches- it occurs to me that so many of those read like soap operas as well. And it’s this soap opera/telenovela-like aspect of evolution that makes Lodgepole such a great set-up for my next post.
Next-Up: My Obligatory (If Belated) Charles Darwin Birthday Post