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Into the woods

Ponderosa sees the forest for the pine trees

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Stories and images of the pre-colonized world are often depicted in dramatic ways: a Native American firing a bow into the flank of a galloping bison or a hunter crawling through the grass wearing a wolf hide, edging toward a wary herd. Less compelling, perhaps, but equally important to the tribes, was what happened back at camp: Native women and children stripped chunks of pulpy inner bark from the massive pine trees to use for food. In art and media, the ways in which Native people used all parts of the bison gets a lot of attention, but the ponderosa was no slouch in meeting the needs of the indigenous people. Food, housing, tools, bedding—all these things were made from parts of the ponderosa pine.

In Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West's Most Iconic Tree, veteran foresters Carl E. Fiedler and Stephen F. Arno take their best shot at raising awareness of the role ponderosa pines played at the time—not just for Native peoples, but to the Euro-Americans as well. They also make a strong case for its importance to our future.

If the West hadn't been conveniently covered with this tree, which grows across such a wide variety of climate and geography, who knows how history might have played out. Building houses for all those pioneers was one thing. Getting the infrastructure in place to carve all the gold from the earth and laying a commercial railroad system were another, much bigger deal. Here in Montana, where the ponderosa is our state tree, it is easy to look around and see the forests across our hillsides, clearcut scars and all, and assume we still have plenty of trees. To imagine what we do have is a tiny fraction of what we once had simply boggles the mind.

Ponderosa is divided into two parts. The first dozen chapters are pure natural history, discussing how indigenous groups and Spaniards in the Southwest used the tree and documenting the role it played in the science of crossdating. The book also covers the ponderosa's part in America's expansion: The gold rush in California, the logging boom and finally the birth of timber management by the Forest Service.

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These sections deal in fascinating politics. The authors pinpoint how current arguments about fire and logging, beginning in the early 1900s, continue to cycle through the years. They spend most of the space detailing the history of the "fire-industrial complex"a cool term modern critics use to talk about the whole fire management puzzle, including who benefits from the strict suppression of forest fires. Reading these sections, I'm struck by all the drama and what a deep, engaging story it makes. The history really has it all: strong characters, corruption and betrayal, all played out against the backdrop of the wild, American West.

Of course these decisions remain critical and hotly contested. With more people moving into the wildland-urban interface, expecting protection from public emergency response crews on private land, and drought and climate change making fire season a year-round problem of unprecedented proportions, the clock is ticking on making sound management decisions. Fiedler and Arno address these concerns and offer potential solutions for turning the tide before it is simply too late.

The second section of the book is something of a travel guide to 64 locations scattered throughout the West where tree geeks and wilderness enthusiasts can catch a glimpse of what these vast ponderosa forests were once like. Seeing these spots noted on a map—from the lower southwest of Texas and dotted throughout the western half of the lower 48 states and up into British Columbia—it's hard not to be astounded at the ponderosa's vast range. It's something that I had never considered before.

If I have any criticism of the book it would be that every subject—from indigenous lifestyle to the history of the Forest Service—only gets a chapter each, which makes it feel like you only scratch the surface before moving on. Then again, an entire book could likely be written based on each individual chapter, so it's understandable how the authors have presented their research. A relatively thin volume at 248 pages, Ponderosa is an excellent overview for amateur naturalists like me and a great starting point for sending people off in the right direction who want to dig a little deeper.

Carl E. Fiedler and Stephen F. Arno read from Ponderosa at Shakespeare & Co. Tue., July 28, at 7 PM.

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