The Discovery of the Ponderosa Pines and their Current Taxonomy

There may only be a few of us interested in skimming the verbiage but Figure 1 on the report page 2 (.pdf page 6) is a wonderful picture of the complexity and adaptability of a single forest species and therefore a good example of why one size does not fit all. To me it also shows the inherent processes already at work to naturally deal with climate change through the process of evolution driven by survival of the fittest. See also Figure 2 on page 18 (.pdf page 22). The detailed discussion of the five currently accepted subspecies begins on page 25 (.pdf page 29).

The first published allusion to Pinus ponderosa is in the journal of Lewis and Clark, who, in ascending the Missouri River in September, 1804, at the outset of their transcontinental journey, found the cones of this tree,brought down from the pineries of northwestern Nebraska, floating onWhite River, and heard of the pine forest on the Black Hills of Dakota.” The taxonomic history of Ponderosa Pine begins on page 1 (.pdf page 5).

I look forward to hearing from others as to any ramifications of these subspecies on silvicultural practices in regard to minimizing the impact of fire and insect damages and other policy related issues. I’m pretty sure that we have at least 2 regular blog posters who can shed more light on this very important keystone species in certain forest ecosystems.


  1. …inherent processes already at work to naturally deal with climate change through the process of evolution driven by survival of the fittest….

    Nature will “deal with” climate change, that’s obvious, but whether it will be “dealt with” in ways that are meaningfully favorable to humans is another question. Darwin used (borrowed) the term “survival of the fittest” many years ago, but modern biologists don’t use it except in a historical context. Here’s a pretty good explanation why: Greg Laden is also pretty blunt about it, calling the use of “survival of the fittest” in the context of natural selection a “falsehood”, because “…it is a statement that when uttered in certain company rings true; It is a statement that sounds right to people; It is a statement that may be made frequently in reference to some body of knowledge, in this case, evolution or a related topic. But, the meaning that statement comes with is flawed.”

    Whether ponderosa pine should be called a “keystone species” is also questionable, does it fit the definition that most ecologists use, where a keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance? Probably not, but I guess you could argue it. The usage of the term in the above post is actually similar to that of Greenpeace, who apparently identify ponderosa-dominated forests as “keystone forests” (and urge a moratorium on logging there for that reason, as I understand it), but that usage is perhaps based more on convenience/politics than on science.

    Maybe this is an excessive focus on terminology, but forestry is a technical discipline so might as well get the related terminology more or less correct. And the topic of this post is a good one, so it’s worthwhile being accurate about it.

    • Regarding ponderosa pine, as drought seems to be cyclical, pines are always at the edge of forests, which often also seems to be where humans live. Ponderosa pine forests could suddenly become scarce, especially with a warming world, encroaching lodgepoles and true firs, bark beetle blooms and catastrophic wildfires. As we are seeing in the area of the Rim Fire, it is VERY difficult to “grow” pine forests back, with all the variables of modern forests, including man’s unavoidable impacts.

      Some people seems to subscribe to “survival of the richest”. You can mitigate the environmental effects on your life, if you have enough money.

      • Are there scenarios where ponderosa might actually do better (relative to some other species) in a warming world? Around here (central/north Idaho) they’re fairly prolific on the hotter south-facing slopes, also pretty much the most efficient conifer at reclaiming our old cheatgrass/CRP pastures except maybe juniper which we don’t have too much of. Tap roots go down deep thru dry soil profiles. Comparatively fire resistant and somewhat self-pruning too. MPB is another story I guess…

        • Their biggest advantage over other conifer species is that they can grow in much drier conditions. However, in the driest parts of their range, they need help in getting re-established in competition with other “water competitors”. We’ve seen the results of “passive restoration” within the Rim Fire. Those 40 year old brush patches burned at higher intensity than the thinned pine plantations, planted after the Granite Fire of the early 70’s. The boom and bust cycles of precipitation seem to encourage other less fire-adapted and drought-adapted conifers to grow underneath the pine overstory, making excellent ladder fuels. Pines will usually have trouble on north-facing slopes, especially in the middle levels of their “preferred habitat”. Pines love direct sun, and don’t do well underneath other trees. A big problem is the loss of seed sources, when fires burn really hot. You might also notice the cyclic natures of “good cone years”, too. Some years, there is very little cone development.

    • GuyK

      Agree with you that a post on taxonomy is a good place to discuss terminology.

      I am not sorry that I am not Politically Correct in the eyes of some. My definition of fittest has always been consistent with your first two links. In my old age, I have finally learned that you just can’t please everyone and the older you get the less that you care about doing so. In addition, I have never known anyone who defined “fittest” in the narrow sense that your links find fault with. Fitness of a specific organism is its total chemistry that gives it an advantage over other competing organisms in the environmental variations that occur during its reproductive and child rearing lifetime.

      So to me it’s a tempest in a teapot. But let’s continue this esoteric discussion in a friendly way because the global impact of the semantics is zero and there is no pure semantic right or wrong and your links are only giving subjective opinions. As you well know, I am quite prone to jump on points that are logically inconsistent with themselves so here goes:

      Point A) Consider this quote from your first link: “natural selection does not usually mean more fit. Usually, it means elimination of the not-as-fit. Most mutations lead to broken, not fitness-enhanced, genetic variance. So, really, “Natural selection is the elimination of less-fit alleles” is way, way more correct, but still only partially correct.”
      –> So if “Natural Selection is the elimination of less-fit alleles”, then, by the process of 🙂 elimination 🙂 it is the retention (survival) of the more fit alleles. To me the author is just ludicrously wrapped up in double talk.
      –> The author is right in that his comment is only partially correct because if there were no “more fit” genetic mutations, there would be no such thing as evolution and the world would be an inorganic wasteland.

      Point B) Consider the second link’s summary definition of Natural Selection: “Natural selection is a creative process that generates or shapes adaptations over evolutionary time. For a trait to be shaped by natural selection it must be genetic and heritable. For natural selection to affect a trait there must be genetic variation in the population in this trait. This variation must confer differential fitness. And, other things (random effects and selection working away on some other trait) must not swamp out the selection.”
      –> Isn’t it interesting that this author makes all of this protestation against the word “fitness” and then ends up using it in his own verbose definition as quoted immediately above?
      –> If I am talking to someone who understands genetics then I don’t need a definition and I don’t need to use the words “Natural Selection” so I will simply refer to “evolution” which both of us will understand the full ramifications of.
      — If I am talking to someone who has no real interest in getting buried in some long definition that they probably wouldn’t understand anyway, I am going to be sensitive to their religious views and speak either to evolution or survival of the fittest as seems most appropriate. KISS (Keep It Short and Sweet [the PC definition]). The world will not end whether they correctly understand or not. If they want to understand and ask for more explanation then we’ll go from there.

      Now let’s switch to your comments about what defines a “Keystone Species”:

      Point C) “Whether ponderosa pine should be called a “keystone species””
      –> Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t – it all depends upon as you say “a keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance”. Some places it does and some places it doesn’t – one size doesn’t fit all. A simpler definition to me is that a Keystone Species creates the environment / ecosystem that the other species in the ecosystem depend upon in order to survive. So if it is a pure Ponderosa Pine Ecosystem then it is by definition a keystone species. If it is an open field of bear clover with two Ponderosa Pines / acre then it’s not. But it could also be a keystone species in a “Mixed Pine / Fir” Forest Ecosystem if its removal from the ecosystem would significantly alter the ecosystem.

      Point D) “Greenpeace, who apparently identify ponderosa-dominated forests as “keystone forests””
      –> Well, there you have it. GP has no comprehension of what they are talking about. I agree with your first inclination that this is a political and fund raising contrivance. To me, the concept of a Keystone Forest would mean that: 1) no other forest ecosystem could grow on the same site if P. pine was eliminated -OR- 2) that its elimination would cause all other forest ecosystems to collapse. I don’t think that either of these is a realistic possibility. Someone with more P. pine experience might be able to show me where there are some sites where P. pine could not be replaced (situation 1) by another forest species but, I’d be surprised.

  2. Sometime in the 1980s, I was asked by a silviculturist if I knew where there were any indigenous PPines in the Willamette Valley, as he was interested in cone collection to have diversity in the seedling offerings from the State nursery. My answer was for him to comb the riparian area of the Willamette River from Eugene to maybe Oregon City. It was my understanding that Crown Zellerbach once owned all the islands in the Willamette downstream from Albany to Oregon City, to furnish wood for their fine paper mill in Oregon City, and that they had logged mostly PPine and cottonwood from those islands. When we drifted the river duck hunting, you would notice one or two, here and there. Individuals of age, and in some places, little copses of older second growth bull pine, especially from Harrisburg down to Salem. And then the homesteaders had taken seedlings and planted them around residences. Some of those were still around. The west side of Fern Ridge Reservoir just northwest of Eugene had a vigorous second growth PPine forest over several hundred acres.

    The issue with PPine in the Willamette Valley, is that it is today mostly a riparian species. It can withstand wet feet seasonally. And when the rivers go down in summer, the gravels and loams dry out and the PPines are able to withstand the summer drought. The other thing you notice is that under a PPine in the wet climate, the needles work as a herbicide. Nothing grows under a PPine and there is a mat of fallen pine needles keeping it that way. Since the valley was burned by the aboriginals, annually, the needles were flash fuel and if you burned with some wind in your favor, the fires flashed through quickly and there was little sustained fire. Not unlike a good field burn if that were allowed today.

    I wonder if the PPines by their brushless and clean, clear spaces under them, were a preferred tree by the aboriginals for camp areas. If so, were they “planted” or “tended” in some type of “farming” or “landscape maintenance?” No matter, the vestiges of their predecessors are still here and there, and alive and well, and the State did collect cones and provide seedlings that were planted and site matched due to their only using seeds from specific location types. If the Indians were tending PPines, that has been carried on by the foresters of the State of Oregon and the private landowners who have planted trees from those seed stocks. I would think that the PPine ability to thrive in a very wet and mild climate is just another example of their diverse abilities to adjust to conditions that seems out of place.

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