Eastern White Pines Making a Comeback in Iowa

Iowa is bringing pines back. Eastern White Pines, that is. Once a “dominant species” in the state’s Driftless area, a region characterized by steep forested ridges and deep river valleys, Eastern White Pines have grown increasingly rare in recent decades. Now, they’re being targeted for a comeback by a collaborative team of county, state and federal agencies.

As Iowa DNR Forestry Program Specialist Aron Flickinger explains, the trees have suffered from human activity, including fire suppression, allowing other species like maples and ash to grow in their place.

“As we’ve settled the land and removed fire from the landscape, these fire-friendly species have had a hard time competing,” he said. “It needs disturbance and sunlight to start. When there isn’t a harvest or some other disturbance, they can’t begin to grow.”

Most of the Eastern White Pines left in Iowa are concentrated in the White Pine Hollow State Preserve and some areas around it. The local ecotype of the species has grown in the Driftless area for centuries, and it’s well adapted to the conditions. So the state DNR, the USDA, the Iowa Native Plant Society and the Iowa Woodland Owners have joined Whitetails Unlimited to collect sees from the remaining trees and cultivate them. The seeds will also go to the state forestry nursery so seedlings can be made available to agencies and the public.

The process won’t exactly be simple. Believe it or not, the DNR team is using slingshots to overcome their biggest hurdle: the fact that the cones disperse their seeds to the wind before they fall 100 feet to the ground. According to the Iowa Telegraph Herald, that will involve launching a line with a weight on one end over a small cone-bearing branch (as pictured up top in an image by Dubuque County Conservation.)

“Once the weight gets over a branch and the weight gets down, you affix this saw chain to it, and bring it over the branch and run it back and forth,” said the research station’s Jeff Carstens.