By Mary H. Williams, Tribal Relations Coordinator, Bitterroot National Forest
A December 4 letter to the Bitterroot Star contained an unfortunate and all-too-widespread piece of misinformation regarding the death of the Medicine Tree. It stated that “some low-life salted the tree and killed it.” While this characterization of the would-be perpetrator as a “low-life” may be accurate, the statement that salting killed the tree is not. It is true that salt was dumped around the base of the Medicine Tree in the winter of 1995. However the ground was frozen solid, and the salt was discovered and removed almost immediately, before it could leach into the ground.
The three- to four-hundred-year-old Tree had been in decline since the late 1980s. By early 1997, it was obviously dying from the top down, with almost the entire crown involved by 1998. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes requested that the Forest Service test the tree to determine the cause of mortality. On March 30, 1999, tribal representatives Tony Incashola and Gene Beaverhead, acting District Ranger Dan Ritter, Sula District Silviculturist Stan Underwood, and I accompanied Northern Region Forest Health Protection pathologist Dr. Greg DeNitto to the site, where he examined the tree and took soil samples.
According to DeNitto’s report, issued in May 1999, the tree apparently had been under attack by a variety of insects for about two years, most likely by the pine engraver (Ips pini) followed up by western pine beetle (Dendroctonus brevicomis). Soil samples were analyzed at the University of Idaho Analytical Sciences Laboratory for cation exchange capacity (CEC) and chlorine levels. The results showed levels within established norms and within ranges expected for forested soils. Shrubs surrounding the Medicine Tree were healthy, making it unlikely that other toxic substances had been applied to the ground.
The report concluded, “Human effects likely did play a role in the decline and death of the Medicine Tree. These effects, though, were not purposeful, but were a result of years of actions in the tree’s vicinity. Such effects include the construction and location of Highway 93, the amount of foot traffic around the tree and the encroachment of vegetation because of the lack of fire. These and possibly other factors added stresses to a tree that was approaching the end of a normal life span. Ponderosa pines normally live from 300 to 600 years. Because of these stresses and the low vigor of the tree, native insects were able to successfully attack what to them was suitable habitat. These attacks by beetles and possibly other insects resulted in the tree’s mortality.”
The Ravalli Republic reported this information on August 18, 1999 in a story headlined “Medicine Tree Killed by Bugs.” A copy of the original Forest Service report is on file at the Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor’s Office. For everyone’s benefit, let’s put this rumor (salting killed the tree) to rest.