Ponderosa Pine - At Home in the Mountains

Ponderosa Pine

This week's post is written by my uncle, Jerry Covault. Jerry is a retired United States Forest Service Ranger. During his 33 years spent working on National Forests in Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, he has learned about the relationships between mountains, forests, soils, weather, fire, animals and people.

Jerry shares some of his unique experiences in his new book "About Forests and People". He resolves to stimulate interest and curiosity about trees and forests and how people use them both through the ages and at present time. Jerry also discusses the problems our forests and environment have today and he suggests a few things that can help.

The following essay by Jerry Covault is taken from his book "About Forests and People".

Ponderosa pine is handsome and it gets big. To be in a stand (a foresters’ term) of big ponderosa with their orange plates of thick bark shining in the sun is akin to being in a grand cathedral - better. Ponderosa pines have long dark needles wrapped in bundles of twos and threes. Those dark green needles get even darker in winter. They are the source of the name for the Black Hills of South Dakota. It’s a good thing ponderosa is so striking to see because its name sure doesn’t give any hint of what it’s about.

These beauties like to show off so they like to be in the lower mountain elevations where people can see them. That hasn’t been a great strategy for the biggest trees because it made them the first ones cut by early loggers in the West. The stories of driving a team of horses pulling a wagon for miles though valleys forested with big ponderosa are pretty much all we have left of those times, see the book, "Following Old Trails" by Arthur L. Stone, Missoulian Editor, 1913. Those beautiful ponderosa pine stands were the result of management policies by Native Americans over long periods of time. They set fire to the forests - often. That meant the flame lengths were only four, eight, or maybe twelve feet because of the frequent burns there wasn’t much fuel on the ground to carry a hot fire. These “cool” fires would not kill the bigger trees because their thick bark insulates the phloem and cambium, but the "cool" fires would stimulate the growth of grass and shrubs the following year, providing excellent feed for deer, elk, and buffalo the people relied on for food. This forest management policy served the people well for over four hundreds of generations.

These fires would certainly kill any small trees in the way of the flames, but fire in the forest doesn’t burn uniformly. There will be many spots within a fire’s general perimeter that are not burned or burned very lightly. It may be that there was not enough ground fuel to carry the fire, or the humidity came up, or the wind changed, or night came, whatever the reasons, some areas within a fire are left unburned. Small trees survive in these spots. In the next fire cycle, these small trees may have grown their bark thick enough to survive a cool fire and they are on their way to becoming a 250 year old big beautiful orange barked ponderosa - that smells like vanilla, or butterscotch if you smell the bark up close. These trees are somewhat shade tolerant, but not total shade. That characteristic causes the trees to be spaced out so everyone gets some sun and trees of various size and age are growing near one another. These factors make for what is called a “park-like” forest. We can visualize that. So when the early settlers came, there were beautiful park-like ponderosa pine forests, provided by the First People’s management and time - hundreds of years.

The fire management strategy that created the mature ponderosa pine forest in the valleys was really designed to stimulate the grasses and shrubs for the grazing and browsing animals the people needed to survive. If a change in weather caused a fire that had been burning for several weeks to become a threat to their village, the people could simply take the cover off the lodgepoles and move their homes out of the way.

When settlers came to the valleys it was a different story, they built permanent homes, barns, fences, etc.. These structures needed boards, the big pines were cut to make those boards. Fires could not be tolerated because if a fire burned freely it could burn homesteads - and that was before insurance was invented. A new policy would evolve for managing ponderosa pine forests, the policy we are living with today. It doesn’t include allowing trees to become 250 years old, we can make use of their wood long before they reach that mature age. Today there aren’t many of these magnificent old growth ponderosa pine forests, the few exist in specially protected areas such as Wilderness, special study areas on public lands and a few places here and there where a continuum of people who simply appreciate beauty have said, "no we won’t cut these pines, at least not now."


What’s your favorite -----,
A fair question.
One way a young boy divines
His own preferences, and the World.
“What’s your favorite tree?”
No one-line answer for that one!
A beautiful question,
Deserving an answer from
Head and heart.

Alpine Larch, an evergreen that speckles the mountains yellow in fall,
Rocky Mountain Juniper, resident of the dry foothills,
Western White Pine, simply regal and beautiful,
Aspen, Kelly green in spring and flaming candles in fall,
Alpine Fir, sharp pointed top, high on the mountain,
Cottonwood, companion to rivers,
Ponderosa Pine, its trunk a puzzle of orange plates,
Red Cedar, mysterious, where gnomes live,
White Bark Pine, artful, high on the mountain,
Mountain Hemlock, always bowing at its top,
Lodgepole Pine, straight as an arrow, except when they’re not,

Good reasons for each:
Beauty, dominance,
Fast growing,
Inspiring, populace, persistent,
Long lived, interesting.

I think it has to be ----,
It is at home in the mountains
Where snow comes in November,
Goes in April.

It shares space with grass,
Brush, wild critters
When they let it,

Common looking when young,
At maturity it’s
Beauty comes together,
Color, size, shape, and quiet
welcoming presence.
Ponderosa shows experience
and balance.
It is adapting, persisting,
It knows how to occupy space
In time and on the land.

Allowed to, ponderosa pine will,
With earth, fire, wind, rain
And time,
Form a beautiful community.
People need to think about that.

I guess Ponderosa Pine is my
That’s a good question Sam.

These beauties show off

A Grand Cathedral

A quiet, welcoming presence

A park-like forest

A magnificent forest

A beautiful community

It shares space

Handsome and big

At home in the mountains

Adaptable and persistent

Striking beauty

Ponderosa Pine is my favorite


  1. Thank you, Dan! I share a love of the forest with you and your uncle. Looks like a fascinating book. What a great heritage you have.

  2. Thanks so much Donna. I have a great appreciation for the American West but I don't know half as much about our natural world as Jerry does. I enjoy reading his essays and I will continue to share them on here.


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