Bringing back the sugar pine |

Bringing back the sugar pine

Gregory Crofton

John Pickett, who formed the Sugar Pine Foundation last fall, points to the lower branches of a sugar pine that shows signs of having been infected by a fungus called blister rust. Pickett is asking residents in the Lake Tahoe Basin to help him identify sugar pines in their neighborhoods. Photos by Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune

The sugar pine – the tallest pine tree in North America, which grows needles in bundles of five and produces large, long pine cones – is native to Tahoe.

Blister rust – a fungus that turns pine needles orange, makes bark peel from branches and kills trees – originated in China. When the pines and fungus mix, it’s the tree that loses out.

In the last 20 years, the Lake Tahoe Basin has lost many of its sugar pines to blister rust, taking a toll on the relatively small population that remained after the Comstock logging era. But because one man wants to preserve the native mix of trees in the Sierra, that trend may change.

John Pickett, a tax accountant turned forester, recently formed a nonprofit group call the Sugar Pine Foundation. It aims to boost the number of sugar pines in the basin by planting seedlings resistant to the fungus.

He knows the project will take decades, cost a lot of money and involve thousands of seedlings, but he says he’s willing to do the job.

“I like the Sierra and it’s just such an important tree for those of us who love the Sierra and the history of the Sierra,” said Pickett, a 40-year-old from South Lake Tahoe who is an experienced tree climber. “And it’s the largest pine tree in the world with the largest cone in the world.”

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Key to getting his program started is cooperation from residents. Because many of the healthy sugar pines in the basin are located on private property, Pickett is asking residents this spring to identify the trees near their homes and inform him of the location of any sugar pines.

That way, once he has permission from the landowner, Pickett can inspect the tree in an attempt to determine if it has been infected with blister rust. If there is no sign of it, Pickett will return in the fall with climbing gear to collect seeds from cones produced by the tree.

Once the seeds are in hand, they will be sent to the U.S. Forest Service’s Placerville Nursery where a greenhouse that’s part of the Eldorado National Forest system specializes in growing blister rust-resistant seedlings. Pickett also plans to have some seedlings grown in the basin by willing partners.

“It would provide a good partnership,” said Joan Dunlap, manager of the nursery’s Sugar Pine Blister Rust Resistance program. “I know John is planning to do a collection of seeds … so we’re hoping to have a partnership with him where he can provide seeds for us and we provide blister rust screening for him.”

In addition to needing cooperation of residents around the basin – sugar pines grow on every shore – Pickett needs money, about $40,000 a year, to operate the program. He has already applied for a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but he said he could use private donations, too.

Thus far, in addition to an indication of support from the Forest Service, forestry experts for California and Nevada have agreed to do what they can to help Pickett start his program.

“It’s an additional opportunity to get some additional funding and human resources to go do stuff we might otherwise not do,” said Roland Shaw, a forester for the Nevada Division of Forestry who works in the basin. “If he goes out, secures grant funding, goes and finds rust-resistant trees, climbs the trees and gets the cones – that’s a biggie. When that comes along … a lot of times it gets pretty pricey when you’re collecting cones.”

Shaw said it is an environmental goal for the basin to revitalize its sugar pine population, much of which has been replaced by white fir, a tree less resistant to fire than the towering, high-limbed sugar pine.

Today, doing what it can to protect the trees, the Nevada Division of Forestry cuts down white firs that are encroaching on sugar pines.

“We’re kind of clearing out around those pockets, and trying to do a little underburning,” Shaw said.

To contact Pickett with information about sugar pine trees in your neighborhood, call (530) 542-6250 or e-mail him at