Come join Walking Mountains on Thursday for ‘Lodgepole Project’ |

Come join Walking Mountains on Thursday for ‘Lodgepole Project’

Peter Suneson
Special to the Daily
Autumn in an infested lodgepole forest in Colorado. Photographer Steven DeWitt's "Lodgepole Project" documents the struggles of local lodgepole pines.
Steven C. DeWitt Jr. | Special to the Daily |


What: “The Lodgepole Project” — a photo narrative.

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Walking Mountains Science Center, Avon.

Cost: $5 suggested donation.

More information: email

Pinus contorta does not sound like a species that would be noted for its strength, straightness and stability. The story of the pinus contorta in North American forests begins as a species known for its physical integrity, but it has taken a disastrous twist in the past couple of decades that will forever change the role of this species that has sheltered human beings for centuries.

For once, our colloquialisms and common names make more sense than the ever-present (at least in the sciences!) Latin. First described after encounters on the Pacific Coast, the lodgepole pine or pinus contorta was named for the gnarled, contorted shape they can develop in maritime environments. As Native Americans mingled with settlers across the Midwest and High Plains, the contorta imagery was ditched and the pines instead became known for their utility and straightness, which was essential for plains Indians’ tepees.

Documenting the spiral of the lodgepole

The current downward spiral of the health of our native lodgepole forests is attributed to many things. A century of fire exclusion has allowed our forests to become communities of homogenously aged individuals. Imagine a community where everyone’s knuckles were as contorted as the grain of a Pacific lodgepole. Warming winters and drier summers have also left the aging population more susceptible to disease, infestation and high-intensity fires. Lodgepole pine communities have been left to feed, shelter and protect themselves in a climate that is changing faster than the tree’s ability to adapt.

By now, many residents and visitors alike have seen the devastating effects of the native mountain pine beetle on lodgepole communities, but representing healthy stands of lodgepole that have been lost in a way that is tangible is a more difficult message to share. It is hard to imagine, if you never played Frisbee golf in Frisco or hiked on the North Trail outside of Vail, that the mountainsides were once thick with mature lodgepole pines.

However, local photographer and Eagle County resident Steven DeWitt started an ambitious project to catalog the devastation in a way that makes it easy for people to relate to. “The Lodgepole Project” is DeWitt’s way of giving a face, an image, a sense of time and history lost to the few remaining lodgepole stands and the effect of a rapidly changing climate. His portraits of local celebrities such as Mary Ellen Gilliland — author of the coffee table staple “The Vail Hiker” — and professional snowboarders Kjersti Buass and Chanelle Sladics tell the story of what losing our lodgepole forests means to individuals who have lived and loved the trees.

As professional environmental interpreters, many of the staff at Walking Mountains Science Center strive to forge emotional and intellectual connections between our fellow community members and the stories of our natural surroundings. DeWitt is doing just that. Learning about the ecology of lodgepole pine communities and the health of our forests through photography allows us to visualize the interconnectedness and intangible qualities we share with our environment. His narrative through pictures is emotional, tragic and hopeful all at once. Join Walking Mountains on Thursday for ‘The Lodgepole Project.”

Peter Suneson is adult programs instructor at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon.

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