A stand of nearly 100 pine trees collected from around the world survived 45 years at Washington State University’s Lind Dryland Research Station, before succumbing to wildfire in June.
“All of us at the station look at this as a big loss,” said station director Bill Schillinger.
Since 1928, WSU scientists have raised trees and shrubs at Lind, testing their practicality for landscaping and farm windbreaks in Washington’s arid country—Lind averages less than 10 inches of rainfall annually. Trees were planted periodically and monitored for decades.
In May of 1976, Lind staff planted 329 seedlings of the Austrian pine, Pinus nigra Arnold, on the southeast corner of the station’s property. Seedlings came from 40 different sources, including Austria, France, Greece, Spain, and the former Yugoslavia and U.S.S.R.
Drought-tolerant trees that can live for hundreds of years, Austrian pines are commonly planted as windbreaks and ornamental trees in eastern Washington, but their survival and growth are challenged by the area’s windy and very arid conditions. The WSU trials aimed to find the best sources for trees that could do well here.
By 2021, 85 of the original 300‑plus trees were still alive, and doing well—until the Lind Fire broke out Sunday, June 27, a windy 105‑degree day. As the fire neared the station, it hit the Austrian pine stand first, totally engulfing it.
The fire also burned several acres of winter wheat and wheat stubble at the station, and also destroyed a shed before firefighters brought it under control.
While wheat crops and the shed can be replaced, the Austrian pine collection was probably unique in the world.
“These were the hardy survivors,” Schillinger said. “They made it through thick and thin,” including multiple major drought years, of which this is among the worst. The station has seen only 4.9 inches of precipitation since Sept. 1, 2020, and received only 1/10th of an inch of rain since March 1.
“It’s unheard-of dry, absurdly dry,” said Schillinger, who has worked at the station for 29 years.
Luckily, some of the trees’ progeny live on. More than a decade ago, staff at Lind took cones from the hardiest, grew seedlings, and planted them in the station’s general nursery. Their lineage and origin aren’t well documented, but those trees are still thriving.
Replacing a 45‑year‑old stand of internationally sourced trees would be expensive and time-consuming. While the experimental stand was no longer being monitored, the burned trees were a resource for knowledge and seeds, and helped make the station distinctive.
“How do you put a value on that?” Schillinger asked. “These trees have always been here during our time at WSU.”