Heroes: David Gonzales, 46

This eco-obsessed author and photographer is saving his local forest, one tree at a time.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

For nearly a decade, David Gonzales was too busy skiing, hiking, and climbing out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to truly notice the forest around him. But in 2009, on a ride up the ski resort tram, a friend pointed out the dead, red needles in the broccoli-shaped trees at timberline. Extreme winter cold spells (-13 to -31°F) once protected the ancient, slow-growing whitebark pines from native mountain pine beetles. But the weather has warmed thanks to global climate change, and suddenly entire ridgelines of trees are being killed (the phenomenon has occurred elsewhere, but with ponderosa and lodgepole pines).

Gonzales soon learned he was witnessing an impending ecological disaster: More than 20 species rely on the whitebark’s high-calorie seeds. Red squirrels hide caches of the cones, which grizzlies raid for two-thirds of their prehibernation calories. Clark’s nutcrackers stash seeds, thereby planting future generations. The trees, which can live 1,000 years, also prevent erosion and help hold snow for consistent summer water flows.

Faced with such a large, dispersed problem, most of us would just shake our heads. Gonzales got to work. First, he produced a documentary, Seeing Red, which won best environmental film at Boise’s Backcountry Film Festival in 2010. Then he heard about an ecologist in Grand Teton National Park who was stapling packetsof a chemical called verbenone to healthy whitebarks. Verbenone mimics a pheromone beetles use to announce that a tree is occupied; Forest Service research shows it can prevent infestation in 80 percent of treated trees. “It occurred to me,” Gonzales says, “that this is something that my friends and I could do.” 

So in 2010, he bought 1,000 packets—for $4,000—and recruited about 100 volunteers to staple them to whitebarks around Jackson Hole. The packets only protect a tree for one year, so in 2011, he did it again. Gonzales now gets his verbenone from the Forest Service, and he targets trees that ecologists have deemed high-priority. The trees with pouches have almost all survived, while nearby unprotected trees have died. Since 2010, Gonzales and his nonprofit TreeFight have attracted 400 volunteers from across the U.S. In addition to stapling packets, they’ve hiked high into the mountains to plant 3,000 seedlings grown in Forest Service nurseries from whitebarks that have proven resistant to another blight—white pine blister rust. 

People are sometimes puzzled by Gonzales’ passion for the whitebark pine. But he says we’re all implicated in the trees’ demise, thanks to the effects of our energy consumption. “Seeing just how quickly our human-caused global warming has destroyed all these ancient trees, I feel a responsibility,” he says. Even if he can’t eliminate the beetles himself, he is attracting attention to the problem. When Gonzales leads his tree fighters into the mountains each summer, he notices the same transformation in them that occurred in him in 2009. On the hike in, they’re looking down at their feet. “On the way out,” he says, “they’re all looking at the treetops.” 

Take it from me… 

>> See the forest and the trees. 
Whitebarks have completely changed the way I hike. I’m so much more aware of my surroundings. Before, when I was skiing or climbing, everything was just an approach. Now I have such a greater awareness of the ecosystem around me—which helps keep me inspired to protect it.

>> Ask a friend. How do you get people off their butts? TreeFight’s theory: If you want to get someone to come do something, you have to ask him personally.

>> Be sexy. Social media tip: Get a bunch of attractive athletes to come with you, take pictures, and tag them on Facebook. It’s incredible how much attention people will pay to that. I think environmentalism has done itself a disservice by not being sexy enough. 

>> Get involved. Go to treefight.org and sign up to help. We provide staplers, staples, and pouches. Volunteers just bring food, water, warm clothes, and bear spray. You don’t have to be any more prepared than you would be for an alpine dayhike. Our slogan is “Fight now, hug later.” We’re not hippies; we’re normal people seeing a need.

Trending on Backpacker