'Ghost Forests': UM grad's film to premiere on MontanaPBS
Laura Scheer Feb 5, 2021
In a new film premiering on MontanaPBS this month, journalist Breanna McCabe tells the story of a threatened tree and the researchers trying desperately to save it.
“Ghost Forests,” (undefined ) airing Feb. 18, takes viewers to high-elevation landscapes to examine how native mountain pine beetles and a disease called blister rust are killing off vast swaths of whitebark pine at alarming rates, driven by climate change in the Rocky Mountain West.
It follows University of Montana researchers, Canadian national parks managers and members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as they work to save and restore the species across the landscape.
“I was blown away by the combination of threats for this tree,” said McCabe, a 2020 graduate of the environmental science and natural resource journalism program at UM. The film, named after the ghostly look of a dead whitebark pine forest, was her thesis project and the result of three years of research and filming in the backcountry of the Rockies.
The idea first caught McCabe’s attention at the UM journalism program’s annual Crown Reporting Project dinner in February 2018, where she was seated next to UM forest entomologist Diana Six.
“She told us throughout the dinner about her research, that even in forests that pine beetles devour and absolutely devastate, there’s a few survivors,” McCabe said. “They look healthy on the outside, they seem to be everything a beetle would need, but something is making them survive.”
Six, who’s spent the last two decades researching whitebark pine and mountain pine beetle kill, discovered a genetic resistance in the survivor trees that researchers now hope can be used to save the species.
At that very dinner, McCabe pitched what would become “Ghost Forests” to the room and ended up winning one of two $5,000 fellowships given through the Crown Reporting Project.
She dove into research and interviews and soon learned that Six was not alone in her efforts to restore whitebark pine.
In addition to visiting Six’s research sites outside Missoula, “Ghost Forests” takes viewers across three mountains in Canada’s Yoho and Kootenay national parks, following a team of “cone cagers” who climb whitebark to protect cones that may show resistance to mountain pine beetles and blister rust, and also features ongoing interagency work on the Flathead Reservation to monitor tree resistance and death across their land.
McCabe said whitebark pine is considered a keystone species — its seeds are a primary food source for grizzly bears and other animals — so its survival is essential to the survival of the ecosystem as a whole. Her goal with the film is to bring attention to issues the tree is facing, but also to inspire hope through the work of the researchers trying to save it.
“It’s tough to characterize a tree and get people interested in a tree, but that’s the challenge I took on ultimately.”
Missoula is the perfect place to tell the story of whitebark pine, she said, adding there’s even a “ghost forest” up at Montana Snowbowl ski area.
“Whitebark pine is all around us historically," McCabe said. "The people who care deeply about whitebark pine are out here in the West and Missoula is a hub of all of that.”
McCabe admits the situation for the whitebark pine is dire, but she wants viewers to feel inspired by the passion of the researchers she features in the film.
“The people doing this work are hopeful,” she said. “They are dedicating their lives to this effort. It’s hard work saving this species and it’s not for their own benefit. We’re not going to see how this ends — it will be our grandkids and our great-grandkids.”
After graduating, McCabe landed a job with MontanaPBS this past April and said it’s a great venue for telling longform, in-depth stories like “Ghost Forests.”
“I feel like I’m living the dream to be able to be here telling stories that are important to Montanans,” she said.
Ghost Forests documentary
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