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Casper Star-Tribune, Kelsey Dayton, Associated Press
TreeFight volunteers hike on Towgotee Pass in the Jackson Hole Valley in Wyoming on July 30, 2011. TreeFight solicits volunteers who hike in areas with with large whitebark pine trees at high risk for pine beetles. The volunteers place verbenone patches on trees in hope of protecting them from the beetles.

LANDER, Wyo. — Two years ago, David Gonzales started a small army he called TreeFight.

His citizen soldiers — more than 100 strong — took to the backcountry, waging a war against mountain pine beetles killing the valuable and now endangered whitebark pine trees.

The fighters stapled their secret weapon, pouches filled with pheromones, to the tree. The verbenone, a pheromone mountain pine beetles use to communicate, was meant to confuse the beetles by sending the signal the tree was full and to leave it alone.

More than 100 of Gonazales' volunteers attempted to protect more than 1,000 trees. Yet, thousands more continued to die.

This summer, Gonzales plans to create a larger army to continue the fight. In addition to working with volunteers protecting trees on hikes, he's launching a new educational component of TreeFight, teaching the next generation about the importance of whitebark pine and how it can protect the species.

The nonprofit will focus on working with kids in the outdoors.

"It's the ultimate classroom," Gonzales said. "I wish I had gone to classes in a whitebark forest when I was young."

Gonzales is working on the lessons that will teach students about ecology in an immersive and adventurous way, he said. While showing students whitebark pine trees at 9,000 feet, kids will also learn how to travel safely and comfortably in the mountains.

Gonzales plans to partner with the Teton County School District and hopes to forge relationships with other organizations, such as the Teton Science School, he said.

Gonzales worked with a small number of students last summer. The students learned about the trees in the classroom during summer school and then went with Gonzales to actually see the trees and peel away the bark to look for beetles.

At first, Gonzales thought the kids weren't listening as they kicked rocks and jostled each other.

Later, as the students wrote blog entries inspired by the experience, he found they absorbed what he said in a way adults didn't.

"We have a limited capacity for bad news and scary news and intimidating news," Gonzales said. "Kids are much more likely to really listen because this is the world they are inheriting."

In addition to working with student programs, Gonzales said TreeFight will still offer chances for adults to volunteer on hikes to place verbenone patches and ecotourism opportunities aimed at visitors to Jackson during the summer.

Last summer, TreeFight talked with the Forest Service about placing patches in designated wilderness area and if it violated the Wilderness Act.

In the future, use of verbenone patches in the wilderness will be decided on a case-by-case basis by the Forest Service, said Linda Merigliano with the Forest Service.

"I definitely see those conversations continuing," she said.

While the Forest Service didn't set a policy for pheromone patches in wilderness areas, it is going to partner with TreeFight this summer, she said.

The Forest Service plans to monitor some specific nonwilderness areas with verbenone to better understand if it works or if results can be attributed to other factors, Merigliano said.

TreeFight will probably be asked to help in the monitoring, she said.

Volunteers through TreeFight also will help plant whitebark seedlings to help with reforestation.

TreeFight began only two years ago. Its impact on saving trees is still unknown.

While most trees marked with pheromone patches survived, there isn't enough data to credit to the verbenone, Gonzales said. Other factors, such as a cold snap in October 2009 that helped keep beetle populations in check, also had an impact.

What Gonzales does know is he has to try something.

"It's still experimental," he said. "That's (part of) what science is. Hopefully we can bring students into that process and get them excited about it and get them to take part in it."

Information from: Casper Star-Tribune - Casper, http://www.trib.com