By Jake Buehler
The wind rips across California's Santa Rosa Island, howling as it flattens dry grass and sage in unrelenting waves. Downhill, a small group of trees, stark against the cobalt blue of the Pacific, stand firm. Their gnarled branches barely sway, knotted up in a cloud of green needles, perpetually pinned backward like a flag in a storm.
The trees seem like an avatar of resilience in an austere environment, but Torrey pines (Pinus torreyana) are some of the most rare and critically endangered pines in the world. A century ago, the pines went through a near-extinction-level population crash when the trees, never common, were largely cleared for pastureland development. The survivors were mostly in isolated areas—like Santa Rosa Island—that had only been settled by a few trees to begin with. The number of trees has increased since then, and their blown-up bonsai appearance has made Torrey pines popular ornamental trees. But the population bottleneck caused by the near-extinction meant the obliteration of nearly all of the species' genetic diversity.