Invasive beech leaf disease was first confirmed in Michigan in July 2022 after landowners noticed its characteristic thickened leaf bands on trees in a small woodlot in St. Clair County. Since then, new detections in Oakland and Wayne counties indicate the disease is more widespread.
Beech leaf disease is associated with the nematode Litylenchus crenatae, a microscopic worm that enters and spends the winter in leaf buds, causing damage to leaf tissue on American, European and Asian beech species. Trees weakened by leaf damage become susceptible to other diseases and can die within six to 10 years after initial symptoms.
Affected trees have been found on properties in Birmingham, Bloomfield, China, Clay, Grosse Pointe Shores, Rochester and Troy. The condition of the leaves at these sites suggests the infestations have been present for at least a year, possibly longer.
Though leaves are changing and beginning to fall, Simeon Wright, Michigan Department of Natural Resources forest health specialist, says there is still time to check beech trees for signs of the disease.
“We’ve now seen beech leaf disease in both woodlots and individual urban trees in southeast Michigan. The disease causes dark, thick bands between leaf veins, which can be seen on both green and brown leaves,” said Wright. “If you have beech trees, take time now to look for symptoms.”
Beech leaf disease nematodes also are associated with damaged leaf tissue and dead buds. From one year to the next, leaf curling and distortion may progress, resulting in withered or yellow leaves and a thin canopy. Noticeable leaf loss can occur in early summer on heavily infested trees.
Why be concerned?
Many questions about beech leaf disease remain unanswered. Researchers are still working to understand if the Litylenchus crenatae nematode is the primary cause of the disease or the carrier of another causal agent responsible for the disease.
“Because of this, we don’t yet know all the ways the disease might be spread,” said Wright. “Currently there are no known treatments to protect trees or reduce disease impacts, although trials are ongoing.”
Michigan is home to approximately 37 million American beech trees. The potential spread of this disease through the region could have a devastating effect on beech trees, which play a significant role in both forests and urban landscapes across the state.
Report potential infestations
Take time now to look for any signs of the disease on American or ornamental beech trees. If you suspect you have found a symptomatic tree, take one or more photos of the infested tree, including close-ups of affected leaves; note the location, date and time; and report it in one of the following ways:
First identified in Ohio in 2012, beech leaf disease has now been documented in areas of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and Ontario.
The microscopic nematodes cannot move long distances on their own. It is possible that the disease can spread through the movement of infested nursery stock and other beech material containing leaves and buds. As a precaution, beech trees, tree material and firewood should not be moved from areas of known infestation.
What is being done?
Beech leaf disease was added to Michigan’s invasive species watch list in January 2021 to encourage nurseries, foresters, residents and land managers to look for and report suspected infestations.
Tree surveys continue across the state, with Michigan State University forest health researchers reporting no additional detections of beech leaf disease in their surveys this year. Researchers from University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability are planning surveys for 2023, and the DNR and Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are working with cooperative invasive species management areas in southeast Michigan to broaden survey efforts near affected areas.
A University of Queensland study has shed new light on a mysterious, unpredictable and potentially devastating kind of astrophysical event.
A team led by Dr. Benjamin Pope from UQ’s School of Mathematics and Physics applied cutting edge statistics to data from millennia-old trees, to find out more about radiation “storms.”
“These huge bursts of cosmic radiation, known as Miyake Events, have occurred approximately once every thousand years, but what causes them is unclear,” Dr. Pope said.
“The leading theory is that they are huge solar flares. We need to know more, because if one of these happened today, it would destroy technology including satellites, internet cables, long-distance power lines and transformers. The effect on global infrastructure would be unimaginable.”
Enter the humble tree ring.
First author Qingyuan Zhang, a UQ undergraduate math student, developed software to analyze every available piece of data on tree rings.
“Because you can count a tree’s rings to identify its age, you can also observe historical cosmic events going back thousands of years,” Mr. Zhang said. “When radiation strikes the atmosphere, it produces radioactive carbon-14, which filters through the air, oceans, plants, and animals, and produces an annual record of radiation in tree rings. We modeled the global carbon cycle to reconstruct the process over a 10,000-year period, to gain insight into the scale and nature of the Miyake Events.”
The common theory until now has been that Miyake Events are giant solar flares.
“But our results challenge this,” Mr. Zhang said. “We’ve shown they’re not correlated with sunspot activity, and some actually last one or two years. Rather than a single instantaneous explosion or flare, what we may be looking at is a kind of astrophysical ‘storm’ or outburst.”
Dr. Pope said the fact scientists don’t know exactly what Miyake Events are, or how to predict their occurrence, is very disturbing.
“Based on available data, there’s roughly a one percent chance of seeing another one within the next decade. But we don’t know how to predict it or what harms it may cause. These odds are quite alarming, and lay the foundation for further research,” he concluded.
The research is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, and was completed with help from undergraduate math and physics students Utkarsh Sharma and Jordan Dennis.
Mike Ortmeier with 20-lb bags of seed he collected for the Virginia Department of Forestry. (Mike Ortmeier)
The start of September may signify to some that fall is coming, but Mike Ortmeier looks forward to a different type of fall – the fall of acorns from native trees.
For Ortmeier, the sight of the first acorn on the ground means it’s time for him to break out his broom and dustpan and add to the more than 8,000 pounds of acorns he’s collected for the state over the past 13 years.
Every year, Ortmeier walks up and down the streets within a one-mile radius of his Arlington home each day sweeping up acorns during the roughly one-and-a-half-month collection window designated by the state, starting in September. He can collect hundreds of pounds each day in a good year, he said, and has accumulated a total of over 715,000 acorns across eight species of trees.
The Virginia Department of Forestry plants the acorns and nuts from native tree species at state-run nurseries to grow into seedlings that will be transplanted throughout the state. These seedlings will help reforestation projects and, in turn, can decrease the amount of carbon in the atmosphere while increasing biodiversity.
“In just a few hours of collecting acorns, you have the potential for forests of these huge oak trees that bring all the benefits with that,” said Katie Blackman, vice president of operations and programs for the Potomac Conservancy. “What we are really looking for is more Mikes.”
Ortmeier’s collection journey began in the fall of 2009 after he retired from the U.S. Department of Energy, where he worked as an economist. He and his wife came across a nearby acorn collection station set up by the Potomac Conservancy, which donates the seeds to state-run nurseries. Realizing that his yard and neighborhood were abundant with acorns, he put two and two together and decided to start collecting them. The conservancy provided him with a user’s guide to collecting seeds and acorns, as well as other resources to help him get started.
“Well,” Ortmeier said, “it turned into something bigger because I kind of like doing it.”
Every fall, he collects the seeds independently and even has a special agreement with Arlington County which allows him to collect various seeds in county parks as long as he doesn’t damage anything.
Bags of seeds collected by Ortmeier for the Virginia Department of Forestry. (Mike Ortmeier)
His yield became so big that after a year or two, he said the conservancy was no longer able to accept his donations because it could not accommodate the massive quantity of acorns. However, this year the conservancy launched a new seed collection program known as Tomorrow’s Trees that aims to expand collection opportunities for people in the Potomac region.
Back then, he turned to the Virginia Department of Forestry’s Augusta Nursery Center, which gladly accepted his donations.
Ortmeier “has been a blessing for us here at the nursery,” said Joshua McLaughlin, assistant nursery manager at the Augusta center.
Volunteers like Ortmeier are responsible for the majority of acorns and nuts the nursery plants each year, McLaughlin said. Nursery staff also collect seeds, but sometimes the state has to turn to suppliers, which he said can be expensive. The nursery is self-financed and cannot take monetary donations, which is why he said seed donations are so important
“Every dollar we don’t spend keeps the nursery still floating,” McLaughlin said.
The Department of Forestry offers tree seedlings for sale as well.
Ortmeier estimates that almost 500,000 trees have made it into the wild from the seeds he’s donated over the years. This season is a different story, as he didn’t donate any acorns because there weren’t as many compared to previous years. He had collected 40 pounds, but a small army of chipmunks snatched away the majority after he left his haul outside.
Regardless, Ortmeier managed to donate over 40 bags full of walnuts before the Department of Forestry’s collection season ended.
Nursery staff are currently in the physically laborious process of cleaning, sorting and planting millions of seeds for the next few days. The acorns will grow into seedlings in the following months, after which they will be transferred to areas across the state for permanent planting.
Ancient trees—those that are many hundreds, or even thousands, of years old—play a vital role in biodiversity and ecosystem preservation by providing stability, strength, and protection to at-risk environments. In a review article published on October 19 in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, a team of ecologists highlight the importance of preserving these monumental organisms and present a project initiative to ensure their protection and longevity.
“Ancient trees are unique habitats for the conservation of threatened species because they can resist and buffer climate warming,” write the authors, including Gianluca Piovesan and Charles H. Cannon. Some of these trees, such as bristlecone pines in the White Mountains, U.S., can live up to 5,000 years and act as massive carbon storage.
Ancient trees are hotspots for mycorrhizal connectivity, the symbiotic relationship with underground fungi that supplies plants with many of the nutrients they need to survive. This symbiosis with fungi also helps reduce drought in dry environments. Ancient trees play a disproportionately large role in conservation planning and yet are being lost globally at an alarming rate.
The researchers propose a two-pronged approach to protect ancient trees: first, the conservation of these trees through the propagation and preservation of the germplasm and meristematic tissue from these ancient trees, and second, a planned integration of complete protection and forest rewilding.
“Mapping and monitoring old-growth forests and ancient trees can directly assess the effectiveness and sustainability of protected areas and their ecological integrity,” they write. “To carry out this ambitious project, a global monitoring platform, based on advanced technologies, is required along with public contributions through community science projects.”
Currently, protecting ancient trees in forests, woodlands, historic gardens, and urban and agricultural areas remain limited by national policy levels. “The current review of the Convention of Biological Diversity and Sustainable Development Goal 15 ‘Life on Land’ of Agenda 2030 should include old-growth and ancient tree mapping and monitoring as key indicators of the effectiveness of protected areas in maintaining and restoring forest integrity for a sustainable future,” write the authors.
“We call for international efforts to preserve these hubs of diversity and resilience. A global coalition utilizing advanced technologies and community scientists to discover, protect, and propagate ancient trees is needed before they disappear.”
More information: Gianluca Piovesan et al, Ancient trees: irreplaceable conservation resource for ecosystem, Trends in Ecology & Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2022.09.003
Keeping the location a secret is essential to protecting it from overenthusiastic tourists. But drought is also threatening the ancient bristlecone.
By Erik Ofgang
What might be the world’s oldest tree — a bristlecone pine named Methuselah that is thousands of years old — is hidden in plain sight somewhere along the 4.5-mile Methuselah Trail in the Inyo National Forest in California. Even photos of it are rare — the internet is littered with pictures of old and gnarled bristlecone pines mislabeled as Methuselah.
“We do not give out the exact location or give photos out of the Methuselah tree, to keep it protected,” said Becky Hutto, a visitor center supervisor in the Inyo National Forest.
More than a half-century of word of mouth, amplified in recent years by the internet, has eroded the secret of Methuselah’s location. Yet uncertainty persists, even among some experts.
“I have a vague idea of which tree is Methuselah, but I’m not positive,” said Peter Brown, founder of Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research, which maintains a database of the world’s oldest trees.
Maintaining as much mystery as possible has become essential to keeping overenthusiastic tourists away from Methuselah and trees like it. But tourists aren’t the only threat — the West’s worst drought in more than 1,200 years has killed bristlecone pines near Methuselah, while bark beetles are threatening other ancient bristlecones.
These trees have survived hot and dry periods in the past, said Constance Millar, a scientist emerita at the U.S. Forest Service. But she worries human-induced climate change could create a “perfect storm” of threats to some of them with extreme heat, drought and an increased risk of forest fires.
Matthew Salzer, a research scientist at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson, agreed. “Current conditions for some trees are worse than they have ever been,” he said. “I believe the species as a whole will persist in more favorable locations, but unfortunately many very old individuals may succumb.”
Older than giants
Generally, tree age is determined by taking core samples with boring tools that remove a piece of the tree about the diameter of a pencil, which researchers can use to count tree rings.
In 1957, after gathering initial cores from Methuselah, Edmund Schulman, then a scientist at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, estimated that the gnarled bristlecone pine was more than 4,600 years old. He also found that relatively small bristlecone pines — most of the ones Schulman studied were only 10 to 30 feet tall — were older than giant sequoias, which previously had been thought to be the longest-living trees.
Schulman announced Methuselah’s existence and shared a photo of the tree in National Geographic in 1958, sparking others’ curiosity. Later, the Forest Service stopped publicizing the tree’s location to protect it from those wishing to take a pine cone or other souvenir from the ancient tree.
Salzer recently re-examined Schulman’s Methuselah cores and got a count close to 4,600 years, although some rings were difficult to tally. Reportedly, a core from Methuselah with more rings visible was later found in the laboratory’s tree core archive, but Salzer and colleagues have not been able to find it. This has led to confusion about Methuselah’s age. Wikipedia and many other sites and publications list it as 4,854 years old, but the basis for that age is the rumored “missing” core, which has never been scientifically documented.
Across the globe, there are legends of trees older than Methuselah, including Iran’s Sarv-e Abarkuh and the Llangernyw Yew in Wales, both rumored to be between 4,000 and 5,000 years old. The estimates are based primarily on local lore and have not been verified.
Then there are clonal trees, genetically identical trees that share a root system such as Sweden’s Old Tjikko and the Pando colony of aspens in Utah. Although these trees have root systems older than the oldest trees, the trees themselves are clones and generally much younger than Methuselah and other ancients.
There have also been credible rumors of bristlecones older than Methuselah. In 1964, a bristlecone pine called the Prometheus Tree was cut down by a geography graduate student on Wheeler Peak in Nevada and then found to be nearly 5,000 years old.
In the archive of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, a core sample from an unnamed tree gathered by Schulman in the 1950s was found years later to be more than 4,800 years old. Tom Harlan, a dendrochronologist at the lab who had worked with Schulman, discovered the sample but did not reveal the tree’s location before his death in 2013. But Salzer and a colleague recently used old notes to find what they believe is the tree, though they have not yet been able to determine its age. As with Methuselah, the tree’s location is being kept secret.
A more recent challenger to Methuselah’s claim has emerged in Chile, where researchers estimate that a massive and famous alerce, or Patagonian Cypress tree, called Alerce Milenario, or Gran Abuelo (great-grandfather), is 5,400 years old.
Because the tree is more than 12 feet in diameter, the researchers obtained only a partial core sample, but they determined that the tree is at least 2,400 years old based on its tree rings. They then used tree-ring information from other old alerces and computer modeling to calculate an additional 3,000 years.
The findings regarding the tree have not been published, which has led experts to caution against proclaiming it the world’s oldest tree.
Brown said a peer-reviewed study is necessary, but he was skeptical that modeling could accurately account for the variables involved. “There are just more details that we need before having confidence that this could be the oldest tree in the world,” he said.
A fountain of youth?
The tree-ring record contained in old bristlecones has helped scientists refine carbon dating and provides an important history of the Earth’s climate. The trees might also offer insight into the aging process.
David Neale, a professor emeritus and expert in forest genetics at the University of California at Davis, is leading a team of scientists that is sequencing the genome of a 2,000-plus-year-old bristlecone. The team hopes to investigate a theory that the tree would live forever if not cut down or killed by disease.
“We’ve been looking for the Fountain of Youth since the beginning of time, so any basic biological knowledge of longevity, whether it’s a human or a mouse or bristlecone pine tree, might be instructive,” he said.
Environmental preservation is also inspiring research into the Alerce Milenario tree in Chile. Jonathan Barichivich, an environmental scientist at the Climate and Environmental Sciences Laboratory in Paris, is leading the research. He said he and his collaborator, Antonio Lara of the Austral University of Chile, plan on publishing a paper next year.
But Barichivich is more concerned with preserving the tree than proving it is older than Methuselah. Whether it is “the oldest tree in the world, or it will be the second or the third, it doesn’t matter to me. It is one of the oldest trees in the world and that’s enough to protect it,” he said.
There is urgency to these protection efforts, as Alerce Milenario has long been a tourist destination. Visitors walking around the tree in recent years have damaged its roots. “The tree is in a really, really bad state,” Barichivich said. “It’s like a lion in a cage in a zoo.”
Barichivich’s concern for the tree’s health is part of what makes determining its age without models difficult. Although existing coring tools are too small to get to the center of a tree the size of Alerce Milenario, a longer tool could be custom manufactured. But Barichivich, who is Chilean, does not want to do this out of fear of harming the tree.
His grandfather discovered the tree in the 1970s, and his grandparents, mother and uncle worked in the park where it lives. Barichivich sees himself as a third-generation protector of the tree and identifies with the Indigenous Mapuche people and their concept of the “spirit of the forest.”
“The tree is giving up something, and I don’t want to go and disrespect the tree,” he said. “There is a spiritual part. It is not just pure rational science.”
Tales of otherworldly protection also surround bristlecone pines. Stories of a curse began after several bristlecone pine researchers, Schulman included, died young. Schulman suffered a stroke and passed away at 49.
Salzer is skeptical of such tales, but acknowledged: “It is useful from a preservation point of view to say, ‘Don’t mess with the trees or you’ll be cursed.’ ”
Over a century ago, James and Sallie May Dooley carefully selected over 200 species of trees and plants to decorate their riverside estate. Many of these same trees provide shade for the families that visit Maymont today, with nearly 20 ranked as state and national champions for their species.
Time and weather will eventually take their toll on even the strongest trees, such as the 150-year-old Tulip Poplar that fell last year after a series of heavy rains. For generations, its enormous trunk and spreading crown made it a popular site for weddings, picnics, class trips, and family photos. Perhaps you have a few photos of it in your own collection?
You can help ensure that Maymont’s arboretum continues to inspire generations to come by donating today! The first $10,000 raised of our $25,000 goal will be generously matched by True Timber Arborists.
Join Reforest Richmond for a week-long celebration of all things TREES! Focused on bringing the community together through a variety of different events happening throughout the city – from tree plantings and seedling giveaways to workshops and tours of our green spaces. Their hope is to spread awareness of all the fantastic organizations, community groups, and City departments, whose mission is to increase and maintain our urban canopy, as well as inspire the next generation of urban and community forestry advocates.
Researchers find that trees are getting bigger, thanks to carbon dioxide
Trees have long been known to buffer humans from the worst effects of climate change by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Now new research shows just how much forests have been bulking up on that excess carbon.
The study, recently published in the Journal Nature Communications, finds that elevated carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased wood volume – or the biomass – of forests in the United States.
Although other factors like climate and pests can somewhat affect a tree’s volume, the study found that elevated carbon levels consistently led to an increase of wood volume in 10 different temperate forest groups across the country. This suggests that trees are helping to shield Earth’s ecosystem from the impacts of global warming through their rapid growth.
This phenomenon is called carbon fertilization: An influx of carbon dioxide increases a plant’s rate of photosynthesis, which combines energy from the sun, water, and nutrients from the ground and air to produce fuel for life and spurs plant growth.
“It’s well known that when you put a ton of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it doesn’t stay up there forever,” Sohngen said. “A massive amount of it falls into the oceans, while the rest of it is taken up by trees and wetlands and those kinds of areas.”
Over the last two decades, forests in the United States have sequestered about 700-800 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, which, according to the study, accounts for roughly 10% to 11% of the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions. While exposure to high levels of carbon dioxide can have ill effects on natural systems and infrastructure, trees have no issue gluttoning themselves on Earth’s extra supply of the greenhouse gas.
To put it in perspective, if you imagine a tree as just a huge cylinder, the added volume the study finds essentially amounts to an extra tree ring, Sohngen said. Although such growth may not be noticeable to the average person, compared to the trees of 30 years ago, modern vegetation is about 20% to 30% bigger than it used to be. If applied to the Coast Redwood forests – home to some of the largest trees in the world – even a modest percentage increase means a lot of additional carbon storage in forests. Researchers also found that even older large trees continue adding biomass as they age due to elevated carbon dioxide levels.
Unlike the effects of climate change, which varies over location and in time, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere mixes almost evenly, so every place on Earth has nearly the same amount, Sohngen said.
So to test whether the chemical compound was responsible for beefing up our biome, Sohngen’s team used historical data from the U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis Program (USFS-FIA) to compare how the wood volume of certain forest groups has changed over the past few decades. The study estimates that between 1970 and 2015, there was a significant increase in trees’ wood volume, which correlates with a distinct rise in carbon emissions.
Researchers were also able to use this method to test whether there were differences in naturally occurring trees versus trees that were planted. Sohngen thought that planted trees would undergo a bigger fertilization effect, as they have an advantage in that planters often pick the best seeds to plant in only the best locations. On the contrary, he was surprised to find that planted trees respond to carbon dioxide levels in the same way natural ones do.
Overall, Sohngen said this work shows that the wood volume response to carbon dioxide in our ecosystem is even higher than his colleagues predicted with experimental studies.
The results should show policymakers and others the value of trees in mitigating climate change. Sohngen said that carbon fertilization could one day make tree-growing efforts more efficient. For instance, if it costs $50 to plant one acre of trees today, with the help of carbon fertilization, that number could easily be decreased to $40. As climate change costs the United States about $2 trillion each year, that decrease could help drive down the cost of mitigating climate change, Sohngen said.
“Carbon fertilization certainly makes it cheaper to plant trees, avoid deforestation, or do other activities related to trying to enhance the carbon sink in forests,” Sohngen said. “We should be planting more trees and preserving older ones, because at the end of the day they’re probably our best bet for mitigating climate change.”
The study was led by Eric Davis, a Ph.D graduate of Ohio State’s agricultural, environmental, and development economics program. This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The northern Haiti magnolia known for its bright white flowers and delicate fragrance hasn’t been spotted since 1925. Credit: Courtesy of Eladio Fernandez
Haiti was once lush and teeming with biodiversity. Plants used to flourish there that were found nowhere else in the world. Take the northern Haiti magnolia, known for its flowers with bright white petals and delicate fragrance.
But today, with Haiti among the most deforested countries on earth, sightings of the native magnolia had not been recorded there since 1925. In fact, no one had even snapped a photo of it. Then in June, a team of naturalists with Haiti National Trust trekked to Haiti’s longest mountain range, the Massif du Nord, to try to find the elusive flower.
Expedition leader Eladio Fernandez, from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, said the search was like “an act of faith.”
“You know, when you look for these lost species, there’s a little fever in you that kind of drives your energy,” Fernandez told The World’s host Marco Werman.
Before the trek, the team researched the original specimen collected by Swedish botanist Erik Leonard Ekman in 1925. They referred to the specimen’s labels and matched those with the magnolia’s locality. They were able to identify the exact town and base camp used by Ekman using Google Earth. And then they surveyed the area for these last fragments of forests where the magnolia might be growing.
Marcsillion L’Homme (left) and Eladio Fernandez (right) naturalists who found the white flowers with their delicate fragrance on a mountain trek. Credit: Courtesy of Andres Miolan
Elation aside, Fernandez said that the really big, difficult work still lies ahead.
“We need to go back. We need to collect seeds. We need to set up a nursery. We need to get the community involved. We need to do education. We need to find the funding for this,” he said.
Fernandez would like to see further collaboration between naturalists from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two sides of the same island whose shared history has been fraught with conflict.
“This expedition [is] a good example of what can be done if we all combine and collaborate for the better.”
Chestnut enthusiast Kieu Manes hugs the Coverdale tree found in Delaware and verified by Virginia Tech. Courtesy of The American Chestnut Foundation.
Like a ghost, the chestnut haunts the forests of the East.
Once a key source of food for people and animals, and rot-resistant timber for fences and buildings, the mighty American chestnut was felled by an imported fungus first identified in New York City in 1904. Within a half century, the chestnut population was reduced from nearly four billion giants dominating the eastern woods to spindly sprouts that survive a few years before withering.
Except … the chestnut is not dead. Every now and then, mostly in remote and rugged areas, a full-grown American chestnut is discovered. And scientists at Virginia Tech recently helped confirm one.
In 2019, a hunter, helping thin a deer herd in Delaware’s Coverdale Farm Preserve, owned by the Delaware Nature Society, discovered a 65-foot tall tree that, to all appearances, was a native American chestnut. But was it pure, or a hybrid?
Leaves were sent to Virginia Tech for DNA analysis.
Jason Holliday is a professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech.
“I’ve been working with The American Chestnut Foundation for 10 years,” Holliday said. “If somebody gets in touch with TACF and says, ‘We want to have this tree tested,’ they’ll send it to us most likely. As far as the testing, you can do it with any species, lots of labs do this sort of stuff. But as far as wild chestnuts that people find on their land, they’re probably going to find their way to me.
“Let’s say you find some tree that’s got a big diameter, looks like a chestnut, it can still be a hybrid. There’s lots of hybrids out there … we find all kinds of weird things, like, you’ll find three-way hybrids between Chinese, Japanese, and American chestnut.”
The 65-foot-tall American chestnut discovered in Coverdale Farm Preserve in Delaware and verified by Virginia Tech. Courtesy of The American Chestnut Foundation.
It’s easy to distinguish a Chinese vs. an American on the basis of leaf shape, Holliday said.
“Hybrid are harder, especially multi-generational hybrids (e.g., the offspring of a mother tree who is herself a hybrid). It might look like a characteristic wild American chestnut, but nevertheless be some kind of hybrid. So if it’s important that we know, we always sequence and can say with certainty on the basis of those data.”
An article published Aug. 26, 2022, on the Delaware News Journal website said the Delaware Nature Society received confirmation “this month” that the Coverdale tree was indeed a bona fide American. An article posted on the website of Delaware public radio WHYY on Sept. 9, 2022, said the verification process took “more than two years.” Messages left for Delaware Nature Society for clarification on the timeline were not returned. But Holliday said DNA testing “doesn’t take that long. We’ve sequenced about 6,000 chestnut trees at this point. And so when somebody sends us a sample, it may get in there quickly, or it may be in a line behind a lot of other samples that we’re working on. So it’s just a question of resources and so on.
“If somebody hands me a sample and says this is — and we decide that it’s — priority number one, then it could be a month or two, when we can get the data back. We don’t do them one at a time. We do them in batches when we sequence them, and so a batch is 96 trees usually. And so unless I have 95 ready to go and somebody hands me number 96, I’m not going to be doing that one by itself.”
The chestnut’s native range. Courtesy of The American Chestnut Foundation.
Sara Fitzsimmons is chief conservation officer at TACF. In an email, she wrote, “As for ‘Large’ trees, those which are 10″ DBH or larger, we have logged over 500 of these trees in our database, this Coverdale tree being one of them.”
DBH is diameter at breast height, measured at 4.5 feet from the ground. The Coverdale tree was reported to be 18 inches in diameter by WHYY.
“There are an estimated 430 million American chestnuts across the native range,” Fitzsimmons wrote. “84% of them are 1″ DBH or smaller. We have not made an estimate of the Large trees, but it’s likely in the 10s of 1000s.”
How did the Delaware specimen manage to escape the fate that befalls most American chestnuts?
“If you go for a walk anywhere in the forest around here, you’ll see the stump sprouts,” Holliday said. “So the blight will kill the stem. It girdles the stem as if you took like a weed whacker, and went around all the way around a tree and kill it. And so they’ll fall over, but they have this ability to resprout.
“Usually they resprout and they can be six or eight feet tall. They’ll be little, diameter-wise. So soon as that resprout gets to a certain size, the blight is going to infect it again, and knock it back.
“The large trees are much, much more rare. We don’t know very much about whether they’re actually resistant to the blight, or whether they kind of got lucky and are in an environment where they didn’t get infected, or they’re in such a rich environment that they can fight it off in a way that another tree of the same genetics planted on a different site wouldn’t be able to.
“There’s a big environmental component for a lot of diseases. You think about when you get sick. When you’re run down, that cold is more likely to get you harder. It’s not exactly the same thing, but you can sort of think of it that way. If a tree is on a really favorable site, and they’re in really good health, they’re much more likely to be able to fight off a disease of some kind, than the same tree on a worse site.”
The American Chestnut Foundation is pursuing three methods to restore the chestnut, according to its website.
One is genetic modification, in which a wheat gene that confers blight resistance is inserted into the tree’s DNA.
Another is attacking the blight fungus with a virus that reduces its ability to sicken trees.
The other more traditional approach is a long-running breeding program at TACF’s research farm in Meadowview, Va., and other locations across the tree’s traditional range. “They cross American and Chinese chestnut. And then they take the progeny of that and cross them back to American,” Holliday said. “And so one of the tricks with that is finding the offspring in the final generation that are the most resistant. And so we sequence a lot of their trees in order to basically predict which ones are going to be the best, based on genetics.”
One of Holliday’s Ph.D. students is Alexander Sandercock. In an email, Sandercock wrote that he studies “patterns of genomic diversity within the American chestnut natural range … We can then use this information to breed the TACF blight-resistant populations with wild American chestnut trees to develop locally adapted blight-resistant American chestnut populations. Developing locally adapted trees for reintroduction is important so that they have the greatest chance of thriving and reproducing.”
The Delaware tree “will be of particular interest in our current and future genomic studies,” Sandercock wrote. “Now that we know that this tree is 100% American chestnut, it will be included in future batches where we sequence the whole genome.”
Fitzsimmons wrote that Holliday and his department “have helped us unlock many mysteries regarding the diversity of remnant populations of American chestnut. TACF seeks to not only create a disease-resistant tree, but one that has enough genetics from the remaining wild population that it can be fully re-installed back into the forests of the eastern U.S.
“How many wild American chestnuts do we need to use and from where? Jason’s work – and that of his lab – are helping us zero-in on which and how many of those remnant trees we need to use to effectively restore the population.”
“Trees are our best green technology to fight climate change and build healthy, beautiful communities, especially as heat and storms intensify.”
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced Wednesday that a new forestry division, tasked with caring for and growing the city’s urban forest, is being created within the Boston Parks and Recreation Department.
The division increases the workforce focused on trees in the city from five to 16, and according to the city, it will have dedicated leadership and resources “to plant new trees as well as proactively inspect, maintain, and prune existing trees, focusing on under-canopied and environmental justice neighborhoods.”
The creation of the new unit was one of the recommendations in Boston’s newly-released Urban Forest Plan, which includes an analysis of the city’s tree canopy, direction for ensuring equitable access, and suggestions for how trees could have better care.
“Trees are our best green technology to fight climate change and build healthy, beautiful communities, especially as heat and storms intensify,” Wu said in a statement. “Dedicating staff and resources to our new Forestry Division will empower the City of Boston to strengthen our tree canopy citywide so every community benefits from these treasured resources.”
The recommendations, the creation a forestry division among them, in the city’s new Urban Forest Plan are organized under seven strategies:
Engaging in comprehensive, progressive, and proactive urban forestry work across City departments.
Conducting proactive care and protection for existing trees across public and private land, involving a cyclical care program, and a well-defined risk management approach.
Expanding the tree canopy in line with broader citywide goals of equity, resilience, public health, and community well-being.
Creating solutions to make space for trees in Boston, as well as improving the quality of planting sites to allow trees to thrive.
Improving communication between the multiple City departments, agencies, non-governmental organizations, and citizen groups that plant and care for trees within Boston.
Improving access to neighborhood tree data to give local groups the tools to make decisions and improvements for their own communities.
Utilizing and developing local talent to grow workforce opportunities in alignment with fulfilling the goals of this urban forest plan.
Ryan Woods, commissioner of the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, said in a statement that the new tree division will “significantly expand” the city’s ability to plant and care for trees in every neighborhood.
“We are committed to increasing the survival rate of our new plantings and supporting the growth and maturation of trees across Boston, particularly in communities that need more canopy,” he said.
The division will include a director of urban forestry, three arborists, three maintenance crews made up of three people, as well as several support staff. The city said the increased staff will help the department respond more quickly to requests submitted through 311 for tree maintenance, and decrease tree mortality.
Wednesday’s announcement of the new division was accompanied by other tree news: Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum is gifting the city 10 dawn redwood trees to plant throughout Boston neighborhoods.
The trees, according to the city, are “descended from the first such trees to grow in North America in over two million years, known as ‘living fossils.’”
“I’m especially grateful for the partnership with the Arboretum in sharing the wonder of dawn redwoods citywide as a connection to our legacy of research, discovery, and global collaboration here in Boston,” Wu said of the new trees.
According to the city, applications are now being accepted for the forestry director position. Other open positions within the division are opportunities for graduates from PowerCorpsBOS, the city’s ARPA-funded workforce development program that launched earlier this year for young people aged 18 to 30 years old.
Climate scientists and data engineers have developed a new digital platform billed as the first-ever global tool for accurately calculating the carbon stored in every tree on the planet.
Founded on two decades of research and development, the new platform from nonprofit CTrees leverages artificial intelligence-enabled satellite datasets to give users a near-real-time picture of forest carbon storage and emissions around the world.
With forest protection and restoration at the center of international climate mitigation efforts, CTrees is set to officially launch at COP27 in November, with the overall aim of bringing an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability to climate policy initiatives that rely on forests to offset carbon emissions.
Forest experts broadly welcome the new platform, but also underscore the risk of assessing forest restoration and conservation projects solely by the amount of carbon sequestered, which can sometimes be a red herring in achieving truly sustainable and equitable forest management.
Users of a new digital platform from nonprofit CTrees will be able to track in near-real-time the carbon stored and emitted in the world’s forests. The platform is borne out of two decades of research and development by a team of the world’s leading climate scientists and data engineers. It’s being touted as the first-ever global system for calculating the amount of carbon in every tree on the planet.
“Forests are extremely important to mitigate climate change because they absorb a major part of the carbon in the atmosphere annually,” Sassan Saatchi, a senior scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who collaborated with colleagues in the U.S., Brazil, Denmark and France to develop the platform, told Mongabay.
However, because trees are so efficient at stashing away carbon dioxide, they release vast quantities of carbon back into the atmosphere when forests are degraded, felled or burned. Recent studies have shown that many forests are nearing a tipping point that compromises their ability to store carbon, with parts of Southeast Asia and the Amazon already net carbon emitters due to multiple human-induced stressors.
Pine trees in the Sierra Nevada, U.S. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay
Due to this weighty influence on atmospheric carbon, forest conservation and restoration have become major components of climate change mitigation efforts through climate policy initiatives that rely on forests to offset carbon emissions. But up until now, the world has lacked a globally consistent and transparent means of quantifying and tracking forest carbon.
The new CTrees platform now fills this gap, said Saatchi. It’s a “game changer,” he said, for the world’s governments, investors and organizations to make better science-based decisions. “The transition to carbon neutrality requires accurate accounting,” he said. “To truly evaluate the benefits of carbon reduction efforts, market and policy actors need a global state-of-the-art system for measuring and monitoring. Until now, this technology hasn’t been available to carbon markets, and only on a limited basis to climate policymakers.”
The new platform is due to officially launch at COP27 this November, when world leaders will convene in Egypt to discuss progress made toward national climate commitments. Knowing exactly how much carbon forests emit or capture will be key for decision-makers involved in calculating individual countries’ nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement.
Saatchi said CTrees’ science-based approach offers a much-needed update to the current method of forest carbon accounting, which relies on nationally reported figures that are often incomplete and inconsistent. By providing a high-accuracy, up-to-date overview of the carbon implications of forest conservation and restoration at local, national and global levels, the new platform can bring unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability to the arena, he said.
Besides policymakers and investors, the platform is a boon for environmental advocates and rights groups that can access open-source global and national-level data, enabling them to hold governments and organizations to account on their commitments.
Global forests are still an overall net carbon sink, but some forested areas have transitioned to net emitters due to degradation, deforestation, rising temperatures and many other threats. Image courtesy of CTrees
Fine-scale accuracy and detail
There are an estimated 3 trillion trees from 60,000 species on the planet. Therefore, tracking the forest carbon flux across the globe a huge task, but one that Saatchi said new technology can deal with. “In the old days, we had to take [airborne] pictures and then draw lines around these single trees to identify them and separate them. … Now, we do it with cloud-based artificial intelligence and we can process terabytes of the data in hours.”
The CTrees forest carbon monitoring system merges carbon flux datasets spanning back to the early 2000s with artificial intelligence-enabled high-resolution satellite data from a range of systems, including Planet, which provide datasets of up to 3 by 3 meters (10 by 10 feet) resolution and other sources that go down to 0.5 by 0.5 meters (1.6 by 1.6 feet) resolution.
“This gets us to the level of trees,” Saatchi said, allowing individual trees outside of forest stands, such as in urban centers, to be included in carbon accounting — a practice typically lacking up until now. The fine-scale approach to carbon accounting makes it possible to estimate emissions and sequestration not only at the country level, but also at much finer scales such as individual jurisdictions, forest patches, plantations and tree-planting projects.
The platform can also distinguish between natural forests and commercial plantations, the cutting cycle of which can be tracked. Such information is vital to assess which types of forest investments could make the most impact, he said.
CTrees map of carbon stored in forests globally during 2021. Image courtesy of CTrees
A boost to tree planting accountability
Karen Holl, a restoration ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said tools that enable real-time and rigorous monitoring of tree cover are critical to verifying whether the world’s massive tree growing efforts are having the desired effects. This is because many organizations involved in tree planting overly focus on the number of trees put into the ground, she said, rather than investing in long-term monitoring to ensure planted trees remain healthy and alive well into the future.
“There are many examples of tree growing efforts that have failed initially, and sometimes the same areas are planted year after year with the trees being counted multiple times,” Holl told Mongabay in an email. “Monitoring on most of these reforestation projects is short-term (1-3 years) or nonexistent. Moreover … young secondary forests are often recleared within a decade or two.”
Meredith Martin, an assistant professor of forestry at North Carolina State University, said the lack of monitoring is a major concern. She and her colleagues recently found that fewer than one-fifth of organizations engaged in tree planting in the tropics have a monitoring program, with still fewer measuring tree survival or amounts of carbon stored.
Martin acknowledged that platforms like CTrees are powerful tools to promote transparency and accountability in the sector, but noted that reducing the merits of reforestation efforts down to the amount of carbon sequestered alone risks overlooking other important factors.
“Carbon doesn’t tell us anything about biodiversity or even about actual forest resilience to climate change,” Martin told Mongabay in an email. “For example, we are seeing new invasive pests and diseases spreading throughout the US that can wipe out individual tree species quite quickly, so managing forests for diversity and functional redundancy may be more important in the long term than just focusing on the amount of carbon sequestered in the short term.”
Mark Ashton, a professor of silviculture and forest ecology at Yale University, said that the problems of forest loss and degradation are unlikely to be solved solely through technological solutions. “The real solutions to forest recovery and sustainable use are social, cultural and economic,” Ashton told Mongabay in an email. “Better forest management is obtained when you direct your focus to solving human problems in the forestlands that are undergoing deforestation and degradation.”
Martin echoed Ashton’s call for more human-centric solutions. “Ultimately I think much more attention should be spent listening to local communities and stakeholders to support forest stewardship in a truly sustainable way,” she said.
Dead wood, also called woody debris, woody material, or even necromass, is a normal and natural part of forests. Dead wood takes a number of forms, from dead-standing trees (snags) to twigs and small branches (fine woody material) to larger pieces (coarse woody material). Dead wood helps build and enrich forest soils, benefits forest hydrology, and provides habitat for more than one-third of New England’s mammals and amphibians in addition to nourishing seedlings and helping protect young trees from deer browse.
The ecological importance of dead wood expands what it means for a tree to be “alive.” In fact, research from the Pacific Northwest suggests that dead trees can harbor as much as quadruple the living biomass as living trees. As with living trees, dead trees provide complex and important habitats. Nurse logs, for example, supply moist, rich seedbeds for trees, plants, mosses, lichens, and liverworts – as well as habitat for amphibian species such as salamanders. Dead wood also provides critical habitat for fungi and invertebrates, which are important to soil formation, as well as for some of our hundreds of species of native bees. Snags offer foraging sites for woodpeckers, which excavate cavities that shelter dozens of species of birds and mammals.
So why don’t we love dead wood? While there are several popular misconceptions about it, including that dead wood spreads disease, the most common answer is aesthetics. In my experience, when landowners say that their forest is a mess, they are nearly always talking about the presence of downed trees and snags. We’re also just not used to it; while forests with lots of dead wood were the norm in the Northeast for thousands of years, land use during the last two centuries has created young forests with one-quarter to one-half as much dead wood as old forests. Now, landowners often go to great lengths to clean it up: they cut it, pile it, chip it, and gather it into windrows.
Unless you live in a fire-prone area, or are maintaining access to your forest for stewardship purposes, cutting up or removing dead wood serves no ecological purpose. In fact, it diminishes many of the positive benefits that dead wood offers to soil health, carbon storage, wildlife habitat, forest hydrology, and forest ecology.
When I’m working in my forest, I celebrate dead wood and try to create more of it. I leave fallen trees on the ground and leave snags standing (except where they constitute a hazard). Instead of cutting dead trees, I focus on being proactive with my management: felling living trees to encourage the growth and vigor of remaining trees, to create canopy gaps, and to release pockets of established regeneration. I find that most time is spent – and most residual damage done – in the process of skidding trees out of the woods, and I’ve become comfortable with leaving smaller and more marginal trees on the ground. When I do pull trees out of the woods, I leave limbs and treetops completely un-lopped on the forest floor.
Girdling, a method of creating snags quickly or killing large trees in a way that is generally safer, can also be an effective tool and is faster than felling trees. However, research suggests that girdled trees do not provide the same habitats as trees that decline naturally during a longer period of time. For this reason, in addition to girdled trees and snags, I also leave some legacy trees (see “Forest Insights” in the Spring 2022 issue) to become snags and dead wood on their own schedule.
When I’m working with loggers, I ask (or even require) them to avoid lopping treetops and brush and encourage them to cut and leave commercially-marginal trees on the ground. While some loggers are initially resistant – they’re concerned that to leave a “messy” forest would reflect poorly on their professionalism – it’s gratifying when they eventually realize that working this way can be safer and more efficient.
As we expand our idea of what forests are, and the factors that contribute to their health and productivity, we have an opportunity to redefine what healthy forests – and responsible forest management – look like. While it may seem counterintuitive, lots of dead wood of all different arrangements, shapes, sizes, and species, and in all different stages of decomposition, is critical to the health of the forest’s biological community. It may look messy, but it is part of what makes our forests so vital and so beautiful.
An invasive insect that has been devastating stands of eastern hemlock trees along the East Coast has been found in the park near Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park.
Hemlock woolly adelgid, a tiny insect that eats the sap of eastern hemlock trees, has been spreading north toward Maine after first being detected in Richmond, Virginia, decades ago.
Now, the insect has been found among eastern hemlock trees on either side of Jordan Stream, which runs south from Jordan Pond to Little Long Pond and then drains into the ocean at Bracy Cove. The affected trees are spread among roughly 40 acres of woods that are split by the water, Acadia natural resources specialist Jesse Wheeler told the park’s citizen advisory panel on Monday.
Hemlock Woolly Adelgid – image by NPS
“We found it in July of this year,” Wheeler said. “We knew it was coming.”
Wheeler said the invasive insect, which is originally from Japan, was found elsewhere on Mount Desert Island in 2020. The insect weakens and often kills the affected trees, where little spots of what looks like white wool gives the insects’ presence away.
The insect also has been found on eastern hemlocks in about a 2-acre area of woods near Amphitheater Bridge on the park’s carriage road network, on the western side of Jordan Ridge from Jordan Pond.
Wheeler said the park has been trying to mitigate the spread by clipping branches on infected trees so that passing animals or people don’t brush up against them and then unknowingly transfer the tiny insects to other trees.
But the insect also can move from one tree to another simply by blowing across on the breeze, he added.
The park is looking into other mitigation strategies such as introducing native predatory insects that will eat the adelgid, though the effectiveness of this strategy is limited, according to Wheeler. Using more than one type of the predatory insects, which include certain beetle and fly species, likely would increase the impact of the predatory insects, he said.
The park also is looking at possibly using targeted pesticides “in a couple of years” if the problem persists, he told the panel.
Changes to the types of vegetation found in Acadia National Park — such as when birch and aspen trees became more prominent in the wake of the Great Fire of 1947 that burned 17,000 acres on MDI — are not unprecedented. Climate change already has been affecting plants in the park and elsewhere in Maine, but the park has long sought to try to prevent the spread of invasive species within its boundaries, whether they are plants or insects or something else.
Wheeler said that as climate change makes Maine winters less and less cold, the spread of the adelgids will become more prominent, because more will survive milder temperatures. The park’s strategy will be to contain the insect, rather than eliminate it altogether, which means the park may have to prioritize where it implements its eastern hemlock defenses and where it decides to let the trees die off and be replaced by other tree species, he said.
“It will be more difficult to control the spread,” Wheeler said. “We need to prioritize because we won’t save all the hemlock.”
Nick Fisichelli, director of the Schoodic Institute in Acadia, told the panel that he worked at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia in the early 2000s. While he was there, eastern hemlock trees that had been infested with the adelgid were unable to to survive an ensuing drought, and 90 percent of them died, he said.
“It’s a serious forest pest and a serious forest health issue,” Fisichelli said.
An international study that analyzed the world’s largest tree group has made breakthrough findings. The results are expected to guide future conservation of tropical and subtropical rain forests as well as help with predicting how certain plants will respond to climate change.
More than 60 researchers explored the evolution and speciation patterns of the tree group Syzgium, which includes the trees that gives us the spice clove as well as numerous fruits.
The study was led by the Singapore Botanic Gardens of Singapore’s National Parks Board in collaboration with 26 international research institutions including the University of Aberdeen, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Nanyang Technological University and the University of Buffalo.
Published in Nature Communications the research is the most extensive study of any Syzgium group of trees to date and was carried out over two years using samples from some 300 species growing in Africa, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, Australia and the Pacific Islands.
Trees growing in tropical areas are understood to be some of the most valuable in the world in protecting biodiversity and global warming, but they are also among some of the most threatened because of commercial needs and use of the land for farming.
Native and widespread in tropical and subtropical rain forests, studying the origins and drivers of the large hyperdiverse tree group Syzygium contributes to the understanding of how plant species have emerged in the past in response to environmental changes. This knowledge is valuable for predicting how plants might respond to ecological changes brought about by climate change and will guide conservation and management efforts for plant communities.
The Syzygium species may be found growing together with other trees within the understory and canopy layers of forests. Because of its large diversity, they play an inordinate role in the functioning of forest ecosystems. Many Syzygium species are also cultivated in tropical countries for different types of spices as well as their large edible fruits.
Understanding how Syzygium species have evolved will help to advance knowledge of the highly complex species-environment relationships in forest ecosystems and anticipate forest ecosystem changes in response to climate change.
The University of Aberdeen’s Interdisciplinary Director for Environment and Biodiversity Professor David Burslem says that “tropical forests are under severe threat from conversion, industrial logging and climate change. The new results on the origins and biodiversity of Syzygium, an important group of tropical trees containing many species of commercial importance for timber and fruit production, provides the raw material for devising strategies for species conservation and restoration.”
“This new paper will serve as a benchmark for future studies combining genomic analyses with extensive data-sets on species distributions and satellite-derived environmental sensing to finally understand the mechanisms that drive patterns of tropical forest biodiversity.”
“It was a privilege for the University of Aberdeen to work closely with experts from Singapore Botanic Gardens as well as many other prestigious international organizations on this vitally important project which is one of the first genome-scale plant evolutionary studies on a single group to be published that was so widely-sampled.”
Dr. David Middleton, coordinating director at Singapore Botanic Gardens, says that “Southeast Asia is a region of exceptionally rich species diversity. The Singapore Botanic Gardens has played a contributory role to the study of plant diversity in the region since its founding in 1859, as part of the Gardens’ core roles in research, conservation and education.”
“The enormous genus Syzygium, the species of which are mainly understory trees, has long been neglected in comparison to the iconic forest giants and plant groups of more immediate economic interest. However, their role in the diversity and functioning of our forests must be better understood if we are to succeed in our conservation goals.”
“In partnership with our collaborators at home and abroad, we have begun to understand what drives such exceptional species diversity in tropical Southeast Asia and can make better informed decisions on how to conserve this diversity. This strengthens the science on conservation in the region and contributes towards Singapore’s City in Nature vision.”
America’s longleaf pine tree evolved to survive natural disasters. Now a range-wide recovery effort is helping it stand the test of time.
Across the coastal plains of the southeastern United States, amid miles of industrial slash and loblolly pine farms, remnants of another pine forest—once North America’s largest—hide in plain sight. Unlike densely shaded deciduous forests, longleaf pine trees grow wide apart. This distance forms an open canopy that lets sunlight spill down through a mostly vacant midstory to reach a forest floor tightly packed with grasses and flowering plants. Though these forests can feel almost empty, the longleaf pine ecosystem is a trove of biodiversity. Some researchers estimate its species richness is surpassed only by tropical forests and coral reefs. But with less than 5% of longleaf pine forests remaining, states, the federal government and conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy, are working to save these Southern forests—and the species that depend on them—before it’s too late.
Left to its own devices, the longleaf pine tree is remarkably resilient. Its armor-thick bark and deep tap root help the tree withstand hurricanes, droughts, pests and wildfires. Instead of destroying longleaf pine forests, frequent fires clear them of hardwoods that crowd the ground, unlock nutrients on the forest floor and expose the mineral soil that longleaf seeds need to germinate. With every fire, the forest floor is remade to better support this bustling natural metropolis from the ground up.
“The important part of a longleaf pine landscape is from the knees down,” says David Printiss, fire program director for TNC in Florida. “It’s the grasses and forbs that make up the ground cover—that’s where the magic is.”
More than 50 kinds of plants can be packed into one square meter of longleaf pine forest, and scores of at-risk species call it home: prehistoric gopher tortoises, glossy indigo snakes, red-cockaded woodpeckers and carnivorous plants with delicious names like sundew and butterwort.
The historic range of the longleaf pine forest spanned 92 million acres from southern Virginia to eastern Texas. The ubiquity and utility of its trees made them indispensable to colonists who needed raw materials to fuel their New World ambitions. Its surprisingly strong softwood was ideal for raising buildings, producing furniture and laying floors. Its gummy resin formed a tar perfect for waterproofing ships, and the forest’s wild game fed laboring settlers. In the 1800s, longleaf pine wood formed the railroad ties that pushed industrial logging farther inland. In the years following the Civil War, longleaf pine timber was fed to sawmills to rebuild the South and plug a hole in the market left by depleted Northern forests.
But every step of regional progress put a bigger dent in the ecosystem. Longleaf pine forests were converted into agricultural fields, paved over or replanted with other species of pine that grew back faster and could yield more timber per acre. Eventually, a federal policy of fire suppression robbed remaining stands of the low-intensity burns they needed to regenerate.
By the time the Department of the Interior launched its first full review of the health of American landscapes in 1995, less than 1% of old-growth longleaf pine stands remained. The federal study identified longleaf pine as the third most endangered ecosystem in America.
Beneath the Crown
A healthy longleaf pine forest is a buzzy home to 900 types of plants and hundreds of kinds of animals, including 29 species federally listed as threatened or endangered. Meet some of the flora and fauna that rely on this woodland to survive.
Eastern Indigo Snake
The eastern indigo snake is North America’s largest native, nonvenomous snake and can grow more than 9 feet long. Its scientific name, a Greek phrase meaning “lord of the forest,” is an apt description for this apex predator.
White-Topped Pitcher Plant
Longleaf pine ecosystems harbor nearly 200 rare vascular plants, including the white-topped pitcher, which uses a “pitfall” trap and other lures to snare its prey. Bamboozled insects tumble into the throat of the plant, where they’re digested.
Using its front legs like small shovels, the gopher tortoise digs extensive burrows where it can escape predators, take shelter from fire and cold weather, and protect its hatchlings. More than 300 opportunistic species seek refuge in its tunnels.
The social red-cockaded woodpecker lives in an extended family group that includes one mating pair of adults and up to four additional “helper” birds that assist in incubating and feeding offspring.
Venus Fly Trap
The Venus fly trap requires the sun-drenched understory of a longleaf pine forest to thrive. But the forest’s acidic boggy soil delivers few nutrients, so the plant developed an appetite for insects.
The flatwoods salamander spends most of its time underground, making use of crayfish burrows or root channels in wet sandy soil. The amphibian leads a solitary existence outside of breeding season.
“I’ve read about how settlers could ride their wagons through the forest and see [longleaf pine] for miles and miles,” says Colette DeGarady, longleaf pine whole system director for TNC. “It’s hard to imagine that with the complex land use that we now have, we could ever get back to where it was. But our range-wide goal is to bring back as much of that native forest as possible, not just tiny snippets throughout the landscape.”
The Conservancy’s work is part of a massive effort to revive this piece of the country’s natural heritage. So far, America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative (a coalition of state and federal agencies, industry, researchers, private landowners and conservation groups like TNC) has helped the forest recover from a historic low of 2.95 million acres in 1996 to nearly 5 million acres today. The group aims to restore another 3 million acres in the coming years.
The lifespan of a longleaf pine can bridge more than four centuries. To reach that point, the tree passes through five stages of development timed to give it the best chance of survival.
Pine Cone and Seed
A seed falls from its cone in late autumn, settling on the forest floor, where it is either snatched up by eager squirrels, mice, birds or ants, or germinates in bare mineral soil.
A spray of dark-green needles protects the growing bud from fire, while the plant devotes its energy to striking a deep tap root that can take up to seven years to develop and will reach up to 12 feet long before the tree begins upward growth.
A white bud known as a “candle” sprouts from the top of the plant. The tree remains limbless—resembling a bottlebrush—and vulnerable to fire during the two years it takes for its newly developed scaly bark to thicken.
When the plant reaches 6 to 10 feet in height, it begins sprouting limbs. The tree continues to make swift vertical progress at a rate of more than 3 feet per year, pushing the candle bud high above the ground where fire can’t damage it.
Thirty years on, the mature longleaf begins to produce pine cones, and the cycle continues. The tree typically stops vertical growth at 70 to 100 years of age, with some trees topping out at more than 120 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter.
To reach that target, TNC and its partners are working across nine states. Returning regular controlled burns to the ecosystem and letting natural wildfires burn through when developed areas are not at risk is helping existing forests thrive. Land acquisitions and conservation easements are knitting together large swaths of connected habitat to bolster populations of threatened and endangered species. And empowering private landowners (who hold 86% of potential longleaf pine habitat) to reintroduce longleaf pine trees onto their property is not only creating new forests but also generating sources of income.
As climate change drives more severe storms and warmer temperatures across the South, restoring habitat this resilient is an investment in biodiversity, the Southern economy and America’s environmental future, says Brian van Eerden, pinelands program director for TNC in Virginia. But it won’t be a quick fix. “It took 400 years to pull this landscape apart—it’s going to take some time to put it back together.”
On a remote and windswept island some 700km south of New Zealand, grows the world’s loneliest tree.
Green, bushy, large — as trees go, it’s pretty unremarkable.
Sitting in the middle of the permanently uninhabited subantarctic Campbell Island, the nine-metre-tall Sitka spruce is 250 kilometres away from its closest companion. In fact, it is the only tree on the island.
The 100-year-old pine has been recognised by the Guinness World Records as the “most remote tree in the world”.
However, technically, this lonely tree should not be here.
Its very existence is now helping to advance groundbreaking climate change research.
In search of CO2 history
Jocelyn Turnbull analyses air samples taken from the world’s loneliest tree. (Supplied: GNS Science New Zealand/Jocelyn Turnbull)
The world’s loneliest tree has long attracted attention online for its story of survival.
However, the tree caught the eyes of climate scientist Jocelyn Turnbull for another reason.
As GNS Science New Zealand’s radiocarbon science leader, Dr Turnbull leads a major research project part of the Antarctic Science Platform, a government-funded research project that aims to improve understanding of Antarctica’s impact on the Earth’s system.
Dr Turnbull and her team specialise in radiocarbon measurement to investigate the source of fossil fuel CO2 emissions over the Southern Ocean to understand its role as a carbon sink.
“We humans burn fossil fuels and put CO2 into the atmosphere, and that’s what’s driving global warming,” Dr Turnbull explains.
“Of the CO2 we put in the atmosphere, only about half stays there. The other half gets reabsorbed into the earth’s system. And it turns out, about half goes into the land’s biosphere, which is photosynthesis, and half goes into the ocean.”
Dr Turnbull said the Southern Ocean is the most important place to analyse the exchange of carbon dioxide because of the westerly winds and the lack of land to slow down the wind.
The practically untouched island means that sea lions roam freely. (Supplied: GNS Science New Zealand/Jocelyn Turnbull)
“That windiness drives this huge overturning of the water, brings up deep water to the surface and mixes, which allows the ocean to take up more carbon than other areas in the ocean that aren’t as dynamic,” she said.
The Southern Ocean takes up about 10 per cent of all the CO2 that we’ve emitted since the Industrial Revolution.
However, Dr Turnbull says, there have been questions about whether the amount the ocean is absorbing might be changing.
“We really want to understand, because that tells us what the future will hold,” she says.
So, where does world’s loneliest tree come in?
To reach a conclusion, Dr Turnbull needs to compare historic and current measurements of radiocarbon and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere around the Southern Ocean.
“We did not collect samples in the Southern Ocean 30 years ago, and you can’t go back and sample the air that was there 30 years because it’s not there anymore,” she explains.
As it turns out, tree rings can give you this record.
“Every year, you have a ring you can distinguish and you can slice those rings out and measure the radiocarbon in them, and then we can get this story back in time of what’s been happening with how the Southern Ocean has been changing,” Dr Turnbull says.
But why this tree?
Dr Turnbull and her team needed to get as far into the Southern Ocean as they possibly could without running out of things to measure.
“You can pretty quickly look at a world map and find out there’s not a whole lot of land,” she said.
At 52 degrees south latitude, it was the lowest the team could go where there was a living tree.
With slim pickings, the team took a punt on Campbell Island — and this lonely tree.
A story of survival
Dr Turnbull’s shining star is believed to have been planted on the remote island in around 1907 by the then-governor-general of New Zealand, Lord Ranfurly.
Many believe the tree has survived for so long due to the practically “untouched” nature of the island.
“You are literally tripping over penguins, you have albatrosses flying up to have a look at you. Compared to anything else you can think of, they are untouched,” Dr Turnbull says.
Dr Turnbull says the island is a “global treasure”.(Supplied: GNS Science New Zealand/Jocelyn Turnbull)
Before the Sitka spruce, the Tree of Ténéré held the honour of being crowned the loneliest tree in the world.
The only tree for 400 kilometres in Niger’s Sahara Desert, this single acacia served as a vital navigational landmark and a reminder of resilience amid a harsh climate.
However, in 1973 a Libyan truck driver ran into the tree while he was following an old caravan route.
The dead tree was put on display in the Niger National Museum.
So, is the tree lonely?
While there is heated debate among botanists and scientists over the future of the spruce, Dr Turnbull believes its existence has benefited people far beyond her research — providing companionship to those most lonely.
“There’s been a princess who fled from Scotland, whalers, seafarers, research exhibitions and people stranded,” Dr Turnbull explains.
“I’ve even heard that when people were living there on research exhibitions, supposedly they would go and take the top out of this tree and use it for a Christmas tree.”
Conservation biologist Kay Van Damme works with locals on the Socotra archipelago to help save ancient trees and colourful invertebrates.
In 1999, Kay Van Damme joined a United Nations-led multidisciplinary expedition to the Socotra archipelago, a Yemeni island group in the Arabian Sea, to explore freshwater ecosystems. Influenced by the area’s rich and unique biodiversity, Van Damme began to run annual expeditions to underground lakes on the main island, Socotra, as well as to its aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems above ground. In 2010, he earned a PhD on the evolutionary relationships of freshwater crustaceans from Ghent University in Belgium. Over the years, with the island facing the environmental challenges of climate change and a civil war that has been under way since 2014, Van Damme started applying his knowledge to conserving endangered aquatic insects and crabs, as well as the remarkable local trees. Now, alongside undertaking fieldwork on Socotra, where he works directly with local communities, Van Damme is a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent and at Mendel University in Brno, Czech Republic.
What’s so special about Socotra?
Socotra’s biodiversity treasures are the result of millions of years of secluded evolution. The archipelago separated from southern Arabia during the Miocene epoch (23 million to 5 million years ago). About 37% of its plant species, 90% of its reptiles and 98% of its land snails don’t exist anywhere else. It is the only Yemeni natural site on the UNESCO World Heritage List, to which it was added in 2008.
Islands are often called living laboratories of evolution. Studying these habitats is important for natural history and biogeography. In addition, understanding how highly vulnerable endemic birds, plants and invertebrates have survived on these islands could help to save species in other places.
How has your fieldwork changed over the years?
Continuous exposure to the amazing nature and Socotra’s islanders have had a strong impact on me. The last forest of umbrella-shaped dragon’s blood trees (Dracaena cinnabari) seems out of this world, a relic of Miocene times, when this vegetation type was more widespread around the world. There’s a strange mix of ancient and recent geological features, ranging from granite mountains to coastal sand dunes and enormous limestone caves, harbouring vulnerable and isolated lifeforms.
Seeing the uniqueness of Socotra’s biodiversity and its fragility in the face of climate change, I feel my responsibility has grown to include more than exploration and classification. Gradually, my efforts converged on biodiversity conservation, and my fieldwork has become more strategic: doing biodiversity field surveys to assess threats to endemic species. I help Yemen’s environmental protection agency with conservation planning, including establishing and improving protected areas. We do activities in schools and with the Indigenous Soqotri people to ensure that conservation efforts are integrated into the community, while discussing their concerns about their environment and the impacts of climate change.
Which species do you focus on, and why?
As co-principal investigator of a conservation project funded by the Franklinia Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, I work with colleagues from Socotra, Mendel University and the Sapienza University of Rome on protecting the dragon’s blood trees and ten endemic species of frankincense tree (Boswellia). Meanwhile, I chair a UK-based charity called the Friends of Soqotra, which runs biodiversity-conservation and environmental-awareness projects. Together with local communities in north Socotra, we have replanted mangrove trees (Avicennia marina) that had disappeared decades before. I also focus on a magnificent damselfly, the Socotra bluet (Azuragrion granti), and a colourful freshwater crab (Socotrapotamon socotrensis), which are included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
What are the biggest threats to these ecosystems?
Overgrazing by domestic goats, loss of traditional land-management techniques and the effects of climate change. Violent cyclones and droughts in Socotra affect both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. For instance, cyclones destroyed considerable proportions of unique woodlands of frankincense and dragon’s blood trees in 2015 and 2018. Likewise, threats to freshwater species include drought; landslides due to vegetation loss; pollution; and invasive species, such as a predatory fish called the Arabian toothcarp (Aphanius dispar).
The most effective solution to these threats is for the local communities to get involved in leading the conservation work on the ground. For every tree felled by weather, scientists should work with locals to replant another.
How have you gained the trust of the local community?
I work with our local team, which continues the fieldwork, and with the Soqotri people, who own the land areas. I have great respect for their immense environmental knowledge. We have long conversations with them during visits, asking what is needed. In Socotra, there is no stronger conservation expertise than that which has been applied for centuries by the Soqotri people. For instance, by understanding the quality of a frankincense tree’s incense and the timing of flowering, they have shown us new hybrid species. Our nursery of young frankincense seedlings is maintained by an older Soqotri woman called Mona, who has traditional knowledge of how to take care of them.
How does the ongoing civil war affect your fieldwork?
In comparison to the mainland, Socotra has remained relatively safe for fieldwork. However, the political landscape of the island is variable and complex. This requires us to be flexible when discussing conservation issues with local decision makers, who are sometimes replaced more than once during a project.
We constantly assess risks and maintain clear communication between research team members and local communities and their leaders about where we are at which moment, and for what purpose. In such circumstances, scientists should know the local terrain and weather conditions extremely well, avoiding unnecessary risks and checking in frequently by mobile phone with their local teams.
Do you have any advice for early-career conservation scientists?
Local community leaders have the power to facilitate fieldwork or obstruct it. And because not all leaders prioritize nature conservation, there are some practical tips for building mutual trust with them to help form long-standing partnerships. Focus on constant communication with leaders, respect their culture and environmental knowledge, and cooperate with them in protecting the interests of local people, especially during natural disasters.
Have you made any non-scientific discoveries about Socotra?
My soul has been touched by Socotra’s people. Their kindness towards others is essential to their culture. They speak an endangered Semitic language that has survived through oral tradition, such as poetry and songs. Soqotri people are excellent orators and communicate using good humour. I brought my parents to Socotra to see what has stolen my heart — they understood.
SHAWNEELAND, Va. (AP) — It’s 1722 in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
Frederick County won’t be Frederick County for another 21 years. Virginia won’t be Virginia for another 36 years. The only people living in the region are Native Americans of the Shawnee tribe, and they won’t cross paths with any European settlers for at least another decade.
In the foothills of Great North Mountain, a tiny tree has taken root. The little white oak is barely noticeable in this undisturbed terrain.
Fast forward three centuries.
It’s 2022 and the little white oak has grown into a massive tree. Its trunk is 6 feet wide and its canopy measures more than 100 feet across. It towers above the field where it grows and can easily be seen from the parking lot of St. John’s Lutheran Church, located across the street at 3623 Back Mountain Road.
The tree has become so impressive, so beloved, that area residents have given it a name: Charlie.
Charlie has witnessed the birth of both Frederick County and the commonwealth of Virginia. He stood tall when George Washington surveyed the Winchester area, when the French and Indian War was fought, when the Civil War threatened to split the nation in half, when families struggled to survive the Great Depression, when local boys shipped out to fight in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East, and when a young man named Troy Pittenger visited the Shawneeland area during summer excursions with his family.
Image by Jeff Taylor ; Landowner Troy Pittenger stands with what remains of the 300-year-old white oak tree
The young Pittenger was so impressed with Charlie that, about five years ago, he bought the 15-acre parcel of land surrounding the tree. Pittenger was just 22 years old at the time but already knew this was where he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
He and his best friend, Mitch Mahoney, planned to build a house in an open field behind Charlie. The prospective housemates couldn’t wait to start each day looking out their front window and admiring the magnificent white oak.
That all changed earlier this month when Charlie’s life came to a sudden, unexpected end. The tree’s gigantic trunk shattered and all of its branches collapsed onto the ground.
No one knows how it happened because Charlie, despite his advanced age, appeared to be in great health. There had been thunderstorms in the region the night before, but a lightning rod installed in the tree for protection showed no sign of charring and there were no burn marks on the wood.
“Maybe it was wind shear. A microburst, maybe,” Pittenger, 26, said while looking at the huge pile of splintered wood and withering leaves that used to be his beloved Charlie.
One tree, countless stories
One reason for Charlie’s longevity was the fact that he had been loved and protected by many people over the past three centuries.
According to an article published in The Winchester Star in April 2013, Charlie stood about a quarter mile from an iron works that was built in the mid-1700s by Isaac Zane Jr. and Mordecai Bean. To produce sufficient fuel for a smelting furnace, you need the wood from about 1,000 acres of forest every year. Zane and Bean cut down many trees, but they always spared Charlie.
In 1845, one of Mordecai’s descendants replaced the original Colonial-era furnace with a larger one. Even though the bigger furnace required more wood, Charlie was again spared. The smelting operation shut down around the time of the Civil War in the 1860s.
In the mid-1980s, the land where Charlie stood was owned by Joe Racey, who has since passed away. The power company wanted to move an electrical line along Back Mountain Road and said the giant white oak would have to be cut down. Racey told the utility that anyone who tried to kill Charlie would suffer the same fate as the tree.
At Racey’s request, forester Gerald Crowell of the Virginia Department of Forestry inspected Charlie in April 2013. Crowell, who has since retired, determined the tree was approximately 300 years old and, surprisingly, still had a lot of life left to live.
“This one’s in middle age,” Crowell told Racey, noting that white oaks can live 500 to 600 years.
Charlie had already witnessed a Shawnee raid that claimed the lives of settlers in the Hogue Creek area during the French and Indian War in the 1770s, the congregation of St. John’s Lutheran Church building their first sanctuary out of logs in 1793, Confederate Gen. Jubal Early resting beneath his branches while en route to fight in the Second Battle of Winchester in June 1863, and the nearby Rhinehart tire fire that blackened the skies of northern Frederick County for weeks beginning in July 1984.
Sadly, no one will ever know what Charlie would have seen had he lived another 300 years.
‘This is devastating’
Charlie grew up in a time when it took days for important messages to be shared across the region. By the time he died, global communications had become instantaneous.
Image by Jeff Taylor ; Mitch Mahoney, of Stephens City, VA stands with what is left of a massive 300-year-old white oak tree
Within minutes of Charlie’s demise, Facebook lit up with people in disbelief:
“I admired that tree every time I drove past it for years.” (tilde) Brenda Nichols
“That was a beautiful tree. So sad.” (tilde) Cory Holder Lounsbury
“I grew up about one mile up the road from that tree. It was simply amazing.” (tilde) Tracy Hulver
“This is devastating.” (tilde) Sally Furr
There were dozens more similar responses to Charlie’s death, but no one grieved more than Pittenger.
“I’ve known the tree my whole life,” he said. “We visited it every summer to see it in its full glory.”
Pittenger said he always knew Charlie had a local fan base, but he had no idea how many people loved the tree until it was gone.
“I probably heard from 40 people in that first day,” Pittenger said. “It was shocking.”
“It felt like going to a funeral,” Mahoney added. “It sucks.”
The past is prologue
When Charlie died, Pittenger and Mahoney canceled their plans to build a house next to the white oak. The thought of looking out their front window every day and seeing nothing more than a tree stump was too sad to fathom.
“I’m going to sell the land,” Pittenger said.
Jon “Jay” Duvall of Jon C. Duvall Design and Construction in White Post, who had been contracted to build the house on Back Mountain Road, now has been tasked with clearing away Charlie’s remains.
“We’re going to try to salvage some (of the timber) and mill it,” Duvall said. “We’ll either bring the sawmill here and mill it or cut pieces and take it to the sawmill.”
As sad as it was to lose Charlie, there could still be a happy ending to his tragic tale.
Pittenger has a green thumb and, over the past few years, collected hundreds of cuttings from Charlie that could be rooted and grown into clones of the magnificent white oak.
“I’m a big nature person,” Pittenger said, adding he’ll be sharing many of the cuttings with others who loved Charlie. He’ll also plant at least one of the clones where the tree once stood before he sells the 15-acre property.
Pittenger and Mahoney have decided they still want to build a house, just not where they originally planned. They’re currently looking for another suitable parcel of land in the region, and they still want Duvall to build the dwelling.
Their new home could become known as “The House That Charlie Built.” That’s because Duvall said he’ll use some of the lumber to be milled from the tree’s toppled branches when he constructs the new house.
After the house is built, Pittenger and Mahoney said several Charlie clones will be planted around it.
The ancient monkey puzzle tree has distinctive spiny leaves and intricate scaly branches. Its unusual features, scientists believe, evolved as a defense against towering, long-necked dinosaurs.
Reaching up to 160 feet (48.8 meters) tall and able to live for a millennium, the evergreen tree is a survivor from the Jurassic era, more than 145 million years ago.
Araucaria araucana outlasted the dinosaurs, but today scientific experts consider the tree endangered. Cultivated monkey puzzle trees grow in gardens and parks around the world, but in the wild the species only grows along the slopes of Patagonia’s volcanoes in Chile and Argentina.
Fires, land clearance, overgrazing and logging have shrunk the temperate forest where the monkey puzzle tree grows. Its large seeds are also a prized food source for an endemic species of bird, the austral parakeet.
The green-hued parrots, in flocks of about 15 birds, flit from tree to tree to find a good spot to fatten up for the winter. When the birds hit the jackpot, their numbers can swell to more than 100, and they gorge on monkey puzzle pine nuts.
Edelmiro harvesting seeds from Aruacaria tree top, Comunidad Mapuche Ruca Choroi (Argentina)
The marauding parakeets, despite their bottomless appetite for the nuts, actually could be helping the monkey puzzle trees survive in Patagonia, recent research has found.
Scientists say the birds act as a buffer against the threat posed by human overharvesting of the nuts.
The parakeets typically take the pine nuts and consume them from a treetop perch dozens of feet away. Often, the birds only partially eat the seeds.
In fact, the partial removal of the seed coat by parakeets enhanced the germination speed of monkey puzzle seeds, according to the 2018 study.
“They (the parakeets) play an important role in the regeneration of the araucaria forests as the partially eaten seeds they leave on the ground are not selected by seed collectors, and they retain their germination potential,” explained two of the study authors, Gabriela Gleiser and Karina Speziale, researchers at Argentina’s Biodiversity and Environment Research Institute at the National University of Comahue.
What’s more, they said via email, the parakeets disperse the seeds, which means the trees regenerate further away from the mother plant.
Gleiser and Speziale are also investigating whether the parakeets, as they flap from branch to spiny branch, pollinate the female cones.
The parakeets aren’t the only residents who eat these nuts. They are also a traditional source of food for Chile’s and Argentina’s Indigenous Mapuche people, who skillfully climb the monumental trees to collect seeds and pound them into a flour that can be baked into bread. The nuts, which are larger than almonds, are also eaten more widely in the two countries, particularly Chile.
Petrona Pellao walks among Araucaria trees in Comunidad Mapuche Ruca Choroi in Argentina.
The Mapuche have the right to collect nuts in their ancestral area; however, beyond this, local authorities restrict the amount of nuts that can be collected for personal and commercial purposes and require a permit, Gleiser and Speziale said.
“Despite this, many illegal collectors exist who collect without respecting the collection limits,” the researchers added.
“Human seed collection represents an important threat to (the) monkey puzzle tree’s reproduction in those populations that are accessible for people, as illegal seed collectors almost deplete the seed pools produced by the trees.”
However, the nuts damaged by the parakeets are discarded by collectors, so the partially eaten nuts can still germinate.
The Mapuche lifestyle is interwoven with the monkey puzzle tree. However, it was a bond that was almost broken during colonial times and up to the 1990s, when industrial loggers stripped the land, including the Araucaria trees. Demanding legal protection for the species, the Mapuche clashed with loggers and the Chilean government. The monkey puzzle trees are now protected by law across Patagonia.
The monkey puzzle trees can grow to 160 feet tall and live for 1,000 years.
“The Araucaria are just like the Mapuche people … even though they have been mistreated, beaten up, we all stay strong,” Petrona Pellao, a member of the Mapuche Indigenous group, said in the CNN docuseries “Patagonia: Life on the Edge of the World.”
Nied, 18, is the founder of Planting Shade, a nonprofit that has planted about 12,000 trees in the United States and as far away as Costa Rica.
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Editor’s Note: The video attached to this article was from a separate story that aired in July 2022.
Evan Nied’s Instagram biography says he’s “The Literal and Figurative Embodiment of the Lorax,” the title character of Dr. Seuss’ 1971 children’s book who stands up for trees.
It’s a great conversation starter, but also not far from the truth.
“I love trees,” he said.
Nied, 18, is the founder of Planting Shade, a nonprofit that has planted about 12,000 trees in the United States and as far away as Costa Rica. He’s also an Eagle Scout and the teenager who broke the gender barrier to become the Virginia Beach Neptune Festival’s first prince.
But his most recent accomplishment stems from his Lorax tendencies: He won a national award for his tree-planting work and plans to continue expanding his nonprofit.
Nied kicked off his organization in 2018, when he was a high school freshman. He was inspired by Hurricane Florence, which forced his family to evacuate and made him start questioning how he could make a difference.
Planting trees is important in flood-prone Virginia Beach. On a recent afternoon, Nied provided a tour of some of the 110 or so trees his group helped plant in the Ashville Park development near Pungo. Those trees could help stem future flooding.
Nied also wants his group to collaborate with educators so that environmental education is open to everyone. As a public school student, he said he didn’t learn much about the ecosystem or environment.
But he did learn, through his experiences as a Virginia Beach high schooler, how to be an effective activist.
In 2021, Nied became the Neptune Festival’s first prince, a role previously reserved for girls who act as mermaid attendants to King Neptune. Festival organizers initially rejected him, then reconsidered months later.
The common thread between these different forms of activism is his interest in making the community a better place, he said.
So when his grandmother saw something about a national contest for Jewish teens trying to make a difference, she thought of him. To be eligible, a teen volunteer as a leader for a project that tries to “repair” the world. The award, which comes with a $36,000 prize, is given to 15 U.S. Jewish teenagers every year.
Nied applied and won. He’s not sure what he’ll do with the money, he said, but the funds can only be used for college or the recipient’s organization. And he already has a full ride to the University of Virginia.
He’s receiving his award in San Francisco and attending a retreat with other winners. He’s excited to learn from them.
“Some of them, I’m almost intimidated by how accomplished they are,” he said.
After that, he’ll start his freshman year at U.Va., where he’ll be a Jefferson and Echols scholar. That means he likely won’t have as large a role in Planting Shade. But he said he’s designed the organization so that high schoolers remain at the forefront. His younger sister, Simone, is the vice president of the Virginia Beach chapter.
And Nied plans to continue community service work in Charlottesville and in his career. He’s not sure exactly what he’ll do, but he said he’ll maintain a “continued interest in making whatever community I’m in a better place.”
Biologists call for action as plant spreads into Maryland
Plunge your hand beneath the surface of the water. Grasp the purplish shoots firmly and yank upward. The water chestnut plant (Trapa bispinosa) should emerge from its mooring largely intact with little difficulty.
Easy, right? Now do it over and over again until you’ve removed the aquatic weed across a span roughly the size of a football field. (Maybe more.) Then, it’s time to work on dozens of other lakes and ponds with documented infestations — all while racing against the plant’s spread into new waters.
That’s the type of challenge that water chestnut foes are facing in Northern Virginia. So far, it’s proving more than they can handle.
Since 2020, the number of active water chestnut colonies has grown from 54 to 81 as newly discovered sites outpace the places where eradications efforts have succeeded.
And the plant has escaped its confines around the Virginia suburbs of the District of Columbia. This summer, observers for the first time spotted the invader in a pair of far-flung locales: nearly 200 miles to the south in Charlotte County, VA, and 30 miles to the northeast in Prince George’s County, MD.
“It’s a substantial increase in the perimeter we have to cover,” said Nancy Rybicki, a George Mason University professor and retired U.S. Geological Survey aquatic plant expert.
But there is cause for optimism, she said. A couple of years ago, Rybicki felt nearly alone in the battle against the water chestnut. Now, a loose network of volunteer organizations and government agencies has joined the cause, collectively working to acquire dedicated staffing, more funding and stronger regulatory tools.
Nancy Rybicki, a George Mason University professor and retired U.S. Geological Survey aquatic plant expert, is among those leading the fight against invasive water chestnut. by Whitney Pipkin
The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District recently obtained about $300,000 from Fairfax County’s Environmental Improvement Program to fund a staff position to oversee eradication in at least 30 ponds countywide. That amount also covers the cost of contractors to do the work.
Meanwhile, the National Capital Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) is seeking a $1.8 million U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant to fund treatments on privately owned ponds. As things stand, many property owners can’t afford to quell water chestnut infestations on their own, said Sara Tangren, the coordinator of the PRISM chapter.
“We know it can get out of ponds and get into slow-moving tidal waters,” she said. “If we don’t get the funding to take care of this, it’s just going to cost a whole lot more” in the future.
This clump of invasive water chestnut was removed from Burke Lake in Fairfax County, VA. by Whitney Pipkin
Another branch of the fight may be on the verge of bearing fruit. The Virginia Noxious Weed Advisory Committee nominated the water chestnut to be designated as a Tier 2 weed in 2019. The Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the proposal.
If added to that list, the Virginia Department of Agriculture could tap its own resources to suppress populations or reduce its spread, said agency spokesman Michael Wallace. The classification also would prohibit the movement and sale of those plants into or within the state without a permit.
To John Odenkirk, the water chestnut is the “evil weed.” The biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources discovered the beginnings of the current outbreak in Pohick Bay along the Potomac River in 2014. With Rybicki’s help, the plant was identified as a native of East Asia — not the edible variety and not the same type that blanketed much of the Potomac in the 1950s.
John Odenkirk, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, gathers baskets of invasive water chestnut into a canoe as a team works to remove the plants from Burke Lake in Fairfax County. by Whitney Pipkin
The fast-growing plant began spreading throughout Northern Virginia. But as invasive hunters grappled with issues over jurisdiction and funding, they clung to one positive sign: The immediate area around the infestation’s Fairfax County epicenter remained the only place where the water chestnut had been found in the U.S.
“I know everyone has invasive fatigue, but this one could be really bad if it breaks open,” Odenkirk said.
Once established, a colony can smother an entire pond or lake. The dense mats can block the passage of oxygen in the atmosphere to the water below and create oxygen-starved expanses where aquatic life is all but nonexistent, experts say. The plant’s long tendrils also impede boat navigation.
Invasive water chestnut creates dense mats across waterbodies. by Whitney Pipkin
The water chestnut plague hasn’t quite broken open, but this year’s long-distance jumps to southern Virginia and central Maryland are worrying, Odenkirk said. He suspects Canada geese are to blame. The plant’s seed pods are adorned with opposing hook-like horns, which can latch “like Velcro” onto feathers, clothing and other surfaces, he explained.
He said that he hopes that his agency will receive a grant later this summer to fund a position for three years to coordinate volunteers and contractors in efforts to locate and eradicate invasive species, including the water chestnut.
A water chestnut-pulling event at Fairfax County’s Burke Lake Park in late July illustrated the difficulties that lie ahead.
Volunteer Suria Hassan helps remove invasive water chestnut from Burke Lake in Fairfax County, VA. by Jeremy Cox
“It’s like something from the Upside Down,” said Casey Pittrizzi as his gloved hand emerged from the lake with a tangled clump of spade-shaped green leaves and purple roots. His reference was to the otherworldly alternate dimension in the Netflix show Stranger Things.
“Luckily, it’s relatively easy to pull up. I think I got pretty much most of it when I pulled it up,” said Pittrizzi, a Fairfax County Park Authority staffer on loan for the day from another park. “At least here it’s not everywhere, which is why we’re trying to hit it now.”
About two dozen people worked for several hours around the rim of the lake — some from kayaks, others clad in hip waders around the shore. Their affiliations ranged from state biologists to summer Park Authority wage earners. They filled white plastic laundry baskets with water chestnut plants and bottom gunk and hauled them ashore.
A basket is filled with invasive water chestnut removed from Burke Lake in Fairfax County, VA. More baskets stacked in a nearby boat are waiting to be filled. by Whitney Pipkin
To spray herbicides certainly would be easier, Odenkirk acknowledged. And it’s been done for the water chestnut. But the chemicals can drift downstream, harming other aquatic life. Experts also point out that the dying plant material tends to simply drift to the bottom, providing a ready source of nutrients for the next outbreak.
What Odenkirk initially estimated would be one day’s work, though, soon overflowed to two. The main problem: He had estimated the size of the outbreak at about a half-acre at the start of the month, but it had grown in the summer heat to at least twice that size in the intervening three weeks.
Everything you’ve always wanted to know (and more) about the invasive species recently spotted in Bedford County.
Jim Mullin says he feels like he’s living through an Old Testament plague.
What used to be pleasant summer evenings on the deck have turned instead into a battle against nature, and against the swarms of bugs – a particularly nasty bug that shows up by the thousands and is tough to kill. “If I took a flyswatter out on my deck, I’d kill 30,” he says. Some evenings, Mullin – who lives in Cecil County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore – goes swimming in the Bohemia River, except on one particular night the vineyard across the river had sprayed for the bugs. Mullin went to the river to swim; the insects decamped to the river, as well – to wait out the spray.
“They were completely across the water – hundreds, thousands of ’em on the water,” he says. “You could grab ’em with your hand, hold ’em under the water, feel ’em squirming. Then you think they’re dead and you let up and they’re still alive.”
Mullin’s unscientific assessment of the bug (by trade he’s a real estate appraiser and is a former county commissioner, Maryland’s equivalent of a county supervisor): “They’re bad news.”
The Eastern Shore of Maryland is somewhat far afield from our coverage area in Southwest and Southside but Mullin’s experience is relevant in this way: The voracious little bug he’s swatting and stomping and trying to drown there is on its way here. In fact, it’s already here. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recently confirmed that the spotted lanternfly has been found in Bedford County – and that’s not even the first find in this part of the state, just the most recent. Earlier the bugs – perhaps we should say the dreaded bugs – were found in Carroll and Wythe counties.
The spotted lanternfly is a native of China that showed up in Pennsylvania in 2014 and has been spreading ever since. It’s a nuisance to ordinary folks who just want to sit outside, but it’s an economic threat to agriculture – partly vineyards because the little buggers love, just love, grapevines. The spotted lanternfly was first spotted in Berks County, Pennsylvania – the Reading area. “In early infestations, some Berks County vineyards lost between 97 and 100% of their crops,” according to Shannon Powers of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Theresa “Tree” Dellinger, an entomologist with Virginia Tech, says some vineyards went out of business. Spotted lanternflies are sap-suckers, so they weaken the vines to the extent that some can’t survive the winter. No wonder the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has issued a pretty clear directive to anyone who spots one of these pests: Kill it. There aren’t many times the state government tells people they can kill something with impunity.
While the spotted lanternfly prefers grapevines, it’s also happy boring into fruit trees, and also sometimes walnut and maple trees, so this has implications – bad ones – for the timber industry (and maybe the maple sugar industry in Highland County). A 2019 study by Penn State (conducted five years after the spotted lanternfly showed up in Pennsylvania) estimated crop damage in the state at $50.1 million per year – with a loss of 484 jobs. That study also said that “under a worst-case scenario, in which damage reaches the maximum projected by crop-production and forestry experts, these losses could increase to $554 million annually and almost 5,000 jobs.”
So, yeah, if you see one of these bugs, kill it (although let the state ag people know, too, so they can keep track of where they are, other than the underside of your shoe).
Random but important fact: Virginia has at least 281 vineyards and the state’s wine industry is measured as a $5 billion enterprise, in the state according to the National Association of American Wineries. I don’t mean to sound alarmist but this bug is not their friend.
Dellinger warns that vineyards face a threat beyond simply having their vines gnawed through until they die: They could lose the wedding business.
The spotted lanternfly likes to swarm, especially when they’re mating. (Yes, bug orgies.) “We have heard reports of people who feel they can’t go outside anymore,” Dellinger says – with Mullins in Maryland being a real-life example of that. “In Pennsylvania, we’ve even heard from people who wonder if they could sell their house with all these things around it, so it’s a quality-of-life issue for homeowners.” The bugs also like to land on people (they are voracious but friendly). “Can you imagine going to your wedding and seeing these things flying around?” Dellinger asks. “I don’t want to scare any potential bride off from looking at a vineyard but that could be one possible issue.”
We should also mention that the spotted lanternfly, besides being an economic threat, and a general nuisance, is also pretty disgusting. “They’re sucking sap out” of their host plant, Dellinger says, “and they use some of the material, but they can’t use all the water or sugar so that comes out the back end in what we call honeydew because that sounds better than spotted lanternfly poop.” (Whoever decided to rebrand spotted lanternfly poop as “honeydew” is a marketing genius.) And there’s a LOT of spotted lanternfly poop. “All that honeydew waste can coat a back deck or driveway or sidewalk or play area,” says Mark Sutphin, the Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for the northern Shenandoah Valley. (More on why we’re talking to him shortly.) The stuff also attracts other bugs – ants, wasps, and whatnot – so we’re talking a bug paradise, and not all those bugs are nice.
OK, that we’ve terrified you about this coming plague of vineyard-killing poopers, let’s look at the way to deal with this, which brings us to the intersection of science and government. First, let’s understand the science.
The spotted lanternfly is native to China, where it has some native predators that don’t exist in North America. The spotted lanternfly is also a really good hitchhiker, which is how it got to Pennsylvania in 2014 – probably as an egg mass on an imported ornamental bush, according to Sutphin. Spotted lanternflies lay their eggs pretty much wherever they want, so these eggs can easily be transported – on just about anything. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has imposed a quarantine on some counties to regulate the movement of the most likely bug-carriers – from shrubbery to construction equipment – but it’s hard to fight an insect.
“The adults don’t fly super far,” Dellinger says, “but they’re really good at landing on your shoulder unaware and clinging on. If you have a pregnant female land on your shoulder and get in your car and you go somewhere and it gets out, the female goes and lays her legs.” Then, presto, you have spotted lanternflies somewhere where they weren’t before. (Their egg masses are generally 30 to 50 eggs, so one pregnant lanternfly can pretty quickly establish a new population.) Carroll County and Wythe County are among the Virginia localities under quarantine; Dellinger says the spotted lanternflies in Carroll County were found not far from a truck stop along Interstate 77. Like we said, hitchhikers, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The bug turned up in Virginia in 2018 in on some grape vines in Winchester. At the time, that was considered just the second population in the country – the first being in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area. Now the map compiled by the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program shows the insect across much of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware – and moving down into Virginia, with sightings as far north as Massachusetts, as far west as Indiana, as far south as North Carolina. Sutphin says for a while the population in the northern Shenandoah Valley was confined to mostly commercial, industrial and residential parts of Winchester, but now it’s out into the agricultural areas of the countryside. The state now considers Clarke County, Frederick County, Warren County and Wincehester “heavily infested.” There’s no data yet on agricultural losses in Virginia because all this has happened pretty quickly – this is really the first big year for a lot of sightings in the state. Even the official map of the spotted lanternfly range is out of date. Besides the recent confirmation in Bedford, Dellinger says the species has also been found in Campbell, Culpeper, Fauquier, Loudoun and Nelson counties. “We’re finding it in counties faster than they can adapt the quarantine” by adding those counties, she says.
Speaking of that now-outdated official map:
Before the Bedford County sighting, this was the reported range of the spotted lanternfly. Courtesy of the New York State Integrated Pest Management System.
Let’s say a few words here about the first responders on invasive species. We don’t usually have much reason to think about the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, but it’s there and on the case. The department has 24 full-time and four part-time staffers who deal with invasive species, according to department spokesman Michael Wallace. How often do they get reports of invasive species? Every day. Every single day. The state’s list of invasive plants alone runs three pages. The invasive species considered the biggest threats at the moment include the red imported fire ant, spotted lanternfly, cotton boll weevil, plus a long list of “noxious” weed species and some plant-based pathogens such as thousand cankers disease and sudden oak death. In fact, the spotted lanternfly sighting in Bedford County was first made by one of the state ag department’s Plant Protection Inspectors making a routine survey, Wallace says. We often bemoan about all the ways in which government doesn’t work. Here’s an example of a government agency working. Politicians usually spend their time talking about other things but here’s a government agency they could be citing as a real-life example of “your tax dollars at work.”
Don’t jump to some stereotype about mild-mannered scientists, either: In 2006, some fire ants were spotted in a planter in the parking lot at Valley View Mall in Roanoke, probably imported with some shrubbery. You’d have thought the Marines had shown up the way an ag department team arrived and dispatched the fire ants with extreme prejudice. The problem is that bugs are notoriously hard to deal with. They’re small and they often fly. Those fire ants in Roanoke might have been sent to wherever bugs go, but the species itself is still crawling into places it hasn’t been before. A map released by Virginia Tech this year shows infestations from Virginia Beach west to Halifax County, with smaller, isolated populations in Danville and Lee County. The continent is full of invasive species that have established themselves so much we no longer think of them as invasive. Burmese pythons up to 18 feet now slither all through the Everglades, swallowing up deer and the occasional small child. Starlings were released in Central Park in New York in 1890 because someone thought it would be cool to import a bird mentioned in Shakespeare. Now they’re all over and up to no good (they also damage crops). Technically, humans would be considered an invasive species in North America, too, but since we get to keep the records, we don’t record ourselves that way.
There are some success stories: The state ag department says both the spongy moth and the boll weevil have been eradicated in Virginia. Score two for our side. But sometimes the best you can do is “manage” the situation. In the case of the spotted lanternfly, that often means insecticides. If you can’t stomp ’em or swat ’em, spray ’em. The catch, Sutphin says, is that in Pennsylvania this has sometimes tripled a vineyard’s insect management costs. Your wine might get more expensive. Now do we have your attention?
Mullin, our Maryland friend who is heroically battling the spotted lanternfly, offers this unscientific but probably sound advice. He says the species is most vulnerable after it’s hatched but before it can fly. “At that point, they’re just bugs,” he says, easy prey for a flyswatter or a shoe. “They’re just crawling over the deck and I’d go boom boom boom.” He also offers this tip: “It’ll hop three times, then stop. Then it’s like it’s run out of breath.”
That’s when you stomp.
Just be prepared to do it a lot. “I’d kill a mess of ’em, go back out and have to start over again, they’re that thick,” Mullin says. “It’s freaky.”
A citizens group has pledged to submit a bid later this month to buy and preserve a 20.3-acre forested parcel in Chappaqua that is believed to be sacred Native American ceremonial grounds to save it from development.
Friends of Buttonhook, now a nonprofit organization named after what local residents have been calling the forest, has been fundraising and attracting donors this summer to be in contention to purchase the property off of Garey Drive from the Chappaqua Central School District (CCSD). The district, which obtained the property from Jacob Zauderer for $125,000 in November 1973 to potentially build a school at the site, had been looking to subdivide the land in order to make the property more attractive to a developer.
In June, district officials announced that it would be accepting bids for the property a few months after a contract with a developer expired. The district received preliminary subdivision approval from the New Castle Planning Board in March 2019, but was unable to proceed further after running into difficulty receiving a stormwater permit from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) since the land is in the city’s watershed.
Two types of bids are being accepted until Aug. 30, those that want to buy the land with or without final subdivision approval.
However, Tracey Bilski, vice president of Friends of Buttonhook who lives on an adjacent parcel, said the discovery of Native American artifacts since the environmental review process was conducted for the subdivision application sheds new light on the property. She said Native American experts have provided evidence that tribes lived on and traversed the land well before Europeans settled in the area, intensifying the urgency for her and others to protect the site.
While walking on the trails on her side of the property line a few years ago, Bilski noticed stone piles mostly on the school district’s parcel but which also extend a bit onto her land. Each pile and the pattern of how the different piles are placed appeared to be intricate rather than random, she noted.
In all there are about two dozen stone structures that she can see.
“I didn’t know what it was. It was very unusual,” Bilski said. “There were large stone piles and it didn’t make sense from a farming perspective because there was ledge, rock ledge behind it, so it wasn’t as if there was a farm field that had been cleared.”
Since Native American tribes have been known to have populated the area, she reached out first to the New England Antiquities Research Association, which put her in touch with Dr. Curtis Hoffman who wrote a book called “Stone Prayers,” about Native American ceremonial grounds. Hoffman recommended that she contact Nohham Cachat-Schilling, chair of the Massachusetts Ethical Archaeology Society and a medicine elder of the Opitemakaning Mawhihtit (Bridge in the Sky Medicine Circle).
Cachat-Schilling issued preliminary and supplemental reports based on what he was able to glean from Bilski’s property, confirming the existence of ceremonial stone features on all accessible properties around the school district’s land. Ceremonial stone features were also visually confirmed from the boundaries of the parcel.
Because the stone structures are undisturbed from being in the middle of a forest without development, the Buttonhook property is extraordinarily valuable, he wrote.
“The CCSD site is of exceptional value in regard to frequency of similar sites because similar sites are almost completely lacking today in Central Westchester and are infrequent anywhere in the county,” he stated. “Similar sites would need to be physically, spiritually, ecologically intact like the CCSD site and its environs, as well as give the same access to ceremonial practice. I do not know of any other such site in Central Westchester.”
The discovery and confirmation gives Friends of Buttonhook President Victoria Alzapiedi hope that not only more donors will step up in the three weeks before the bids close to help with the fundraising efforts but that the school district will recognize the significance of the land. Under the Request for Proposal, any bidder must have $100,000 in cash and have enough money on hand to cover its bid.
“We’re very optimistic that we will be able to raise enough funds to make a highly competitive bid that the Chappaqua Central School District will accept, so that this land will be preserved and the 676 trees in this untouched forest will be protected from being clear-cut, and that this Native American sacred ceremonial site can be preserved intact to respect the Native American culture,” Alzapiedi said.
The district does not have to accept the highest bid or any bid at all, according to school officials.
“The (Board of Education) has the ability to make a decision based on what is in the best interest of the district, so there could be multiple factors involved. So it doesn’t necessarily mean the highest price,” said Assistant Superintendent for Business Andrew Lennon.
Bilski said the last price the district had sought for the land was $2 million, so the Friends is working to get as close to that figure as possible.
District officials responded to further inquiries by pointing to public statements that the board and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christine Ackerman have made on the issue.
At the Board of Education’s May 4 meeting, Ackerman said there had been significant communication between the board and the town regarding potential historical and/or archeological significance. But the state Department of Environmental Conservation was unable to find any by the time the Environmental Assessment Form (EAF) was completed.
“I also think that it’s important to share that should we sell the property, the builder would have obligations to follow New York state requirements should they uncover items of archeological significance,” Ackerman said.
The district also does not plan to engage in any additional review of the site, Ackerman added at that meeting.
For the Friends of Buttonhook, while the historical and archeological significance is critical, so to is preservation of the environment, including saving animal habitats and combatting climate change.
Resident Stacy Morgan said the loss of hundreds of trees is exactly the kind of activity that communities locally and globally need to stop. She was further motivated after a large group of Horace Greeley High School students petitioned the district to preserve the land.
“That’s where I get my energy from,” Morgan said. “I want to help the younger generation. Why shouldn’t we just leave it to them?”
Furthermore, Alzapiedi said when the EAF was completed, it stated that only small mammals and songbirds used the property as their habitat, but the land is also home to bobcats, coyotes, woodpeckers and other species.
For Bilski, Friends of Buttonhook is prepared to submit its bid right before the deadline on Aug. 30. Members are hopeful, but they are also willing to work with a developer to preserve the site for the sake of Native Americans and for future generations of local residents.
Bilski has been providing tours on the trails on her property for those interested. More information about that and the group’s efforts can be found on its Facebook page and at www.preservebuttonhook.org. So far, they have been endorsed by about 25 area organizations.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us, but I really believe the response that we’re getting has been tremendous in terms of connecting with us and people taking the information and passing it on to others,” Bilski said.
There’s a worm crawling around in the state, and Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) is not only asking residents to be on the lookout but to report the invader if it’s spotted.
The unwelcomed visitor is a jumping worm. It’s also referred to as the Alabama jumper, crazy worm, Jersey wriggler, and snake worm. The worm’s names reflect the very active “escape behavior” they when exhibit when handled or disturbed, which includes thrashing movements and erratic jumping.
Native of Japan and the Korean peninsula, jumping worms are reddish to brownish-purple and sometimes have a glossy, iridescent sheen. Adults can be distinguished from other earthworms by the pale-colored band that wraps around the body. Although they’re typically 3-6 inches long, some grow up to 8 inches, according to VCE.
These asexual worms have a one-year life cycle where the eggs hatch in the spring, they reach adulthood in the summer, and they lay eggs and die by winter.
What’s the problem?
Jumping worms have a voracious appetite for leaf litter and mulch. They’ll remove the top layer of organic material and drastically change the soil structure underneath. Their eating habits deplete nutrients, reduce moisture, and can leave the soil dry with a granular appearance like coffee grounds.
Their removal of leaf litter and the soil erosion that results can expose the root system of trees. These worms can reduce the survival chances of newly sprouted plants and make soils poorer and less productive, notes VCE. Further, animals that live and feed on the leaf litter and topsoil may be affected by habitat loss, says Virginia Farm Bureau.
Where are they?
Jumping worms are commonly found in leaf litter and the uppermost level of the soil. They get transported from place to place in soil and that organic material associated with plants. This means they could be moving around in potted plants, mulch, compost, and the topsoil purchased from various businesses.
Since 2019, in the Northern Neck, these worms have been found Northumberland. Elsewhere in the state, they’ve been seen in Albemarle, Bedford, Chesterfield, Frederick, Goochland, Loudoun, Louisa, Montgomery, Prince William and Wise counties, as well as in the cities of Fairfax, Lynchburg and Virginia Beach, according to the Virginia Tech Department of Entomology.
What to do about it?
If you find jumping worms, first take an up-close, clear photo or a video and report the finding to your local Extension office.
Then kill them. Do this by placing them in a plastic bag and leave the bag in direct sun for at least 10 minutes before throwing it away or drown the worms in a deep container of soapy water, says VCE.
If there are worms contained in an outdoor area, VCE advises solarizing that space to kill the cocoons. Do that by placing a sheet of plastic over the ground for 2-3 weeks to allow the soil temperature to rise over 104 degrees for at least three days. But be aware that this will also kill other plants and turf.
If you plan to submit a specimen to your local cooperative Extension office, make sure it is in a container where it is completely submerged in rubbing alcohol.
“Mainly we hope that people are aware of these invasive worms and try their best to not spread them through potted plants or soil,” said Theresa Dellinger, Virginia Tech insect identification lab diagnostician.
KOCHI: Gmelina arborea, Wrightia tinctoria, guava and jamun are just some of the native species to have taken roots again in some of the forest lands in the state which had witnessed human habitation for many decades.
Saplings have started growing again in 12 hectares of land inside the forest in various parts of the state as non–tribal people who used to live there moved out of the forest to settle elsewhere.
More area is being added as many more are expressing willingness to relocate from the forest helping bring down human intervention in the forest, avoid man-animal conflicts and increase forest regeneration.
As per data available from the forest department, 84 families from 12ha relocated in the past year alone. The process of relocating another 135 families from 39ha is underway as they have been given the first installment of compensation.
The department is flooded with requests from those who want to move out. It received another 375 applications amounting to 45ha.
The compensation is given under the Rebuild Kerala initiative launched after the 2018 floods.
“They are families who got title deeds from the government. With no scope for development works, man-animal conflicts and accessibility issues, people want to relocate,” said a forest official.
“The government gives Rs 15 lakh as compensation for each unit. Owners who possess forest land but do not reside there will get Rs 15 lakh for up to five acres, which will be treated as a single unit,” the forest official said.
“The second unit, between five and 10 acres, will get another Rs 15 lakh. Others like children will not be eligible for the amount. But for a resident, sub-units are also eligible and get additional 15 lakhs other than parents,”they added.
Kerala had witnessed a major village relocation programme around the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary with the support of the Central government years ago.
Both tribals and non–tribals were relocated based on the protocols of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). “The first voluntary village relocation in was in Wayanad in 2011. The relocation was done after a study by the Kerala Forest Research Institute,” said N Badusha who is part of the Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samiti, an NGO that played a key role in ensuring the relocation in the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary.
“It was found that 2,200 families were residing in and around the sanctuary and they were facing difficulties. In the first phase, 800 families from 14 villages were relocated. But the programme has lost its momentum in the last three years,” Badusha added.
The National Wildland Fire Preparedness Level, a five-point measure of wildfires burning and resources devoted to wildfire fighting, increased from a two to a three this month. At a level three, multiple areas require remote support to aid in firefighting.
Use the map below to see the fires burning across the nation. Click or tap on a fire for more information about it. This map will be updated daily.
Link to original article and map
In firefighting, containment is the process of creating a barrier around a fire — with soil, rocks or burnt fuels — in order to keep it from spreading to anything else flammable. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, a fire might still be burning even when it is 100% contained, but at that point the local firefighting agency is able to manage the blaze without assistance from national resources.
From students to citizen-scientists – new environmental and forest management activities take hold in the University’s forested, living laboratory, the Whittell Forest & Wildlife Area
Biology 322, Experimental Field Ecology, returned to the University of Nevada, Reno’s Whittell Forest & Wildlife Area in summer 2022. Kelly Robinson and Devon Picklum, graduate teaching assistants in the College of Science’s Department of Biology, brought their Summer Session class into the living laboratory of the forest to give students the opportunity to apply field-study techniques for plants and animals and to design and execute ecological experiments. Part of the University’s first mini-session of summer classes, Biology 322 concluded July 8, 2022.
This is one of several academic-related activities developing in the Whittell Forest and, at its interior, the Little Valley Research Station. To name a few:
In June the Whittell Forest hosted a Bioblitz, a citizen-conducted survey to identify and record plant species in the area.
Professor Anne Leonard and her laboratory team in the Department of Biology, College of Science, have folded the Little Valley Research Station into their continued and renowned study of bees and plant-pollinator interactions.
Faculty in the Department of Anthropology, College of Liberal Arts, are assessing the impact of humans in this ecological setting and their work may develop to include mapping of these impacts.
The Whittell Forest is now home to a mountaintop camera station, part of the ALERTWildfire monitoring network. ALERTWildfire is a consortium of the University of Nevada, Reno, University of California San Diego and University of Oregon, and the Little Valley camera station was installed in 2021.
Additional courses and degree programs include forest-based learning, such as the bachelor’s degree in forest ecology and management offered through the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources.
The 2022-2023 Whittell Forest Graduate Research Fellowships have been awarded to Pamela Pierce, archaeology; Kenny Hickenbottom, engineering; and Johanne Albrigtsen, hydrology.
An article published in the June 2022 issue of Nevada Silver & Blue follows and shares more about the vision for the Whittell Forest and the people involved:
Silver Benefactor in the University Honor Court and Foundation Trustee Emeritus Tom Hall ’65 (finance) grew up at Lake Tahoe, on Kingsbury Grade near Stateline, in a home then surrounded by forest. As a young adult he purchased 80 acres of forested property on the eastern slope of the Sierras in Washoe Valley. On this land, he has cared for and observed trees over decades, in some cases seeing them fight off disease or watching growth emerge after fire. Of this cycle of resilience and renewal, Hall said, “There’s something spiritual about it.”
His appreciation for the history, legacy and management of forests drew Hall to be involved with a refreshed vision for the University’s Whittell Forest & Wildlife Area to support a range of experiential learning, research and creative activities across a broad range of disciplines. Hall further connects to this effort as a neighbor — his property borders the Whittell Forest.
Serving as director of the Whittell Forest is Sarah Bisbing, an accomplished forest ecologist, researcher and professor in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Science. She describes the Whittell Forest & Wildlife Area — with its meadow system, quaking aspens and intact wildlife populations — as a natural classroom and living laboratory where students can apply what they learn. They participate in the application of modern forest management approaches and also develop on-the-job forestry skills.
At the interior of the forest is an area known as the Little Valley Research Station, “a great tool for learning, education, exploration and growth,” Hall said. “I’m 100% for getting students on the hill to have these experiences.”
The roughly 2,500-acre mountain forest was gifted to the University in 1959 by George Whittell ’60 (Honorary Doctor of Laws), an eccentric millionaire who spent much of his life at Lake Tahoe. Since then, the Whittell Forest has grown to 2,650 acres through additional land purchases in the ‘70s as well as a donation of land by Hall and his family in 1982.
The Whittell Forest Advisory Committee was reconstituted in 2020 to assist with management plans and stewardship practices and includes representatives of the Nevada Division of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service, the University’s Experiment Station, University leadership and representing nearby residents, Tom Hall and Patricia King ’74 (biology), ’76 M.S., ’80 Ph.D.
“The property doesn’t stand in isolation. It works in concert with adjacent lands and it’s important that we manage this with constituent input,” said Bisbing.
The study of wildlife, insects, soils and forest ecology are prominent in the long history of research at the Whittell Forest. As these fields of study continue, Bisbing is encouraging new ones, ranging from snow hydrology and climate change to the social sciences, humanities and art, as well as a deepened representation of diversity and inclusion. The Whittell Forest & Wildlife Area is also now home to a mountaintop camera station which is part of the ALERTWildfire monitoring network.
Researchers at The University of Queensland have found that a native New Zealand stinging tree produces toxins that could hold clues for future pain medication.
In a quest to find new molecules that affect pain pathways, Dr Thomas Durek, Dr Sam Robinson and a team from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) studied toxins from the tree nettle known as ongaonga, one of New Zealand’s most poisonous plants that can cause painful stings that last for days, and in severe cases can even be fatal.
Dr Robinson and a team from UQ previously investigated toxins found in an Australian gympie-gympie stinging tree but found the New Zealand tree nettle toxins activated pain receptors in a new way.
“We discovered that the New Zealand nettle tree toxins target the same receptor as their Australian counterparts, but they cause pain in a different way,” Dr Robinson said.
“The Australian stinging tree and New Zealand tree nettle are both members of the nettle family, but separated millions of years ago and have evolved differently.
“The New Zealand tree nettle can grow up to four metres tall and its leaves and stems are covered with stinging hairs that pierce the skin and deliver venom which causes long-lasting pain.”
Fossil remains show that the large flightless bird, the Moa, had a liking for eating the tree nettle and it’s likely the strong toxins evolved to fend off the now-extinct bird.
The team faced challenges during the study due to international COVID travel restrictions.
“COVID made it difficult to source nettles, but to keep our research going through the pandemic, we managed to source seeds from the New Zealand tree nettle and grow the plant under quarantine in the lab,” Dr Robinson said.
With travel bans lifting, Dr Gilding plans to go to Vietnam later this year to experience “anything that stings” and is applying for funding to also visit Madagascar and South America to widen the net.
“There are several hundred nettles in the Urticaceae family with stinging hairs around the world — we’re keen to compare how they have evolved and whether they all use the same toxins,” Dr Gilding said.
The research is published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry and was funded by organisations including the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council.
“The redwoods that we’re cloning are 2,000-4,000 years old, and we have no idea how they can be that old,” says Milarch.
“It’s like finding a family somewhere in a remote area, where people are 200 to 300 years old. Wouldn’t you want to study their genetics and find out how they’re able to live for so long?”
The archive studies the genetics of ancient trees, before cloning them and planting them back in their native forests. Their aim is to reforest the Earth with trees that are resistant to global warming.
The world’s last remaining sequoias are limited to 75 groves, scattered along a narrow belt of the western Sierra Nevada in California, US. They have massive trunks with bark as thick as 45 cm and can grow over 90 metres tall.
Large sequoias had never been incinerated before 2015, and the destruction of the majestic trees hit unprecedented levels last year when 10-14% of the 75,000 trees larger than 122 cm in diameter were destroyed.
Fighting climate change
One famous member of this family, General Sherman, is thought to be the largest tree on Earth by volume. An independent study found that this single tree can store about 86 years’ worth of a person’s carbon emissions.
He believes that one way of reversing climate change is to repopulate the planet with these ancient trees.
“We found 130 different species of trees all over the world. We found 22 1,000-year-old oaks in Ireland,” says Milarch.
He believes it is possible to clone 5 million trees in four years, using one tiny piece of a healthy ancient tree. The samples come from the top branches, which are then added to a sterile foam cube, along with a mix of hormones.
“We went from a 3-4 per cent success rate to a 97 per cent success rate by using these foam cubes with the hormones,” says Milarch.
To avoid monoculture and promote diversity, the DNA of the strongest and most ancient trees is mixed, which helps these trees to be resistant to diseases.
“So country by country, continent by continent, you want to find the largest, healthiest native species of that country,” says Milarch.
By cooperating with laboratories around the world, he thinks it is possible to create hundreds of millions of highly resistant native species.
However, to make a real difference, the world needs billions of these trees.
Firefighters contained a brush fire that broke out in the Angeles National Forest Sunday afternoon.
The blaze, dubbed the “Stoney Fire,” was first reported at around 1:30 p.m. near Big Tujunga Canyon Road and Vogel Flat Road.
In a joint effort, crews with both Los Angeles County Fire Department and Angeles National Forest were able to stop the forward progress of the fire at around 10 acres of vegetation before completely clearing the scene just after 7 p.m.
There were no injuries reported and no structures threatened by the flames.
Big Tujunga Canyon Road reopened at around 10 p.m. Sunday evening.
Investigators were still working to determine a cause.
The UK’s toads are climbing trees, but no one is quite sure why.
Some individuals have been found as much as 2.8 metres above the ground, with suggestions they could be avoiding predators or looking for food.
Members of the public are being asked to look out for toads above their heads as the amphibians take up residence in trees across the country.
Despite living most of their life on the ground, more than 50 examples of common toads have been observed living in nest boxes. In some instances, the toads would have had to climb almost three metres from the ground.
The authors of a new paper published in the journal PLoS ONE describing the phenomenon suggest that this could just be the tip of the iceberg, with toads potentially being present in as many as one in 100 trees near ponds and lakes.
Dr Silviu Petrovan, who led the research, says, ‘This is a really exciting finding, and significant for our understanding of the ecology and conservation of common toads, which are one of the most widespread and abundant European amphibians.’
‘We know common toads favour woodlands as foraging and wintering habitat, but it appears their association with trees is much more complex than we had previously thought.’
As scientists seek to understand this unusual behaviour, the charity Froglife has asked for arboreal amphibian sightings to be logged on their Dragon Finder ID app.
How do amphibians live in trees?
Earth is home to over 8,200 species of amphibian, with an average of 150 new species being described every year. The vast majority of these species live their lives between terrestrial and aquatic habitats, with only a tenth making use of trees.
The European toad, however, does not share these characteristics. While it inhabits a range of natural and urban environments across Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, treetops are not generally among them.
Two toads had been found in the branches of a Norway spruce in Denmark in 2016, but this was believed to be accidental rather than as part of a wider pattern.
The heavier bodies and shorter limbs of toads make it more difficult to climb than their specialist relatives, but experiments have shown they can climb short distances by using their fingers to hook around and grasp substrates.
Observations from across the UK now reveal that the toads are more capable of climbing than was previously thought.
How common is the toads’ tree-climbing behaviour?
The study made use of data from community science programmes investigating nest boxes, including dormice and bat surveys. The researchers collected all examples of toads being found in the boxes, and their height above ground.
They found 52 instances of toads in nest boxes, with heights ranging from around 60 to 216 centimetres above ground. There were also a few instances of frogs and newts in trees. The most common site where this behaviour was observed was in West Heath, near Basingstoke.
While 50 observations may not seem like many, it is broadly comparable to the species of cavity nesting birds observed using the boxes in these surveys. The scientists suggest that this could mean that making use of nest boxes may be more common than expected.
These figures could be an underestimate of the true scale of the behaviour. If more nest boxes across the country are investigated, rather than those monitored as part of the community science programmes, more arboreal toads could be revealed.
While there are no firm theories at present as to why the amphibians are climbing tree, further investigations may also help reveal why.
One hypothesis is that climbing off the ground may allow the toads to avoid predators or parasites. Nesting in tree cavities may offer the amphibians respite from organisms such as grass snakes and toadflies.
Meanwhile, arboreal salamanders in the USA are known to live alongside tree voles in their nests, which has been attributed to the amphibians feeding themselves on the insect pests that inhabit the nests.
While the exact reasons for this behaviour remain uncertain, they provide a new factor for scientists and foresters to consider when managing woodland.
With the European toad estimated to have declined by 68% in the UK in the past 70 years, retaining trees near lakes and ponds may provide respite for a species that is increasingly under threat.
Western black-headed budworm defoliation near Thayer Lake in the Kootznoowoo Wilderness Area, Admiralty Island, July 2021. (USDA Forest Service photo by Robin Mulvey.)
Juneau, Alaska (KINY) – The Tongass National Forest said that residents and visitors have the opportunity to help scientists learn more about a familiar insect outbreak continuing in Southeast Alaska.
The western black-headed budworm is back and causing trees to turn reddish-brown.
The Forest Service said that while the impact may look dramatic, it is a natural part of the changing forest, and noted that this outbreak was first noticed in 2020.
Forest visitors can upload photos, videos, or information related to sightings of the insect or its damage to iNaturalist, which will automatically be included in the Alaska Forest Health Observations Project, a citizen science project in iNaturalist.
Caterpillars feed on the buds and new growth of spruce and hemlock creating a thin and red appearance. Large amounts of frass can be found underneath infested trees.
In the coming weeks, the western blackheaded budworm will continue to feed and the damage will become even more apparent. While most trees survive the damage caused by the budworms –and some trees may even benefit in the long term—heavy concentrations of activity can lead to the death of some trees.
“People can really help us improve our monitoring of the forest and be our eyes on the ground,” said Elizabeth Graham, Ph.D., an entomologist for the USDA Forest Service Alaska Region. “We’ve noticed this year that the caterpillars are starting to feed on Sitka spruce so any observations people can upload are extremely helpful.”
The last time a major outbreak in the Southeast took place was from 1992 to 1995.
Rather than sending money off to some questionable and unconfirmable carbon-capture forest, Henry Emson figured he would plant his own trees so he could look into the face of society and say “my carbon footprint is accounted for.”
As it turns out, Emson realized that it was better to go big, and so planted a giant sequoia sapling for each member of his family. Now, he can plant a giant sequoia for you and yours as well, with his business of growing small sequoia groves across Great Britain seeing 700 saplings already in the ground.
One Tree One Life buys land where these giants can grow in safety, and for that, each tree costs around $450. The benefit however is knowing that throughout the hundreds, potentially thousands of years the tree is alive, it will be pulling CO2 from the atmosphere and burying it in its root system. Furthermore, Britain will be populated with what is undoubtedly the great emperor of all trees.
Sequoiadendron giganteum grows in the United States natively only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, above 3,200 feet in elevation. This, however, doesn’t mean that is the only place they can thrive. As it turns out, Henry Emson wasn’t the first Brit to cultivate these giants.
The first seeds from California sequoias arrived in Great Britain in 1853, and since then some trees have flourished—at Kew Gardens, Charles Ackers Redwood Grove in Wales, Benmore Botanic Gardens in Scotland, and Biddulph Grange at Stoke-on-Trent. Some of these trees are already 150 years old, and are already bigger than anything else found on the island.
Whether conditions in Great Britain can permit sequoia trees to reach the outstanding heights and ages of those in California, no one can say for certain, but tree growth is very fast.
At One Tree One Life, Emson’s team is also buying land in various places, and once someone buys a tree, they can receive GPS coordinates mapped via drone to the exact location of their tree, should they ever desire to visit it.
Many carbon capture strategies have been proven to involve the planting of large regimented blocks of monoculture trees that have a terrible tendency to be wiped out by disease or insect plagues, long before they’ve absorbed any meaningful carbon stores, and releasing what little they’ve collected after they die.
Sequoias are remarkably resilient, and one of their only natural enemies is loneliness. The trees reach their tremendous size and scale based on the way in which their roots spread outward rather than downward. Intertwining with other sequoias, they hold onto each other through the long centuries, and this is why it’s extremely rare to see a single sequoia, and why the biggest ones are always surrounded by others.
It’s a poetic expression of what’s needed to fight climate change—togetherness, and trees.
Forest restoration is now becoming a focal point for an increasing number of investors in climate resilience.
“We’re a one-stop shop for reforestation,” said Grant Canary, CEO of DroneSeed.
Since the start of this year, 32,247 wildfires have burned over 3.3 million acres in the United States.
Fire seasons are now longer and the destruction more intense, as fires burn hotter and spread to more drought-stricken ground. Since the start of this year, 32,247 wildfires have burned over 3.3 million acres in the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. An early start to the season, and an especially brutal beginning in New Mexico, puts 2022 on the path toward record fire destruction.
Historically, fires would leave seeds in the soil and at treetops, but the hotter, more intense fires that occur now burn up the treetops and destroy the seeds in the soil, so there is much less natural regeneration.
DroneSeed is a Seattle-based startup that claims it can begin to restore thousands of acres of wildfire-ravaged land just 30 days after the fire is out.
“We’re a one-stop shop for reforestation,” said Grant Canary, CEO of DroneSeed. “If you’re a land manager, and this could be tribal nations, this could be family forests, this can be public lands, this can be timber companies, and you’re affected by a wildfire, we’re one of your phone calls.”
DroneSeed uses seeds as well as seedlings, or young plants, from its own nurseries. It then uses heavy-lift drone swarms to spread them across the scorched land. The drones drop the seeds in contained vessels, called pucks, where they then root and begin to grow into seedlings. These pucks are made out of plant fiber and contain nontoxic elements, such as spicy pepper, to deter rodents and other mammals.
Not all of the seeds or seedlings result in trees, and DroneSeed said that seed establishment and growth rates vary at each project site, due to soil conditions, water quality, grade of the terrain, climate temperature, tree species and other factors.
Canary likens his fleet of drones to a swarm of bees, navigating rough terrain, that can carry and disperse many thousands of seeds. Each aircraft can plant three-quarters of an acre per flight. In October 2020, the company announced that it was the first to receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for this type of forest-seeding activity.
“The aircraft themselves, they are not what you can get at Best Buy. They’re eight feet in diameter,” said Canary. “They carry a 57-pound payload. We operate them in groups of three to five, and they’re going out there and they’re dropping seed vessels onto the landscape in pre-surveyed areas.”
Key to DroneSeed’s model is the seedling production, which has been a major barrier to reforestation due to supply chain issues. DroneSeed recently purchased Silvaseed, one of the oldest seed businesses in the nation, and it is now expanding to become the largest private seed banks in the West, growing millions of seedlings.
The company’s operations are funded in part by companies purchasing carbon offsets. One such customer is Shopify, which bought enough to remove 50,000 metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere. In turn, DroneSeed is replanting 300 acres of forest lost in Oregon’s Beachie Creek fire two years ago.
“That climate benefit of planting those trees and drawing down carbon is what we’re purchasing through our carbon credit purchase,” said Stacy Kauk, Shopify’s head of sustainability. “That allows us to balance out our unabatable emissions from our corporate footprint, such as things like electricity usage or corporate travel.”
DroneSeed is backed by 776, DBL Partners, Social Capital, Spero Ventures and Techstars. It has raised $36 million to date.
Sometimes a chance meeting leads to multiple connections, with wonderful results. In the early fall of 2021, Nick Brinen, James Madison University (JMU) Professor of Architectural Design, and Jeremy Harold, Harrisonburg’s Greenspace Manager and Urban Wood Program Coordinator happened to cross paths and chat about a project idea. The result was an amazing collaboration on a very meaningful project…and the birth of a university urban wood program.
Prior to this meeting, Professor Nick’s Architectural Design class was asked if they could design and build a bike storage shed for the JMU Occupational Therapy Clinical Educational Services (OTCES). JMU’s OTCES is both a teaching program and a rehabilitation therapy laboratory, where the staff helps small children learn their motor skills after devastating events like accidents and strokes. One of their therapies involves having the young patients both ride and repair bicycles. Before this project, the therapy bikes were stored haphazardly in the OTCES lab area and there were no adequate repair stations. The JMU students warmly embraced this project, making it their capstone project for the Spring 2022 semester. Known as the “Design Build Dukes,” the class split into teams to work on the various aspects of this project.
During their first meeting, Nick mentioned this project to Jeremy, who immediately offered wood that was milled from some Harrisonburg urban ash trees that were killed by the invasive emerald ash borer (EAB). Sadly, Harrisonburg has had to remove over 1,100 EAB-killed trees from public property over the past three years. From the very beginning of the Bike Shack project, both Jeremy Harold and I were asked to serve as technical advisors for the project. We provided suggestions for alternative designs and improved material use. After many weeks of design modifications and construction, the bike shack was revealed and dedicated in early May, at the end of the spring semester. JMU’s OTCES was the proud owner of a bike storage unit complete with a repair station and the tools needed for bicycle adjustments and repair.
Students at the Bike Shack dedication
Additionally, the City of Harrisonburg, the Virginia Department of Forestry, Cootes Store Farm and Sawmilling, and KnochedVA (a local urban wood company) collaborated on a half-day urban wood workshop for Professor Nick’s class. Harrisonburg urban ashwood was also provided to JMU Professor Kevin Phaup’s Industrial Design class for their wooden bicycle projects. Additional connections were also made with JMU Professor Audrey Barnes, whose fall 2022 Industrial Design class will be making percussion instruments from Harrisonburg’s urban wood resources. All three of these professors and the JMU fabrication lab have embraced the idea of utilizing local, urban wood materials. Trees that used to go to the tub grinder at the landfill now have new life as useful and beautiful products.
The New Jersey Forest Fire Service said backfiring operations will continue all day to help contain the blaze in the Pine Barrens, which is burning in Washington, Shamong, Hammonton, and Mullica townships in South Jersey.
The fire could consume as much as 15,000 acres before it is fully under control, said Greg McLaughlin, the Chief of the NJ Forest Fire Service at a Monday afternoon press conference.
No one has been hurt, though 50 people who aren’t residents have been evacuated from the area. Two roads remain closed, Route 206 from Chew Road to Atsion Road and Route 542 from Green Bank Road to Columbia Road. The fire’s cause remains under investigation, though natural cause have been ruled out, officials said.
“We can be looking at the largest forest fire in New Jersey in 15 years,” state Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Shawn LaTourette said.
Forecasters say Monday’s weather conditions — still dry but less windy than Sunday — should help firefighters somewhat.
“The winds are definitely not as bad as (Sunday),” said Jonathan O’Brien of the National Weather Service in Mount Holly. “(Sunday) was the kind of day that favors rapid fire spread with strong, gusty northwest winds.”
No rain is in the forecast for the rest of the day or at night but there’s a chance of showers Tuesday night, forecasters say.
Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday evening rain could be “a huge boost.”
Eighteen structures are threatened; six were in jeopardy when officials provided their previous update at 11 p.m Sunday. Volunteer fire departments from Atlantic, Burlington and Ocean counties are protecting those buildings.
Murphy also said it appears there is “no threat to lives or private property.”
Batsto Village and all associated hiking and mountain bike trails are closed to visitors. The Mullica River Campground, Mullica River Trail and boat launches along the Mullica River are closed from the Atsion Recreation Area to Batsto Village. Pinelands Adventures has suspended kayak and canoe trips.
Some area police departments, including Galloway, have told residents that they might find ash around their towns.
“At this time, we know that there is a strong odor of wood burning present throughout town, similar to one you would have when standing adjacent to a campfire,” Galloway police said Monday.
The smell of smoke was present at least 40 miles away in Atlantic City and Brigantine Monday morning, with a haze cast over the Jersey Shore towns.
At 7:25 p.m. Sunday, the fire had burned about 600 acres and was 10% contained. A new update on the fire should be available around 10:30 a.m. Monday, officials said. By 11 p.m. it had grown to 2,100 acres but was 20% contained.
According to the state parks department, Wharton is the state’s largest single tract of land within the New Jersey State Park System, occupying 122,800 acres of pine forest, meadows, lakes and rivers within the Pinelands National Reserve in Burlington and Atlantic counties.
The forest fire is currently the largest in New Jersey since the Spring Hill wildfire in Penn State Forest in Burlington County burned more than 11,000 acres in the spring of 2019.
Murphy on Monday praised the “heroic work” by state firefighters, as well as county and local responders.
“This is increasingly, sadly, the world we’re in, with climate change,” Murphy said during his regular television show on News 12 New Jersey. “This went from 2,000 acres to 11,000 in a very short amount of time.”
NJ Advance Media freelance photographer Dave Hernandez and staff writer Brent Johnson contributed to this report.
Bernheim Forest’s newly expanded sensory garden invites visitors to experience nature through more than just their eyes.
The installation reopened last week after undergoing major renovations. These changes aimed to make it more accessible for visitors with sensory sensitivities or challenges — those who are blind, visually impaired or have Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“We were founded in 1929 as a place that welcomes everyone, and our philosophy is it’s not enough to put out a sign that says ‘everyone welcome’ — it’s an ongoing work in progress,” Director of Education Kristin Faurest said.
The garden includes plant beds catered to each of the five senses. Visitors can see, feel and smell a variety of species, each categorized by the sense they appeal to most.
“By focusing on each sense individually, it’s a kind of mindfulness and connection that keeps you from feeling overwhelmed, which is something that not just people with Autism Spectrum Disorder can experience,” Faurest said. “[The garden] is a place to focus, center yourself and calm down.”
The garden also features a quiet space surrounded by small evergreens, creating a secluded spot to step away. The plants are arranged in an infinity symbol — often used to represent Autism support.
Renee Frith, Bernheim’s director of Horticulture and Sustainable Landscapes, said the garden will likely continue expanding in the coming years. She said they’re looking at adding an audio installation and ways to further improve accessibility.
“Gardens are ever-growing, ever-changing. The natural environment is that way as well,” Frith said.
Funding was obtained through the Crusade for Children, the Kentucky School for the Blind Charitable Fund and Kosair Charities. Numerous advocacy and charity groups that focus on sensory sensitivity and impairment aided in the design process.
“All of these groups spent so much time coming out and volunteering and working with us — telling us what to design, how to do it, how we can do it better,” Frith said. “We don’t have all the answers, and we aren’t afraid to say we don’t know, because that’s how you learn. This whole garden has been a great experience in learning about different communities and how they experience nature.”
The vibrant, metallic green of an emerald ash borer (EAB) makes it look like royalty of the forest. But this beautiful, invasive insect is also deadly. Just one beetle can lay 40-70 eggs on the bark of its preferred host: ash trees. The growing larvae disrupt the flow of water throughout the tree, which will ultimately kill the tree. A healthy ash tree can be killed in just three years from the first symptoms of decline. This insect has devastated the population of ash trees in North America and will continue to survive and multiply as long as there are still host trees available. Due to the high price of control and removal, the EAB is one of the costliest invasive forest insects in U.S. history.
Counties in which EAB have been found as of August 2020.
The EAB has been located and confirmed in almost every county in Virginia. Only counties in the easternmost part of the state have yet to confirm the suspected presence of EAB. Because it is an invasive insect, native trees do not have natural resistance that keep the insect at bay. The insects move naturally to search for new host trees, but the biggest factor in the spread of EAB is the movement of wood by humans, for purposes such as firewood.
The indicative “s-shaped” galleries of EAB
EAB emerge as adults from mid-May to their peak in June. Landowners should be aware that any living ash trees on their property can be a host to EAB. Symptoms of this deadly insect include a thinning tree canopy, epicormic branching (sprouts from the main trunk), serpentine galleries under bark, and D-shaped exit holes on the bark. Another indicator of EAB presence is increased woodpecker activity in the winter, when ash trees can be full of EAB larvae.
There are, however, several options to help manage an infestation and keep trees alive and healthy. An annual soil drench or bark spray is a less costly, but also less effective, method. The best treatment for EAB is a direct trunk injection of the insecticide emamectin benzoate to trees with a live crown of at least 70%. These injections have been shown to keep ash trees alive and healthy for up to three years. This method is fairly costly, thanks to the price of the chemical and the need for specialized equipment.
The Virginia Department of Forestry recognizes that treatment can be a financial burden for landowners and organizations. To help offset the price of treatment, VDOF’s Emerald Ash Borer Cost-Share program can financially assist those who are eligible. This year’s program is open to landowners in the eastern part of the state and to organizations statewide.
Infected ash trees that may not be worth treating can still be utilized as firewood in the same county they are downed, or upcycled into quality wood products. Please remember when you go on a trip to buy firewood at your destination. EAB and other invasive forest pests are often transported in infested firewood, and you may inadvertently spread these pests to more trees and forests.
The emerald ash borer is a devastating invasive pest that can cause widespread damage to single ash trees and acres of forest alike. Through sound management practices, treatment of trees, and monitoring for signs of EAB, this jeweled insect can be a threat of the past.
Cover image: An adult emerald ash borer. Credit Leah Bauer, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Bugwood.org
Field mycologist Željko Zgrablić works with his dog to track how climate change affects truffles.
Truffles are socially and economically important in parts of Croatia. They can be worth up to €5,000 (US$5,300) per kilogram. The truffle industry and related tourism provides jobs, supplements incomes and boosts local economies. It’s not just about money, however; many people just love being out in the forest looking for them.
My fascination with fungi began at the age of six, when my father and grandfather began taking me out to hunt for game and to collect mushrooms near our home in Istria. Today, I focus mainly on truffles and other hypogeous fungi, which produce their fruiting bodies underground. I spend 50–100 days a year in the field with my dogs, collecting samples and data on the life cycles, ecology and geographical spread of fungi across Croatia. Here, I’m with my dog Masha. I love the work.
Thirty years ago, rainfall used to be more predictable across the year in Istria. Now, the climate is more extreme, and includes droughts. Truffles require a specific amount of water to grow. And warm winters have increased the population of wild boars, which damage the soil and eat the truffles. The truffles are becoming harder to find.
Truffle plantations could take the pressure off natural habitats. There, the soil water content can be controlled, agricultural methods can be used to enhance production and boars can be kept out. We’re studying the viability of farming black truffles, in part by experimenting with different ways to inoculate tree seedlings with their spores.
We’re using DNA barcoding to identify fungi in soil from their spores and root-like mycelium in protected areas. We’re finding that there are often many more species present than previously thought.
Our comparisons of areas with and without truffles could help to reveal why they grow in some areas but not others. Our work is also helping to show the importance of biodiversity in places such as the Adriatic islands of Brijuni National Park.
A collaboration between scientists and Native American tribes finds tree density in parts of the Klamath Mountains is at a record high, and at risk of serious wildfires.
Controlled fires can be used to reduce the risk of wildfires. Credit: David Hoffmann/Alamy
Indigenous oral accounts have helped scientists to reconstruct a 3,000-year history of a large fire-prone forest in California. The results suggest that parts of the forest are denser than ever before, and are at risk of severe wildfires1. The research is part of a growing effort to combine Indigenous knowledge with other scientific data to improve understanding of ecosystem histories.
Wildfires are a substantial threat to Californian forests. Clarke Knight, a palaeo-ecosystem scientist at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, and her colleagues wanted to understand how Indigenous communities helped shape the forest by managing this risk in the state’s lush western Klamath Mountains. Specifically, they studied Indigenous peoples’ use of cultural burning — small, controlled fires that keep biomass low and reduce the risk of more widespread burning. The results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
“When I was a little kid, my grandmother used to burn around the house,” says Rod Mendes, fire chief for the Yurok Tribe fire department, whose family is part of the Karuk Tribe of northern California. The Karuk and Yurok tribes have called the Klamath Mountains home for thousands of years. “She was just keeping the place clean. Native people probably did some of the first prescribed fire operations in history,” says Mendes.
Understanding how Indigenous tribes used fire is essential for managing forests to reduce wildfire risk, says Knight. “We need to listen to Native people and learn and understand why they managed the landscape the way they did,” adds Mendes.
Collaboration for corroboration
To map the region’s forest history, the team drew on historical accounts and oral histories from Karuk, Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribe members collected by study co-author Frank Lake, a US Forest Service research ecologist in Arcata, California, and a Karuk descendant, as part of his PhD thesis in 2007. These accounts described the tribes’ fire and land use. For instance, members lit small fires to keep trails clear; this also reduced the amount of vegetation, preventing expansion of wildfires from lightning strikes. Larger fires, called broadcast burning, were used to improve visibility, hunting and nut-harvesting conditions in the forest. The effects of fire on the vegetation lasted for decades.
Knight says that it was important to collaborate with the tribes given their knowledge of the region. The Karuk Resources Advisory Board approved a proposal for the study before it began. “In a way, it’s decolonizing the existing academic model that hasn’t been very inclusive of Indigenous histories,” says Lake.
The researchers also analyzed sediment cores collected near two low-elevation lakes in the Klamath Mountains that are culturally important to the tribes. Layers of pollen in the cores were used to infer the approximate tree density in the area at various times, and modeling helped date the cores so they could estimate how that density changed.
The team also measured charcoal in the cores’ layers, which helped to map fluctuations in the amount of fire in the region. Burn scars on tree stumps pointed to specific instances of fire between 1700 and 1900. Because the stumps’ rings serve as an ecological calendar, the researchers were able to compare periods of fire with corresponding tree-density data. They then pieced together how this density fluctuated with fire incidence. Although these empirical methods could not specifically confirm that the fires were lit by the tribes, patterns suggested when this was more probable, says Knight. For instance, increased burning in cool, wet periods, when fires caused by lightning were probably less common, suggested a human influence.
Combining multiple lines of evidence, Knight and her team show that the tree density in this region of Klamath Mountains started to increase as the area was colonized, partly because the European settlers prevented Indigenous peoples from practicing cultural burning. In the twentieth century, total fire suppression became a standard management practice, and fires of any kind were extinguished or prevented — although controlled burns are currently used in forest management. The team reports that in some areas, the tree density is higher than it has been for thousands of years, owing in part to fire suppression.
A dense forest isn’t necessarily a healthy one, says Knight. Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), which dominate the lowland Klamath forests, are less fire resilient and more prone to calamitous wildfires. “This idea that we simply should let nature take its course is just not supported by this work,” she says. She adds that one of the study’s strengths is the multiple lines of evidence showing that past Indigenous burning helped to manage tree density.
Fire ecologist Jeffrey Kane at the California State Polytechnic University Humboldt in Arcata says that the study’s findings of increased tree density are not surprising. He has made similar observations in the Klamath region. “There’s a lot more trees than were there just 120 years ago,” he says.
Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at forest-protection organization Wild Heritage in Talent, Oregon, points out that the results suggesting record tree densities cannot be applied to the entire Klamath region, owing to the limited range of the study’s lakeside data.
Knight, however, says that the results can be extrapolated to other similar low-elevation lake sites that have similar vegetation types.
More Indigenous voices
Palaeoecology studies are increasingly incorporating Indigenous knowledge — but there’s still a long way to go, says physical geographer Michela Mariani at the University of Nottingham, UK. In Australia, Mariani has also found that tree density began to increase after British colonization hampered cultural burning. “It’s very important that we now include Indigenous people in the discussion in fire management moving on,” Mariani says. “They have a deeper knowledge of the landscape we simply don’t have.”
Including Indigenous voices in research is also crucial for decolonizing conventional scientific methods, Lake emphasizes. It “becomes a form of justice for those Indigenous people who have long been excluded, marginalized and not acknowledged”, he says.
Since 1944, nobody—in a way that can be verified, anyway—has seen an ivory-billed woodpecker alive. Once common from the Carolinas to Texas, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended last year the bird be removed from the Endangered Species List because it was extinct. Meanwhile, a group of scientists was climbing through humid Louisiana forests, chasing whispers the big bird—the largest woodpecker in North America—still lived there.
Trail cameras, drone cameras, audio recordings, and, just as importantly their own eyes and ears, confirmed to members of the study the ivory-billed woodpeckers had survived in small numbers after all. They published their findings in a recent and not yet peer-reviewed paper.
Photos from the cameras were enough to give an indication of size, as well as distinctive markings that are, nevertheless difficult to distinguish, even for experts, from other woodpeckers that have similar colorings. Even better, the use of video allowed the scientists to make detailed observations of how the birds foraged for food and interacted socially, adding further differentiation that these were indeed the elusive ivorybills.
Steve Latta, who led the research team, had one particularly memorable encounter with the bird. “It flew up at an angle and I watched it for about six to eight seconds, which was fairly long for an ivory-billed woodpecker,” Latta told The Guardian. “I was surprised. I was visibly shaking afterward. You realize you’ve seen something special that very few people had the opportunity to see.”
Many ornithologists had a hunch the swampy forests of the southeast held a small population of the shy birds.
“No one has held a camera and got a picture of one in years because it’s a scarce bird in tough swampy habitat and they don’t want people close to them because they’ve been shot at for 150 years,” said Geoffrey Hill, a biologist who unsuccessfully tried to spy the bird in Florida in 2005.
“They have better eyes than we do, they are high in the trees and actively flee people. They aren’t great thinkers but they have developed a pretty simple strategy to avoid people.”
Save the Redwoods League has donated more than 500 acres of redwood forestland to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a coalition of Native tribes that have been connected to the land for thousands of years.
Max Forster/Save The Redwoods League
A conservation group is returning guardianship of hundreds of acres of redwood forestland to a coalition of Native tribes that were displaced from the land generations ago by European American settlers.
Save the Redwoods League purchased the 523-acre area (known as Andersonia West) on the Lost Coast of California’s Mendocino County in July 2020. It announced on Tuesday that it had donated and transferred ownership of the property to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a consortium of 10 Northern California tribal nations focused on environmental and cultural preservation.
The forest will be renamed “Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ” — which means “fish run place” in the Sinkyone language — as “an act of cultural empowerment and a celebration of Indigenous resilience,” the league said in a release. The tribal council has granted it a conservation easement, meaning use of the land will be limited for its own protection.
“Renaming the property Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ lets people know that it’s a sacred place; it’s a place for our Native people. It lets them know that there was a language and that there was a people who lived there long before now,” said Crista Ray, a tribal citizen of the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians and a board member of the Sinkyone Council. She is of Eastern Pomo, Sinkyone, Cahto, Wailaki and other ancestries.
How the transaction played out
The league’s 2020 purchase of the forest cost $3.55 million and was fully funded by Pacific Gas & Electric Company (the utility, which has been behind multiple deadly wildfires, supports habitat conservation programs to mitigate other environmental damage it has caused).
PG&E reimbursed the league and council for “transactional cost and management plan preparation,” the statement adds, and contributed a $1.13 million endowment to support ongoing stewardship of the area.
National Parks Should Be Controlled By Indigenous Tribes, One Writer Argues
Establishing Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ supports meeting the power company’s 30-year conservation goals, which the league says were developed alongside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency also approved the long-term management and stewardship plan for the property.
What their conservation efforts will entail
Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ is home to ancient trees, important bodies of water and a variety of endangered species.
It consists of 200 acres of old-growth coast redwoods and 1.5 miles of Anderson Creek, a stream and tributary of the South Fork Eel River.
“Second-growth redwoods, Douglas-firs, tanoaks and madrones also tower over a lush understory of huckleberries, elderberries, manzanitas and ceanothuses,” as the league describes it. This habitat supports endangered species like the northern spotted owl, steelhead trout, coho salmon, marbled murrelet and yellow-legged frog.
The council and the league say their partnership will protect the environment by preventing habitat loss, commercial timber operations, construction and other development.
They plan to rely on a mix of Indigenous place-based land guardianship principles, conservation science, climate adaptation and fire resiliency concepts to heal and preserve the area.
“We believe the best way to permanently protect and heal this land is through tribal stewardship,” said Sam Hodder, resident and CEO of Save the Redwoods League. “In this process, we have an opportunity to restore balance in the ecosystem and in the communities connected to it, while also accelerating the pace and scale of conserving California’s iconic redwood forests.”
Why Indigenous guardianship matters
People involved with the partnership stress that it’s not just the protection of the land that matters — it’s also the restoration of the property to descendants of its original inhabitants.
Notably, the Sinkyone Council has designated Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ as a tribal protected area.
“This designation recognizes that this place is within the Sinkyone traditional territory, that for thousands of years it has been and still remains an area of importance for the Sinkyone people, and that it holds great cultural significance for the Sinkyone Council and its member tribes,” said Priscilla Hunter, a tribal citizen of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and chairwoman of the Sinkyone Council who is of Northern Pomo and Coast Yuki ancestries.
Returning farmland to Yakama Nation is a step toward self-sufficiency tribes once had
It joins another 180,000 acres of conserved lands along the Sinkyone coast, the release notes. The council hopes that the acquisition will continue expanding the network of adjacent protected lands with similar ecosystems and cultural histories.
That will enable the tribes to “achieve larger landscape-level and regional-level protections informed by cultural values and understandings of these places,” according to Hawk Rosales, a former executive director of the council who is of Ndéh (Apache) ancestry.
And this isn’t the first time the league has donated land to the Sinkyone Council — it donated a nearby 164-acre plot of redwoods back in 2012, marking the first time Save the Redwoods entered into a conservation agreement with a tribal entity.
Indigenous people worldwide play a key role in environmental stewardship. According to a 2021 United Nations policy brief, they represent some 5% of the world’s population, but effectively manage roughly 20% 25% of the Earth’s land. Much of their land is in areas that hold 80% of the planet’s biodiversity and about 40% of protected lands.
The world’s cities have always been radically hostile environments for trees – but there’s one variety that’s proved to be remarkably resilient.
In an unremarkable corner of London’s Cheapside district, tucked away behind black wrought-iron fencing, is one of the city’s oldest residents. With a towering frame and slightly stooped posture, capped with a broad thatch of leathery, star-shaped leaves, this venerable giant is thought to have presided over the city since at least the 18th Century.
Over its lifetime, the Cheapside tree has lived through countless dramas and innovations – slowly inching its way upwards while stonemasons toiled away erecting early coffee houses and banks, then gradually broadening its shoulders as the first electric hackney carriages rolled along the streets below, and later, shading the cars that replaced them. It’s been a stoic witness to the infamous cholera outbreak of 1854 – which led to the introduction of modern sanitation – the 1918 flu pandemic, and the horrors of the Blitz.
But life for this Londoner has not been easy. Hemmed in on one side by buildings and the other by a road, it inhabits one of the most polluted parts of the city. And like most urban trees, when it rains it’s either inundated with runoff or left thirsty. Its roots are squashed into heavily compacted, alkaline soil – with little space to stretch out their tendrils without bumping into concrete. The City of London may be an urban jungle, but it’s hardly an idyllic environment for a tree.ADVERTISEMENT
“Street trees are typically not getting older than 30 to 40 years,” says Cecil Konijnendijk, professor of urban forestry at the University of British Columbia in Canada. As we speak, he’s surveying the health of the trees he can see from his hotel room during a visit to Brussels. “I can see already in a line of six trees one or two that don’t look healthy,” he says.
The Cheapside London plane tree has barely changed for hundreds of years (Credit: Alamy)
Though it can be easy to think of them as little more than city furniture, urban trees are very much alive – and their struggle to survive is only becoming more extreme. Without a radical rethink of the living conditions of this long-overlooked community, some experts are concerned that our cities could soon lose much of their greenery altogether.
How have some trees survived in these dystopian environments for so long? And what can be done to save the others?
A secret tryst
It all started in the 17th Century. As global trade took off between Western countries and their colonies, among the endless crates of imported spices, silks, ancient artifacts and tea were millions of tiny guests – seeds. Explorers and merchants sent these tiny souvenirs back from wherever they traveled – so as the map expanded, so did the plants available in Britain. Soon English gardens were transformed into showrooms for the flora in the furthest reaches of the planet.
It was around this time that the London plane tree came into being. To this day, its origins remain a mystery. But somehow, amid the chaotic meeting of the so-called New World and the Old, two plants from continents thousands of miles apart – an American sycamore and an Oriental plane – met and reproduced.
One possibility is that the two strangers may have coexisted on the grounds of the Oxford Botanical Garden, where one botanical thing led to another. An alternative theory is that they hooked up in Spain, where their offspring was first described. Either way, the result was a large, strikingly beautiful tree with a fast growth rate and an unusually robust constitution, able to survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth – human cities. It didn’t take long for the London plane to be a hit.
Within a century these noble plants could be found scattered across London. The exact age of the Cheapside tree is hotly disputed – some say it belongs to this first generation, making it up to 300 years old, while the City of London asserts that it was planted in 1820 at a cost of sixpence.
For regular trees, these early additions are still just youngsters. But for city trees, they’re positively ancient.
Gingko trees have barely changed since they first appeared on the planet 200 million years ago – but they happen to make remarkably good city residents (Credit: Getty Images)
In the 19th Century, London plane trees were used to transform the city’s layout, turning previously naked streets into familiar leafy boulevards – inspired by the same trend in Paris. (One particularly broad specimen in London’s Mayfair, dating back to the Victorian era, was valued at £750,000 by tree officers from the local authority in 2008.)
Even as the harsh living conditions of the Industrial Revolution began to take hold, London plane trees continued to cling on where others got sick. In addition to being unusually hardy, the hybrid giants had some quirky features that helped them adjust to city life, such as the ability to slough off the outer layers of their smog-coated trunks to reveal a fresh patchwork of green and white bark beneath.
By the 1920s, the London plane represented 60% of their city namesake’s trees, and their almost-cartoonishly straight trunks and fluffy crowns had become a regular fixture in many other urban centres around the globe, from Sydney to New York City. They were soon joined a handful of other species, such as the common lime (also known as the linden tree), which currently makes up 45% of the canopy in the Finnish capital Helsinki.
21ST CENTURY GARDENING
From working with contaminated city soil to reconsidering weeds, pests and even lawns, gardening is changing as we adapt it to the realities of modern life. This series takes a look at its future in the 21st Century – and explores how it can be updated to fit with modern sensibilities and challenges, such as environmental awareness and pollution.
An unappealing prospect
Today the London plane is not as dominant as it once was – or quite as robust. Research in the Czech Republic has found that the trees’ health has been steadily deteriorating, and in any given year, the proportion of sickly individuals can be up to 97.5%. It’s widely accepted that when trees are stressed out by their local environment – such as warming cities or life in a concrete street box – they become particularly susceptible to a range of diseases. And this variety has been catching a new kind of fungal infection that causes characteristic sores, or “cankers” on the trunk.
Even for the long-suffering London plane, the conditions in modern cities are a step too far.
While other city trees’ bark used to get choked up with smog, London plane trees simply sloughed theirs off (Credit: Getty Images)
“One of the greatest challenges [for trees in city environments] is just space,” says Andy Hirons, a senior lecturer in Arboriculture at Myerscough College in Lancashire, pointing out that large trees in the wild have vast root structures, often sprawling out nearly as far as their branches do. But in cities, the spaces we carve out for them are “often woefully inadequate for the size of the tree and the ambition those planting the tree have for it”, he says.
These confined conditions then lead to other issues, such as localised droughts – a common problem, as a tree’s roots can quickly mop up the water in its little pocket of land. “A tree with a smaller working environment will cause it to dry out much quicker, so they’ll experience drought cycles,” says Hirons. “And, you know, if a tree is always living on the edge of that sort of stress, they become more vulnerable to pathogens, pests, etc, just like us.”
Not only are city trees imprisoned in small slivers of soil, the soil itself is the equivalent of junk food – without the acidic organic matter that would usually cover the forest floor, the root environment tends to be alkaline, hindering their ability to absorb nutrients.
Even the soil’s structure is all wrong: where there should be pockets of air, the soil is compacted into dense clumps. “This means that it’s physically much more difficult for the roots to grow through and expand,” says Hirons. Eventually this limits their distribution and scale, further limiting their underground world.
Then there’s the pollution. This is ubiquitous – in the soil, there are heavy metals, as well as salt from the de-icing of roads and chemical contaminants from building materials. In the air, particulates block up microscopic pores in city trees’ leaves and smother delicate structures on the surface of the trunk – which plays a surprisingly important role in gas exchange and photosynthesis – while nitrogen oxides are absorbed by the leaves, leading to potentially toxic accumulations.
Finally, there’s the trees’ human neighbours.
Cities tend to trap more heat than the surrounding countryside, forming “heat islands” – so the best city trees can withstand high temperatutes (Credit: Getty Images)
“There are big problems with the ways we interact with trees,” says Hirons. He lists off some common crimes humans commit against their woody bystanders – resting bikes on them, using their protective enclosures as litter bins, encouraging pets to urinate all over their trunks, which alters the ground chemistry. Perhaps most bizarrely, some people even train their dogs to bite living branches. “[It’s] just crazy. Once that bark is lost, it’s devastating for the tree – it’s like losing your skin,” he says.
Crucially, many of the oldest urban trees will have spent the majority of their lives in conditions that were significantly less desperate. While in human terms the invention of tarmac in 1902 may seem like the distant past, for a three-century-old tree the era of these impermeable surfaces – which allow precious water to flow off into drainage channels rather than percolating down into the ground where it can be accessed – is relatively new.
“Effectively what you’re doing [with hard street coverings like tarmac and paving] is decoupling the climate, in terms of precipitation, from the experience of the tree,” says Hirons. Today city trees in some of the wettest parts of the planet are effectively inhabiting miniature deserts. They’re also suffocating.
“Impermeable surfaces really reduce the gas exchange between the root system and the atmosphere as well,” says Hirons. Just like humans, trees need to breathe – they must be able to absorb oxygen through their roots in order to release the energy from their food.
“They had much, much better rooting environments [in the past] in many ways,” says Hirons, who explains that 200 years ago pavements were wider and trees weren’t competing with fibre optic broadband cables for space. “And it’s difficult to see how that’s going to be pulled back.”
In short, just because old trees have made it this far, there’s no guarantee they’ll survive another century.
Many of London’s oldest street trees were planted centuries ago, before the invention of the things that can make their lives difficult today – like tarmac (Credit: Alamy).
A tricky brief
Enter the next generation of city trees, which experts are struggling to recruit.
One challenge is the new awareness of the importance of biodiversity, both for its ecological benefits and as an insurance against new diseases or pests that could wipe out whole species. When Dutch elm disease swept around the globe in the 1960s and 70s, it killed off around 25 million trees in Britain alone. By 1976, the United States had already lost around 38 million trees – few survived.
All this means that city planners can no longer rely on an elite pool of high-performing trees, such as the London plane. Instead, they’re on the lookout for a more varied supply which can thrive in the increasingly harsh conditions urban forests have to offer. And it hasn’t been easy.
According to one estimate, there are currently around 800,000 street trees in London, with the ones that end up on pavements carefully selected by developers and city arborists. But even once they’ve identified a species that could work, getting hold of enough of these trees to populate a city is a huge challenge. There’s often little incentive for plant nurseries to invest the time and money it takes to grow young trees unless they know there’s going to be a market for them in 10 years’ time – and at the moment, most demand is for a narrow selection of small trees like silver birches.
“Frankly, just sticking in really small rowans or birches is not really going to deliver what we want in the future,” says Hirons. “You take away those last statuesque plane trees, and that’s what you’re left with.”
OUR GREEN PLANET
For more stories about plant life and the role it plays on our planet, please visit Our Green Planet, a digital initiative from BBC Earth in association with The Moondance Foundation. It aims to raise awareness of the beauty and fragility of our planet’s green ecosystems, forging a deeper understanding of the important role that plants play in biodiversity.
Next there’s the surprisingly high mortality rate for young trees, which are particularly vulnerable in the years it takes for them to establish in their new home. Hirons says this is currently around 13% – but in some situations it’s significantly higher. Nearly 50% of the new trees added to one street in Toronto, Canada were dead within three years.
However, Hirons is optimistic that cities can solve these problems.
One important change will be to make it clear to growers that there is demand for certain larger tree species, in advance of when they’re needed. But even more vital is designing the spaces they will inhabit with their physiological requirements in mind – ideally, larger pockets of land where they can develop healthy root systems.
Trees whose roots are smothered by hard surfaces like concrete, tarmac or paving slabs can be chronically stressed (Credit: Getty Images)
And support in their early years is also crucial. “It’s like with human children – if you don’t have a good start, you will get the consequences later in your life,” says Konijnendijk. “It means we need to help them along the way, basically.” This includes things like “mulching” – adding organic matter to the root surface to seal in moisture – watering, and making sure they’ve got enough space, above and below ground.
If urban planners get it right, over the next few decades cities across the globe may soon break away from the monoculture aesthetic that London plane trees have lent them for centuries – and pioneer something more colourful. Hirons is rooting, quite literally, for more gingkos (ancient trees that once lived alongside dinosaurs) which are currently popular in Japan.
“I do like gingkos,” says Hirons. “I think they’ve got a lot of character they become sort of more and more on unweildy and wild as they get older. They’re really resilient, and they also can deliver just fantastic yellow-gold autumn colour as well.” Of course, what he’d really like to see are baobabs – strange, bulbous trees that flourish in the Sahel region of Africa on the edge of the Sahara desert – “but then we really would be in the realm of serious climate change…” he says.
Zaria Gorvett is a senior journalist for BBC Future and tweets @ZariaGorvett
The rich pine forest surrounding Pine Lake Forest Road in Hubbard County, Minnesota. Hubbard County is located in the Heartland Lakes region of northern Minnesota. There were once nearly 150 fire towers standing guard over the state’s forests as protection against unwanted fires. Today, only a handful of towers exist. Sarah Stacke
In northern Minnesota, not much can beat the pristine view – and the rush – of climbing a fire tower. Reaching 100 feet into the sky, there were once nearly 150 of these steel lookouts guarding the state’s fire-prone forests.
Today, only a handful of climbable towers exist and they remain on the front lines of fire prevention through education and an innate human desire to perch above the treetops.
Most fire towers in the U.S. were built in the 1930s. Staffed by generations of women and men trained to locate the first wisps of smoke, they were relied upon for over two decades as a critical line of defense against forest fires. In the 1950s, lookouts were replaced by airplanes.
Now a relic of history, the steep staircases of the fire towers in Minnesota’s Itasca State Park and Big Bog State Recreation Area are tackled by thousands of people every year. On their way to the top, they learn about the land, its history, and the importance of preventing unplanned forest fires.
LEFT: The 100-foot Aiton Heights Fire Tower in Itasca State Park is open to the public during the spring, summer, and fall. RIGHT: Kasey Lake is on the trail that leads to Aiton Heights Fire Tower, a popular tourist attraction in Itasca State Park. Sarah Stacke
Errol Sleeper, 7, takes in the view from the cab of the Aiton Heights Fire Tower in northern Minnesota’s Itasca State Park. After climbing to the top of the 100-foot tower, Sleeper officially became a member of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Squirrels, a national fire tower club founded in 1927 by an Itasca Park Ranger to educate youth and adults about fire prevention and forest health. Sarah Stacke
Nearly 100% of unwanted fires burning through woodlands, prairies, and neighborhoods today are preventable. “Thanks to the fire tower, we have the opportunity to educate hundreds of children plus adults on forest stewardship and fire prevention,” says Dawn Jensen, who works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at Big Bog State Recreation Area, an over 9,000-acre area located on the shores of Upper Red Lake.Sponsor Message
In 2011, an out of service fire tower was refurbished and moved to the visitor center at Big Bog to serve as a tourist attraction and educational resource. The idea worked. About 10,000 people visit Big Bog annually and the majority climb the tower, reports Jensen. Through interpretive signs, school tours, and conversations with staff and local fire historians, visitors learn about the surrounding ecosystems, specifically the massive bog and Red Lake, and why protecting them is critical.
Formally titled the Red Lake Peatlands, the big bog from which Big Bog State Recreation Area takes its name, covers upwards of 500 square miles and is the largest bog in the lower 48 states. A mile-long boardwalk allows a relatively close-up look at this natural masterpiece.
In a clever twist, the bog’s inhospitable moss and peat-covered landscape accommodates several rare and endangered fauna and flora, as well as moose, deer, bears, foxes, wolves, and an abundance of birds. “For centuries,” reads an interpretive sign along the boardwalk, “North American native peoples have ventured into the bog to hunt and trap game and to harvest the plants and berries. Bog plants have been used for food and medicines, and to make baskets, mats, dwellings, and canoes.”
Carnivorous pitcher plants grow in Big Bog. The plants attract and drown their prey with nectar. The Red Lake Peatlands have been called Minnesota’s last true wilderness. Sarah Stacke
The swimming beach at Big Bog State Recreation Area in northern Minnesota is on the shores of Upper Red Lake. Big Bog park was established in part to create a sustainable tourist attraction is Waskish, Minnesota, after the local economy was devastated when the walleye population of the lake crashed in the 1990s. Sarah Stacke
When dry, peat ignites easily and can burn for days, weeks, even years if smoldering underground. Peat fires can travel underground, making them infamously difficult to extinguish, as well as unpredictable and hard to control. Sarah Stacke
Since it began developing around 5,000 years ago, the bog has remained one of the most intact and undisturbed ecosystems in Minnesota. The views of Red Lake and the bog from the fire tower and boardwalk are largely what humans would have seen thousands of years ago.
“Fire towers are a lighthouse in the wilderness,” says Jensen, a constant reminder of the beauty of the ancient forests and the destruction wildfires can cause.
The bog’s relationship to fire is both indispensable and infamous. The ecosystem depends on periodic fires for survival, but uncontrolled fires can be devastating to the bog’s animals and nearby humans.As the bountiful layers of sphagnum moss decay, peat is formed. Though typically wet and spongy, when dry, peat ignites easily and often burns unnoticed for days, weeks, and even years. Peat fires, which can smolder underground, are notoriously difficult to extinguish, says Lyle Fenske, a retired forester who lives in the area.
Two of the top three deadliest fires in U.S history were in Minnesota. The second deadliest was the Cloquet Fire, which in 1918 killed 453 people, displaced or injured 52,000 more, and burned 1.2 million acres. The third deadliest was the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894, which claimed the lives of 418 white people and an unknown number of Native Americans. Their deaths weren’t counted in the toll.
In response to the state’s fires, many caused by logging practices, the Minnesota forestry service was established in the early 1900s, creating the foundation for a statewide system of fire towers. Over the decades, policies surrounding fire suppression and land management have been greatly debated. As Connie Cox of the Minnesota DNR explained, through research conducted in Itasca State Park and elsewhere, it is now understood that fires are a natural and needed process for the regeneration of nature, in particular the pine forests. Prescribed burning, used as a resource management tool, begins the process of reintroducing fire on the landscape and officials are increasingly looking at the ways Native communities have historically used controlled fires to rejuvenate the land and clear underbrush that contributes to extreme wildfires.
The fire tower at the DNR Forestry Station in Nimrod, Minnesota, is one of the only towers in the state still used to detect fires. Built in 1928, a 94-foot ladder leads to the tower’s cab. Sarah Stacke
LEFT: The fire tower at the DNR Forestry Station in Nimrod, Minnesota, is one of the only towers in the state still used to detect fires. RIGHT: Inside the DNR Forestry Station in Nimrod, Minnesota, a map identifies the location of the area’s fire towers. Information provided by lookouts in each tower is used to triangulate the exact location of a fire. Sarah Stacke
An Osborne Fire Finder, a type of alidade tool used to locate fires, inside the cab of the fire tower at the DNR Forestry Station in Nimrod, Minnesota. The tower in Nimrod is one of the only fire towers in the state still actively used for fire detection. Sarah Stacke
There is one fire tower in northern Minnesota that reserves itself for lookouts only, not thrill seekers. At the DNR Forestry Station in Nimrod, a 94-foot ladder leads skyward to the bright red octagonal cab of a fire tower.
Inside, a stool is positioned alongside an Osborne Fire Finder, a type of alidade tool developed in the 1920s to enable lookouts to pinpoint the exact location of a fire. The Nimrod tower, built in 1928, is staffed regularly during Minnesota’s fire season. An airplane is also deployed to monitor the forests, but is tasked with covering a large area.
“The tower can be a quicker way to spot smoke,” MN DNR Forester Jordan Griffing told me. With a fire, a lot can happen in an hour.
Itasca State Park, home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and Aiton Heights Fire Tower, has long recognized the many ways official and makeshift towers play a role in fire prevention and education. Roughly a decade after the park was established in 1891, the Mississippi River Commission built six simple timber platforms above the treeline to map the Lake Itasca Basin.
Courageous visitors climbed to the top of the structures and, unexpectedly, the platforms proved themselves to be “very important in locating fires,” says Connie Cox, the MN DNR Lead Interpretive Naturalist at Itasca. The park immediately realized the platforms served the dual purpose of detecting fires and providing an “opportunity to educate people about the Itasca landscape,” added Cox.
By the 1920s, when the park’s wooden towers gave way to steel, Itasca had already set in motion a fire prevention program that employed the ascent of the towers as an educational tool.
“That’s why we keep our fire tower open,” Cox told me. It ushers an “appreciation of the forest…and if you want to protect something you have to develop an appreciation for it.”
LEFT: Fire tower historian David Quam, 82, founded the Forestry Education Center at the Beltrami County Fairgrounds in Bemidji, Minnesota. Quam led the effort to restore and preserve the Pinewood Fire Tower, now located on the fairgrounds. RIGHT: Connie Cox is the MN DNR Lead Interpretive Naturalist at Itasca State Park. Sarah Stacke
Fire scars remain on red pines in Preacher’s Grove from a fire that burned through the park in the 1860s. Prior to the fire suppression efforts that began in the 1900s, the park would have had a natural fire every 22 years on average. Fire creates favorable conditions for the growth and survival of pines and they depend on it for reproduction. Sarah Stacke
Itasca State Park, Minnesota: Fire scars remain on red pines in Preacher’s Grove from a fire that burned through the park in the 1860s. Since fires were nearly eliminated from the park a century ago, trees such as spruce, fir and maple have been allowed to dominate the ecosystem instead of pines. The park now facilitates controlled burns as part of its forestry management techniques. Sarah Stacke
Over half a million people visit Itasca annually. While the headwaters are what draw most people, the Aiton Heights tower is a close second. A “good chunk” of visitors climb it to connect with the natural landscape, “not a manicured forest,” says Cox.
Itasca was founded to protect thousands of acres of old-growth pines from logging, which in turn protect the headwaters. Large stretches of the park haven’t been interfered with since explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was led to the headwaters by an Ojibwe guide, Ozawindib, in 1832.
Similar to the experience in Big Bog, from the top of the Aiton Heights tower, the dense quilt of emerald trees and cobalt lakes looks nearly the way it did before European settlers, when only the Dakota and Ojibwe inhabited the land.
Cox likes to say Itasca’s visitors “come for the river and return for the pines,” a nod to the magnetism of a forest that has long been conserved and protected from the devastation of unwanted fires.
The Red Lake Peatlands have been called Minnesota’s last true wilderness. The 500-square-mile Big Bog State Recreation Area is the largest in the lower 48 states. The bog has long been a source of medicinal plants to the land’s original inhabitants, the Ojibwe. The bog’s ecosystem benefits from periodic fires, but uncontrolled fires can be devastating to the bog’s animals and nearby humans. Sarah Stacke
The 100-foot fire tower in Big Bog State Recreation Area offers views of Upper Red Lake and portions of the Red Lake Peatlands. About 100,000 people come to the park annually and the majority climb the tower, according to the park’s staff. Interpretive signs at the base of the tower educate visitors about fire prevention and the history of the region’s forests. Sarah Stacke
A bird’s-eye view of the forests covering Itasca State Park from Aiton Heights Fire Tower, a popular attraction in the park. The tower is used to educate visitors about fire prevention and the forest. Sarah Stacke
An aerial photo taken in April 2020 shows the scenery of a giant karst sinkhole in China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. A similar sinkhole was found earlier this month with an ancient forest at the bottom with trees towering over 100 feet tall. Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
Cave explorers stumbled upon a prehistoric forest at the bottom of a giant sinkhole in South China earlier this month. Sinkholes such as these are also known in Chinese as Tiankeng, or “Heavenly pit.”
At 630 feet deep, the sinkhole would hide the Washington Monument and then some. The bottom of the pit holds an ancient forest spanning nearly three football fields in length, with trees towering over 100 feet high. And according to the Chinese government, it is one of 30 enormous sinkholes in the county.
The sinkhole was discovered by cave explorers outside Ping’e village in Leye County, South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. A team of explorers descended into the pit on May 6, where they found ancient trees and other plant life, according to a Guangxi news release.
Karst is a type of topography, ideal for geological wonders like the sinkhole in Leye County, created by groundwater dissolving the limestone rock beneath the surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. About 20% of the United States is made up of karst landscapes, including attractions such as Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.Sponsor Message
About 13% of China is covered by karst topography, according to NASA, with the Guangxi region being a prime example of its beauty.
Karst landscapes vary in size and shape depending on the surrounding climate, George Veni, executive director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute, told Live Science.
“In China, you have this incredibly visually spectacular karst with enormous sinkholes and giant cave entrances and so forth,” Veni said. “In other parts of the world you walk out on the karst and you really don’t notice anything. Sinkholes might be quite subdued, only a meter or two in diameter. Cave entrances might be very small, so you have to squeeze your way into them.”A stone spire forest in the middle of nowhere
Veni’s institute is the sister organization of the team that discovered the new sinkhole, the Institute of Karst Geology of the China Geological Survey. Chen Lixin, who led the Guangxi cave expedition team, said the prehistoric trees at the bottom of the pit are almost 130 feet high and the dense brush on the forest floor stands shoulder-high, according to the Guangxi news release.
Before you squash or poison the next slug or snail you see in your garden, consider this: The British Royal Horticultural Society no longer classifies these gastropods as pests. Why on earth would a leading gardening organization do that, you might wonder. After all, slugs and snails are usually seen as a problem, given their eagerness to devour the plants you’ve lovingly nurtured.
The issue is that they are part of nature. Slugs and snails play a key role in healthy ecosystems, acting to break down organic material as well as providing a source of food for blue-tongued lizards, frogs, and kookaburras.
So can we learn to live with slugs and snails? Yes, if we reframe how we see these invertebrates. After all, the definition of “pest” is based on our perception and can change over time. By rejecting the “pest” status of many invertebrates and advocating planet-friendly gardening, the horticultural society directly connects the local actions of gardeners to our global biodiversity crisis.
Their principal entomologist, Andrew Salisbury, has argued that “now is the time to gracefully accept, even actively encourage, more of this life into our gardens”.
This doesn’t have to mean letting them destroy your lettuces. Nature can help. Enticing lizards, frogs, and birds to your garden can help control slugs and snails and boost biodiversity.
Are these ‘pests’ actually legitimate garden inhabitants?
Gardening increased in popularity during the pandemic. With widespread rainy weather across Australia’s east coast, gardeners are more likely to see – and potentially be annoyed by – slugs and snails.
So should Australian gardeners follow the UK’s example? Should we try to welcome all species into the garden? Responses to these questions typically describe slugs and snails as “pests”, invoke the idea of a native/non-native species divide or describe the perceived damage done by invasive species.
Let’s tackle the pest argument first. We define pests based on perception. That means what we think of as a pest can change. The garden snail is a good example. Many gardeners consider them a pest, but they are cherished by snail farmers who breed them for human consumption.
By contrast, many scientists consider the concept of an invasive species to be less subjective. Australia’s environment department defines them as species outside their normal distribution (often representing them as non-native) which “threaten valued environmental, agricultural or other social resources by the damage it causes”. Even this definition, however, is a little rubbery.
In recent decades, researchers in the humanities, social sciences, and some natural sciences have shown our ideas of nativeness and invasiveness also undergo change. Is the dingo a native animal, for instance, after being introduced thousands of years ago? Would it still be considered a native if it was introduced to Tasmania where it does not occur?
Despite these questions over their worth, the ideas of “pest” and “invasive species” have proven remarkably persistent in ecological management.
What exactly are the slugs and snails we find in our gardens?
Does that include our gardens? Well, most snails and slugs found in gardens are considered non-native species which were introduced accidentally. The ability of snails to spread far and wide means these humble gastropods are listed on Australia’s official list of priority pests. We already have biosecurity measures in place to avoid unwanted introduction of new snail species.
The common garden snail, which hails from the Mediterranean, has now spread to every state and territory. But other species are still spreading, such as the Asian tramp snail on the east coast or the green snail, which is currently limited to Western Australia. So if we accept the existence of all kinds of snails and slugs in the garden, we could be undermining efforts to detect and control some of these species.
While slugs and snails don’t usually seriously threaten our home gardens, some species are known agricultural pests. The common garden snail can cause major damage to citrus fruit and young trees, while slugs such as the leopard slug or the grey field slug can devastate fields of seedlings. The damage they can do means farmers and their peak bodies would feel uneasy about changing how we think of these land mollusks.
Some snails can also carry dangerous parasites like the rat lungworm or the trematode worm Brachylaima cribbi. These can hurt us, particularly if a snail is accidentally eaten, or if vegetables in the garden are contaminated. If we let snails move around unhindered, we could increase the number of infections. Pets and children are the most at risk.
So should we follow the UK’s example?
It is not straightforward to rethink how we view and respond to creatures typically considered pests in the garden. But it is worthwhile thinking this through, as it requires appreciating how humans and nonhumans are interdependent. And we can gain a better understanding of how our simple actions in our gardens can scale up to affect human and planetary health and well-being.
The world’s ongoing loss of biodiversity and the steadily changing climate must inform how we relate to and care for the nonhuman life – from mycelium in the soil to gastropods – that enliven our gardens.
This does not mean everything must have an equal opportunity to flourish. But it does require us to pay attention. To observe, to wonder, and to be curious about our entangled lives. This kind of attention could help us take a more ethical approach to the everyday life and death decisions we make in our patch.
What does that look like? By understanding gardens as interconnected natural and cultural spaces, we can work to limit our resident slug and snail population and promote biodiversity. A perfect way to start is to design a lizard, frog, and bird-friendly site.
OLYMPIA, Wash. — In a state that has millions and millions of trees, there is one that has become a kind of symbol to a lot of people.
It’s been around for hundreds of years, and as strange as it sounds, this tree is actually inspiring.
On the outermost edge of the state of Washington, out on the Olympic Peninsula is a coarse and raw place. Unforgiving.
The rain comes in sheets.
The wind wallops and wails.
The sea batters the coast with a watery fist that never tires.
To survive here is no easy thing for any living thing.
There are bluffs along ruggedly beautiful Kalaloch beach and on the bluffs are trees that have weathered bitter storms for hundreds of years.
But on one bluff there is one Sitka spruce that is special.
From the beach, down below its canopy, there is a story to be told. A story of survival.
This is no tree. This is a metaphor for life.
“It makes me think about life and how we really are just hanging by a thread,” said Susan Chilton from Spring, Texas. This week’s installment profiles a tree that is inspiring others.
“It is very powerful, it’s a very powerful symbol, and a beautiful illustration of what nature can do with and without our help, right?”
Nobody knows how old it is. How long its been straddling like this.
It has come to be known in these parts as “The Tree of Life”.
People look at the tree called the tree of life near Kalaloch beach
“Somehow it’s surmounted some of the obstacles that were here before it, and it has outlasted them,” said Jennifer Ding from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Brian Conway says, “For me a little bit of hope. That no matter how tough things can get, how the typical things in life that you depend upon might not be there, you can still get through it.”
There is a waterfall behind it and with the frontal assault of the tides, its foundation is under assault from front and back.
Each storm could be it’s last.
Becca Pifer “I think it’s touching. I think it’s a reminder that things we think are permanent are transient, and we can’t really rely on anything to stay the same for quite too long.”
This is Mathew Nichols. He’s a local who so admires the plight of the “Tree of Life” that he has taken to documenting it.
Mathew Nichols says, “Every year I prepare myself that it’s going to come down, and every year I think this winter’s the winter. But it continues to surprise me and I’ll just accept it surprising me every year.”
He’s there every couple of weeks. Taking his pictures. Hoping that the inevitable doesn’t happen. Knowing that, in the end, it will.
La Push waterfall (Mathew Nichols Photography)
His photos dazzle. They speak to a profound mystery that the tree seems to know the answer to.
They make us ponder, reflect, and feel small.
Mathew Nichols is a local photographer who has taken to documenting the tree of life
Mathew Nichols says, “You know to me it symbolizes the ability to go on, you know. No matter what’s thrown at it, it continues to thrive.”
Tourists come here now. Attracted by the tree’s quest for immortality.
Down the road a ways, Lissy Andros is with the chamber of commerce for the city of Forks.
Lissy Andros says, “We tell people that the Tree of Life, it’s a tree that’s basically on the bluff, and roots are exposed. And we don’t know how it’s staying alive.’
“I’m going to be super sad when it’s not here anymore. But it could outlive me. I don’t know.”
It’s like a high wire artist doing the splits over certain death below.
Some of its roots cling desperately to sandstone and clay.
Others dangle helplessly, straining and grasping for terra firma.
The big ones – old and time-tested – seemingly levitate. Gnarled and twisted. Dancing above the fray.
Day after day, the tree, nearly adrift, but hardwired to survive, strives to exist. It clings to life.
That’s what we do, isn’t it?
We cling to life.
The tree of life near Kalaloch beach
Dave Daltorio says, “It is symbolic of life right? You go through different phases in your life and sometimes you’re hanging by a thread just like this tree is. But it survives.”
Karen Daltorio says, “I’m happy that it’s living and I’m going to be optimistic that it’s going to be around for quite a while longer.”
Keith Kriegel says, “It’s had a hard life but it’s hanging in there and it’s doing the best it can with what it has to work with.”
Becca Pifer “For now it’s a joy, it’s beautiful, and it’s nature at its best.” “
And so this mirror on the beach endures. Untethered. But grounding us. Reflecting back on how precious life is. How life persists until it can’t anymore.
And somehow, it lives. Against all odds. Against the laws of gravity and nature, it lives.
And for now, anyway, for people like Mathew Nichols, who is drawn to it again and again, and countless others, it inspires and somehow teaches.
Because the Tree of Life’s story is all of our stories.
Join the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to learn the basics of improving soil health in urban environments.
Lara Johnson of the Virginia Department of Forestry will provide an overview on how to rehabilitate highly compacted soils. Lara will demonstrate how to test for compaction and how to amend the soil to bring back biological processes so it can support healthy tree growth.
The program will begin indoors before moving outside where you will have an opportunity to perform the demonstrated skills firsthand with guidance from our workshop experts.
All tools will be provided. This workshop is free, but registration is required. We have limited registration for this event to ensure that physical distance can be maintained. CBF requires volunteers to wear a CDC-approved mask while indoors.
This event is hosted in partnership with the Virginia Department of Forestry and Richmond Parks and Recreation Department.
Nature conceals a phenomenal number of molecules as varied as they are imperceptible. The plant kingdom is particularly chemically complex.
Plant evolution has taken place over hundreds of millions of years, giving plants the ability to respond to various environmental stresses and threats. Several species have developed an arsenal of molecules allowing them to adapt and to protect themselves against competitors and predators. Some of these molecules also have health benefits for the animals that consume them.
Advances in food science over recent decades show that many plants provide a wealth of benefits that, until recently, were largely unknown. Taken together, these discoveries support more than ever the fact that a varied and balanced diet offers benefits that go beyond simple energy intake. As a result, consumer demand for plant-based foods with higher nutritional value is currently at record highs. This trend has yet to run out of steam. At the same time, sugary foods are increasingly marginalized and categorized as unhealthy.
But in the realm of sweets, maple syrup is finally claiming its rightful place! Maple syrup is no longer only the jewel of Canada’s culinary heritage, its nutritional reputation is also improving. Because of its unique natural source and manufacturing process, maple syrup contains bioactive molecules whose benefits go far beyond the simple pleasure of a sweet treat.
The sap is approximately 98 percent water, and it takes about 40 liters of this maple water to generate one liter of syrup. During this concentration process, the levels of sugars and nutrients increase substantially. The high temperature that comes from boiling the sap causes a series of chemical reactions as the excess water evaporates.
The main components of maple syrup are sucrose and water. Glucose and fructose also contribute to the sweet taste of the syrup, but to a lesser extent. While these three simple carbohydrates are sources of energy, maple syrup is also an excellent source of manganese and riboflavin (vitamin B2), as well as a significant source of other vitamins and minerals (zinc, potassium, calcium and magnesium).
Although the evidence of biological activity of quebecol has been limited to in vitro experiments, these results certainly encourage further study in more complex systems. It is also important to note that the results came from using the isolated pure molecule.
These studies do not propose using pure maple syrup as a medicinal agent against different conditions. Given the quantity of maple syrup one would have to eat to get the necessary dose of quebecol, the harms from a massive ingestion of sugar would obscure any benefit. It’s also difficult to establish the distribution of the molecule in the human body when it’s taken orally.
In any case, these discoveries once again highlight the uniqueness of maple syrup and help to strengthen its status as a singular food. Perhaps it contains other equally promising molecules just waiting to be discovered. Let’s bet that this local treasure has not yet revealed all its secrets!
Today we are producing more food than ever before in history, and yet malnutrition is still the leading cause of poor health globally – a problem that has only been exacerbated by the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
Although technological advances in industrial agriculture have decreased global hunger in recent decades, the increase in food production has not necessarily resulted in healthier diets. In fact, agricultural expansion has increased global dependence on maize, rice and wheat, which are rich in calories but relatively low in micronutrients. Although humans can eat about 7,000 different plants for food, these three staple crops account for 50 percent of plant-based food intake.
Smallholder farmers in low-and middle-income countries produce much of the world’s food, yet these farming households also disproportionately suffer from poor diets. Food security and nutrition policies in these regions often focus on increasing agricultural production, either through intensification of existing production systems or expansion of cultivated land at the expense of forests and other biodiverse ecosystems. Yet, wild foods from forests and fallows can be an important source of micronutrients for smallholder farmers in these regions.
However, the ways in which tree-based farming systems affect the diets of rural populations is less well understood.
To contribute to this developing field, a team of researchers from Denmark’s University of Copenhagen and the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) reviewed papers that assess the dietary quality of populations practicing tree-based farming in low- and middle-income countries.
The researchers identified 36 papers that together highlight three distinct pathways through which trees on or around farms support people’s diets:
Providing edible products such as fruits, nuts, and leaves – the most direct link
Providing marketable products, where people can use the money to buy food – the indirect income link
Improving agricultural production of other crops through ecosystem services (e.g. increased pollination, microclimate regulation), where people either consume or sell the additional harvest – the indirect agroecological link
Taken together, most of the reviewed studies indicate positive associations between tree-based farming systems, household income and improved dietary quality. Yet, the relative benefits for income and diet quality depend on the type of tree-based farming system in place: (a) home gardens/trees on farms; (b) shifting cultivation systems; (c) timber/plantation tree crops or (d) forest-edge farming.
In general, the studies show that maintaining diversity within tree-based farming systems can provide households with more means to diversify their diets with foods from the farm and market. Additionally, preserving biodiversity within and around tree-based farming systems may also increase the availability of micronutrient-rich foods in the wild. Finally, the cultivation of multiple tree species can serve as important safety net for households in the face of uncertain climatic or economic conditions, improving access to nutritious foods year-round.
The types of species and arrangement of trees within different farming systems could be another important factor that affects the benefits for diets. However, from the small number of studies published to date, it was not possible to identify which types of tree-based farming system configurations are best for improving dietary quality.
A further development of tree-based farming system classifications with a distinct consideration of food (i.e. home gardens or trees on farm, shifting cultivation, timber or plantation tree crops, and forest-edge farming) could be a first step to making better empirical comparisons across disparate cultural and geographical contexts.
The extent to which any tree-based farming system can influence diets also depends on factors outside the farming system itself. Policies and institutions at the national scale, bioclimatic and geographical aspects at the landscape scale, as well as socio-economic aspects at both the landscape and household level, such as market access, education, and/or gender-driven power dynamics play an important role in determining how tree-based farming affects household diets.
These various influences are difficult to tease apart and have yet to be thoroughly investigated.
While a general positive association is found, the synthesis highlights the complexity of drawing links between trees, farming systems, and dietary quality.
Improved visibility and understanding of the role that trees play in promoting more ecologically sustainable and nutritious diets is key to designing more sustainable landscapes for people and the planet.
This combination photo shows purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), left, and a Liatris spicata, commonly called blazing star or gayfeather. Purple loosestrife is an invasive plant that threatens wetlands and chokes out food sources and habitat for wildlife. Liatris spicata is a recommended alternative for invasive purple loosestrife. Chicago Botanic Garden via AP, left, and Jessica Damiano via AP
When my family moved into a new home in the spring of 2005, the only plants growing in the garden were a rhododendron by the front door and a few scattered daffodils and ferns. I was delighted to see a stunning perennial pop up a month later.
Being little more than a fledgling gardener then, I didn’t know what the plant was, and to be honest, it didn’t matter: I was in love with my new purple beauty.
Two years later, after graduating from Cornell University’s master gardener program and working as a gardening columnist for my local paper, I sadly knew better: My favorite plant, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), was considered invasive in my home state of New York.
“But it’s not spreading on my property,” I whined to no one in particular. “It’s actually well-behaved.”
Further research revealed that, although some plants make their invasive nature known at home (looking at you, mint), others are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They seem well-contained in the garden but become downright thugs when their seeds are eaten by birds and dispersed elsewhere.
Those seeds grow into plants that outcompete native vegetation because they aren’t recognized as food by much of the local wildlife, which would otherwise keep them under control. Unchecked, they grow larger and eventually choke out native plants that provide food, nesting material, and shelter for birds, pollinators, and small animals. This disrupts the entire ecosystem.
Many state environmental agencies prohibit the sale and use of plants deemed harmful to human or ecological health. But some invasives are not officially designated, and others may be listed by one state but not another. To complicate matters further, some invasives continue to be sold at the retail level.
So what’s a gardener to do?
For starters, avoid any plant advertised as “vigorous,” “fast-spreading,” “quick-climbing” or a “rapid self-sower,” which are marketers’ code words for invasive. Next, familiarize yourself with your state’s list of locally invasive plants (those website addresses are compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at epa.gov/aboutepa/health-and-environmental-agencies-us-states-and-territories).
Yes, I yanked out that purple loosestrife, which the EPA warns “clogs rivers and lakes, grows into mats so thick that boats and swimmers can’t get through and destroys food and habitat for our fish and water birds.” I replaced it with the tame but equally beautiful Liatris spicata, which has been a respectful resident of my garden for the past 15 years.
Here are seven other garden bullies and suggestions for mild-mannered alternatives to plant.
INVASIVE: Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) sounds like a butterfly-friendly plant, but don’t let the name fool you. Although your butterfly bush may, indeed, be covered in butterflies, the food source it provides them is less than ideal. In addition, it forms large thickets that displace native species in the wild.
NATIVE ALTERNATIVES: California lilac (Ceanothus) is an evergreen shrub with deep blue flowers that grows well in zones 8-10, or try the white-blossomed wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) in zones 3-9.
INVASIVE: Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), a nitrogen-fixing legume, is easily established even in the worst growing conditions, and its seeds can remain viable in the soil for decades. According to the EPA, it has “invaded most of the remaining Garry oak savannah ecosystems in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia (and) is considered to be a threat to the native plant community.”
NATIVE ALTERNATIVES: For similar loose-looking shrubs with small yellow flowers, consider Mormon tea (Ephedra) in zones 3-6 or California flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) in zones 8-10.
INVASIVE: Rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa) is ubiquitous on beach dunes along the entire Northeast coast, as well as in coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest and parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Alaska and elsewhere. It is considered noxious for its ability to displace desirable vegetation.
NATIVE ALTERNATIVES: Arkansas rose (Rosa arkansana), California wild rose (Rosa californica), Carolina rose (Rosa carolina), Rosa virginiana (Virginia rose), Rosa woodsii (Western wild rose) and prairie rose (Rosa setigera) are suitable stand-ins. Choose the native rose named for the region nearest you.
INVASIVE: Both Chinese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) and Japanese wisteria (Wisteria sinensisuse) are aggressive vining plants that threaten native species, including large trees.
NATIVE ALTERNATIVE: Seek out the fragrant, stunning American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) in zones 5-9.
INVASIVE: Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) forms large thickets and serves as a habitat for deer ticks and black-legged ticks, which transmit Lyme disease and other illnesses.
NATIVE ALTERNATIVES: For eye-catching berries that provide winter interest, consider American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) in zones 6-10, winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) in zones 3-9, or red barberry (Mahonia haematocarpa) in zones 5-9.
INVASIVE: Winged burning bush (Euonymus alatus) produces an abundance of seeds that root easily around the garden and in the wild when dispersed by birds.https://4cfb754ac4aa82e3fe807c61b499bd47.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
NATIVE ALTERNATIVE: For similarly dramatic red fall foliage in zones 3-8, plant “Autumn Magic” black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa “Autumn Magic”) or the fruit-producing Northern high bush blueberry (Vaccinium sp.). In zones 2-8, fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) is a lovely substitute.
INVASIVE: The ornamental Miscanthus grass (Miscanthus sinensis), although still widely sold and planted, has been deemed invasive in more than two dozen states, where it is known to overtake forests, roadsides, fields and other areas.
NATIVE ALTERNATIVES: Plant little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) in full sun or prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) in full sun to part shade. Both are suitable for zones 3-9.
Jessica Damiano writes regularly about gardening for The Associated Press. A master gardener and educator, she writes The Weekly Dirt newsletter and creates an annual wall calendar of daily gardening tips. Send her a note at email@example.com and find her at jessicadamiano.com and on Instagram @JesDamiano.
Bad news: Trees emit methane, a greenhouse gas. Good news: Some are home to bacteria that can’t get enough of it.
MANY OF TODAY’S geoscientists are carbon voyeurs. Knowing that human disregard for the carbon cycle has screwed the climate, they have kept a close eye on carbon’s hottest variants—carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. Both gasses trap heat on the planet through the greenhouse effect, and over a span of 100 years, methane is 28 times more potent than CO2. Rigorously accounting for greenhouse gas flow is step one of building models that predict the future climate.
Some line items in the methane budget, such as pipeline leaks and cowfarts, are well understood. But others are hazier. “There’s lots of gaps and uncertainties, particularly in wetlands, and inland waters,” says Luke Jeffrey, a biogeochemistry postdoc at Southern Cross University in Australia. By one 2020 tally from the Global Carbon Project, wetlands emit about 20 to 31 percent of Earth’s annual methane release—more than the amount from fossil fuel production.
But in the past decade, researchers have zeroed in on a perhaps counterintuitive source of greenhouse gas emissions: trees. Freshwater wetland trees, in particular. Trees bathing in wet or flooded soil absorb methane and then leak it through their bark. In a 2017 study, ecologist Sunitha Pangala, then at the Open University in the United Kingdom, found that trees in the Amazon were responsible for 200 times more methane than trees in other wetland forests, accounting for 44 to 65 percent of the region’s total emissions.
Does this mean trees are bad for the planet? Of course not. Trees suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And in a study published April 9 in Nature Communications, Jeffrey and his team report how trees can also be methane sinks, sheltering microbes that convert it to the less damaging CO2. His team discovered methanotrophs, or methane-eating microbes, in a species of trees called paperbarks, which grow in eastern Australian swamps. The microbes gobble up methane, reducing the trees’ potential emissions by about a third. The finding brings more clarity to how trees factor into the elusive methane budget that experts say is vital for climate predictions.
“This is an important contribution and one that’s timely,” says Patrick Megonigal, a biogeochemist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center who is not affiliated with the study. Megonigal has researched the release of methane from trees for over a decade, and is an expert in the flows of greenhouse gases throughout wetland and upland forests.
“When I saw this paper, I just said, ‘Holy shit, this is really interesting,’” says Jeffrey White, a professor emeritus at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. White, who was not involved in the study, has studied methane cycling for over 30 years and says it elegantly addressed a hunch that researchers have had—but haven’t been able to nail down—that methanotroph activity occurs in tree bark. He calls the work “profoundly important.”
Methanotrophs are everywhere and have been for as long as atmospheric oxygen has existed on Earth, so White is confident this isn’t an isolated case: He’s noticed similar behavior in Minnesota birch trees.
Wetlands contribute more methane to the atmosphere than any other natural source. But without methanotrophs, they’d release an estimated 50 to 90 percent more. These microbes turn methane into carbon dioxide similar to the way combustion does. The process is, almost literally, a slow burn. But it prevents a majority of wetland methane from reaching the sky, making soil a source and a sink. Far less is known about the methane feasts taking place inside trees.
Jeffrey wanted more clarity. A few years ago, his attention turned to the paperbarks. “It’s such a unique tree with amazing layers of bark,” Jeffrey says. These layers are moist, dark, and known to contain methane. (Jeffrey sometimes refers to it as “treethane.”) “We just thought it could be an ideal spot for methanotrophs,” he continues. So he set out to prove that the gas-eating microbes were hiding there. Jeffrey designed a series of experiments that would cater to their appetites. First, he sliced bark from trees in three wetland sites and sealed those strips inside glass bottles containing methane. Then, he waited. Over a week, he measured as the methane levels in the bottles dropped. In some samples, more than half of it vanished. In control bottles that contained either sterilized bark or nothing at all, methane levels remained paper-flat.
Jeffrey’s team also knew that methanotrophs have picky palates. Methane’s one carbon atom can exist as either of two stable isotopes: the classic carbon-12 or the heavier carbon-13 that lugs around an extra neutron. Carbon-13’s bonds are harder to break, so methanotrophs would rather snack on the lighter isotope. Jeffrey’s team found that the relative levels of carbon-13-methane in the bottles increased with time. Something in the bark was alive and selectively eating, like a kid leaving the yellow Starbursts in the bag after picking out the pinks.
Encouraged by these traces of activity, they sent bark across town to the microbiologists at Monash University, who ran a microbial analysis of all of the species that were living in the bark. The verdict: Paperbark samples contained a bustling unique population of bacteria not found in the surrounding soil or swamp, most of which fall into the methane-hungry genus Methylomonas.
But all of those results arose in a lab, and Jeffrey’s team needed to see how real, live trees behave, specifically how fast they leak methane. They waded through a wetland forest in New South Wales, gently attached sealed chambers and spectrometers to the sides of paperbarks, and measured how much the trees emitted per second.
Then Jeffrey injected a gas called difluoromethane into the chamber. Difluoromethane is a sneaky treat for methanotrophs—it temporarily inhibits their appetite. “It actually stops them consuming methane,” Jeffrey says. After letting the gas diffuse in for an hour, Jeffrey flushed it and reexamined the emissions. Because the microbes stopped eating, methane levels jumped. On average, the team calculated, microbes had been removing 36 percent of the methane that would otherwise seep into the atmosphere.
Most of that methane actually originates in the wet soil, Jeffrey says. Microbes digest organic matter in the dirt and release methane. Some burbles out of the soil or water, but some flows up through tree roots like they’re straws, or soaks into the bark then diffuses out through the wood. (Different microbes can also make their own methane within the tree, but Jeffrey has published evidence that isotope signatures of the methane in bark matches that in the soil.) Thanks to the tree-dwelling microbes, less of it gets released into the atmosphere as methane, because they transform it into less harmful CO2. “This methane in soil is possibly going to come up anyway from a wetland. If they’re coming up through trees, they have to get through this gauntlet of bacteria,” says Jeffrey. “So this new discovery—I’m kind of looking at trees now as almost like methane filters.”
“It’s really exciting for me, because this has been a question that I’ve been interested in for a long time,” says Mary Jane Carmichael, a microbial ecologist at Hollins University in Virginia not involved in the study. Carmichael reported in a 2017 study that dead trees emit methane, too. (Similarly, in a previous study, Jeffrey showed that dead trees emitted eight times the methane of living ones.) “I’m never really surprised by what microorganisms are capable of,” Carmichael says. “We probably will see that it’s a pretty widespread phenomenon.”
Understanding how trees add and subtract methane from the environment will help scientists adjust a sort of planet-wide carbon calculus. While satellite data helps track emissions from above, finer details for each source and sink are essential to really make predictions, says Marielle Saunois, an environmental scientist with the University of Versailles Saint Quentin who coordinates the Global Methane Budget. But this study won’t change climate models right away. “The processes are important but very local,” she says. It’s hard to scale up bark microbe effects to a global or even regional perspective. And while this work helps predict how wetland emissions change with climate, global models don’t yet include these feedback effects. “Ideally,” she says, “it should.”
“Vegetation and plant-based pathways in methane emissions are actually a really under-studied component of the global methane budget,” agrees Carmichael.
Earth’s climate behavior is rife with feedback loops: For example, temperature, moisture, and CO2 affect how tree species are distributed, which affects methane emissions, which affects climate, and so on. Knowing that these microbes exist—and future studies that can pinpoint where else they exist—will improve climate predictions by making methane models more robust.
“This is good news,” says Megonigal. In wetland forests that are rich in methane, the microbes buffer emissions. In drier upland forests that produce less methane, he says, “they might actually be removing methane from the atmosphere on our behalf.”
Jeffrey next plans to examine how the trees’ filtering of the greenhouse gas changes with the seasons. Since he published the study, people have pitched him a variety of ideas for how to harness forest methanotrophs for climate action. Could scientists inoculate other tree species with the microbes to establish methane-gobbling forests? Could we culture them in sawdust and spray them on forest floors? Could we feed them to cows? “I have no idea, to be honest,” Jeffrey says. “And my personal preference is not to tinker with nature too much.”
And, he points out, human help might not even be needed to spread methanotrophs around: “I’m assuming—and hoping—that we’ll probably find these guys living elsewhere, in other trees, too.”
You are walking slowly through a forest with birds gently chirping around you. The wind glides through the trees, and you bend down to scoop up some earth, noticing the aroma.
That sensory experience is an example of a forest bath, a practice that has been shown in about 20 studies to improve mental and physical health, and it has become a prescribed treatment for stress-related conditions in Japan, according to Kirsten McEwan, an associate professor, and research psychologist at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom.
“Just having those micro-moments of life in nature, whether it is just 5 or 10 minutes a day building up to that 120 minutes, it all has massive benefit,” McEwan said.
Forest bathing can add even more to your well-being – and though it may sound a little inaccessible, experts say everyone can incorporate it into their lives.
How to do it
In fact, forest bathing doesn’t have to take place in a forest.
“Forest bathing is essentially a slow, mindful walk in nature where you pay really close attention to your surroundings, using all of your senses,” McEwan said. “It’s just to kind of switch yourbrain off and give yourself a little bit of a rest from ruminating about your to-do list.”
But you don’t have to walk all that much to reap the benefits if you are appreciating your surroundings. And consider this: Nature isn’t just waiting for you on your next beach or camping trip.
“Nature is oftentimes under our nose if we just take the time to be intentional about connecting with it,” said Chloe Carmichael, a New York therapist. Even those who live in areas surrounded by natural beauty can start to tune it out, so intentional focus is key, she said.
Whether you live in a bustling city or an expansive rural area, Carmichael and McEwan said, everyone can benefit from time in nature – and the best way to build time outdoors into your routine is to incorporate it into what you already do.
On your commute
Walking is great for a forest bath, even if it’s on your way to work or school.
Maybe you leave a little earlier and go more slowly, taking a route with more greenery, McEwan said. Perhaps you pay closer attention to the flowers springing through the cracks in the cement or the trees lining the street, she added.
“It’s like nature reclaiming the city,” McEwan said.
It’s an easy way to bring something natural and fragrant into your routine without requiring too much work, she added.
And once dinner is ready, consider moving the meal outside in mild weather.
If you can put some focus into the environment and observe the world going on around you, having a meal in your yard or on a patio is a great way to get your minutes in nature, McEwan said.
In your office
Getting your forest bath in the office can be good for both you and your work, Carmichael said.
That could mean going on a weekly lunch walk with a work friend, or taking a break to look out the window or even bringing a plant into your office, she added.
If you have meetings in small groups, you could suggest taking the meeting while walking or sitting outside, McEwan said.
“We are more relaxed and creative when we are outside anyway,” she said.
When you can’t get moving
Mobility isn’t always accessible to everyone, and while moving outside is optimal, there are other ways to get the benefits, McEwan said.
Videos online can take you through photos and videos of the natural world, with narration guiding your attention, she said.
An essential oil diffuser can also help if loaded with pine or evergreen scents, since much of the benefit of forest bathing comes from breathing in the organic compounds trees emit, McEwan said.
Above all, be comfortable
However you choose to forest bathe and get your time in nature, the most important thing is to find something that works for you, McEwan said.
Find a guiding audio that makes you feel good and isn’t too prescriptive in how you interact with your natural world, she suggested. And if hugging a tree or smelling the dirt feels unnatural and cringey to you, find a different way.
“To get the maximum benefits of spending time in nature, you have to be comfortable,” she said.
The southern pine beetle (SPB) is the most destructive native insect that threatens pine forests in the Southeast. These tiny insects, about the size of a grain of rice as adults, are especially harmful due to the complex system of pheromones (insect “scents” that are specific to a species) they utilize to find host trees and aggregate. Pheromones allow populations to build up quickly within a pine stand, often leading to classic beetle spots comprised of dead and dying trees.
Aerial view of a classic SPB spot
The VDOF forest health program monitors SPB populations with traps each spring, starting at the time the redbuds bloom. Traps are placed in high-risk locations (areas with a significant volume of pine) and are baited with pheromones. These traps are checked weekly for four weeks and samples are sorted, looking at the number of SPB and their associated predator, a clerid beetle. The relative number of these two insects is used to determine if southern pine beetle populations are increasing or decreasing. This information allows foresters and landowners to be more alert and act quickly should they see SPB.
SPB trap and sample
In addition to monitoring, certain silvicultural practices can reduce the risk of southern pine beetle attack in a pine stand. Pre-commercial thinning is the most effective management strategy to prevent SPB damage. How can forestry practices influence the population of tiny beetles? A lot of it goes back to those tiny clouds of pheromones the beetles rely on to communicate. When stands are overstocked and densely packed, these “scents” can become concentrated and highly aromatic to the beetles, drawing more and more in, thereby creating an SPB spot. A thinned stand allows more air movement, which breaks up the clouds of beetle perfume and makes beetle aggregation more difficult. Thinning also increases the health of the stand, and healthier trees are better able to resist beetle infestation.
Pine stand thinned using Pine Bark Beetle Program cost-share funds
VDOF has a Pine Bark Beetle Prevention Program which is funded by the US Forest Service Southern Pine Beetle Prevention and Restoration Program. VDOF uses this money to operate a cost-share program available to landowners and loggers for specific forest management practices that improve the health of managed pine stands and reduce the risk of SPB infestation. The three cost-share programs offered are:
Pre-commercial thinning: Assistance through this program will cover 60% of direct project costs of pre-commercial thinning on parcels greater than 5 acres, with trees no older than 15 years, and tree density before thinning greater than or equal to 800 stems per acre. Cost-share payments cannot exceed $105/acre and $10,000 per federal fiscal year.
Longleaf restoration: Longleaf pine is a native pine species that has been historically diminished in Virginia and is somewhat resistant to attack from SPB. To aid in restoring these stands, this program pays 60% of total direct costs associated with site preparation, planting, or post-planting treatments within the first five years of plantation establishment. Cost-share payment cannot exceed $225/acre and $10,000 per federal fiscal year.
Logger incentive program: This program reimburses certified SHARP loggers in Virginia who conduct first commercial thinning on smaller stands, 5-25 acres in size, with trees 12-22 years of age. Assistance covers 50% of itemized logging costs, not to exceed $2,000/parcel, and no more than 5 applications (or $10,000) per federal fiscal year.
Virginia’s state forests, State parks, wildlife management areas, and natural area preserves are state lands with distinct purposes. These state-owned and managed lands also differ from federally-owned national forests and national parks. It may be helpful to review these differences before visiting one of these areas.
Managed by the Virginia Department of Forestry.
Managed for multiple resources, including wood products, wildlife, water quality, and passive recreation.
Some forests allow hunting and fishing. Regulations for these activities are governed by the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) and require the proper licenses.
Often have passive or self-guided recreational opportunities (e.g., hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding).
Require a State Forest Use Permit for some activities.
Typically are not staffed daily and do not have offices and restroom facilities.
Do not have camping facilities or allow camping.
Do not allow recreational ATV use.
May have certain areas designated as natural areas.
Focused primarily on preservation and protection of natural systems, with minimal manipulation or management.
Tell the story of Virginia and the broader American experience through unique features, such as geological formations, rare plants, fascinating animals, diverse forest and aquatic communities, archeological sites, Colonial homes, Civil War battlefields, pioneer homesteads, and more.
Generally, do not allow hunting and sometimes allow fishing.
Offer a wide variety of recreational opportunities, both passive and structured.
Some have meeting facilities, festivals, concerts, and other events.
Typically staffed daily with an entry area, offices, and restroom facilities.
Often have rental cabins or lodges, camping facilities, pools or beaches for swimming, and picnic shelters.
Typically require daily access tickets, annual passes, and/or reservations for facility rentals.
Redwoods, it turns out, have two types of leaves that look different and perform very different tasks. This previously unknown feature helps the trees adapt to both wet and dry conditions – an ability that could be key to their survival in a changing climate. Redwoods can live for more than 2,000 years and grow to more than 350 feet tall.
Just enough water
Wherever trees grow, sooner or later their leaves get wet. For trees in wet environments, this can be a problem if films of water cover their stomata. These tiny pores allow carbon dioxide to enter leaves so the tree can combine it with water to make plant tissue through photosynthesis. Many trees that are common to wet forests have leaves with adaptations that prevent these water films from forming.
For broad-leaved trees like the holm oak, which grows in Mediterranean climates with dry summers and rainy winters, this seasonal wetness challenge is relatively easy to overcome. Their stomata are on the sheltered undersides of their leaves, which keeps them clear of water, while the leaves’ top surfaces absorb water. But redwoods are conifers, or cone-bearing trees, with thin, flat needlelike leaves, and they need a different way to balance the competing goals of repelling and absorbing water.
We knew we wanted to explore how redwoods met the paradoxical challenge of leaf wetness, how much water redwoods could absorb and which leaf features caused differences in water uptake capacity. What we learned came as a total surprise.
Big trees with big secrets
Scientists have long known about redwoods’ ability to absorb water through their leaves. But figuring out how much water redwoods can absorb this way, and how the capacity to do so might vary from one type of climate to another, is a real challenge in this species.
To complicate matters further, gravity is always pushing down on the giant column of water rising upward through a redwood’s trunk. As a result, leaves at the top of the tree always have less available water than those lower down. The treetop’s inherent dryness should pull water into the leaf more quickly than into water-rich leaves at the bottom, just as a dry sponge picks up water faster than a damp one.
For an accurate picture of how redwoods absorbed water, we needed leaves from trees in wet and dry environments, and from multiple heights on those trees. To get them to their natural gravity-based water levels for analysis, we put our leaf samples in a fog chamber – in this case, an ice chest hooked up to a room humidifier – and measured weight gain over time to see how much water they could absorb.
A trail of clues
As we took apart clusters of redwood shoots to immerse them in fog, we divided each cluster into pieces. Redwood shoot clusters fan out from a woody core and are segmented into individual shoots of multiple ages, each with its own set of leaves. We separated shoots along the woody central axis from the much more common pliable shoots on the outer edges of each cluster.
It quickly became obvious that shoots from the center axis had leaves that could absorb water three times faster than peripheral leaves. When we looked inside the leaves with a microscope, we understood that they were two completely different types. They don’t look the same on the outside either, but this was so unexpected that we needed to see their internal structure to really convince ourselves.
The axial leaves were packed with water storage cells, but their phloem – tubes in the leaves that export photosynthetic sugars to the tree – appeared to be blocked and useless. If a tree has leaves, the conventional wisdom is that they are there for photosynthesis, but we wondered whether the axial leaves had a different purpose.
With some additional measurements, we found that redwoods’ axial leaves are specialized for absorbing water. Differences between the surfaces of axial and peripheral leaves, especially their wax coverage, cause the differences in their water absorption rates.
Unlike the axial leaves, redwoods’ peripheral leaves have waxy surfaces with lots of stomata. This helped to explain how they photosynthesize year-round regardless of the long wet season in much of their current habitat.
Further analysis showed that the redwoods’ axial leaves account for only about 5% of the trees’ total leaf area, and barely produce enough energy through photosynthesis to maintain themselves. But they contribute up to 30% of the trees’ total water absorption capacity. Together these two types of leaves balance the dueling requirements of photosynthesis and water absorption, allowing redwoods to thrive in both wet and dry habitats.
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Understanding what causes the variation in redwood leaves’ uptake capacity can help us gauge differences in water uptake capabilities among trees and environments, now and in the future. In my opinion, this is the most potentially useful part of our study.
Redwoods vary their two leaf types to suit their local climates. In wet rainforests in the northern part of their range, above Mendocino County, the trees invest in fewer of the axial leaves that are specialized for absorbing water. These leaves are concentrated in the trees’ lower crowns, leaving the photosynthetically high-performing treetops free to maximize sugar production in the bright sun.
In dry forests on the southern margins of redwoods’ range, trees have more axial leaves in their water-stressed tops. This allows them to take better advantage of briefer leaf-wetting events, but it means they photosynthesize less per leaf area than redwoods in wetter areas.
Redwoods’ ability to shift leaf types to match regional climatic differences may help them adjust to climate change in an ever-drier California. That would be good news for conserving these epic trees, and it may be a promising feature to investigate as scientists try to link drought tolerance traits to regional differences among redwood populations.
Africa’s forests are some of the natural wonders of the world. As someone who has spent decades studying the ecology and management of tropical forests, I’m constantly amazed by the unique forest ecosystems on the continent.
Some of them are most likely unknown to the public at large, yet so fascinating and important to face our world’s current biodiversity and climate challenges. Starting in the northwest and ending in the southeast, I’d like to share the ones that are special to me. This is a totally personal choice; others would have chosen other unique African forests, so large is the choice. But for how long?
African forests, like many others, are threatened by over-exploitation, conversion to other land uses, and climate change. Many will likely disappear or be degraded to such an extent as to pass tipping points and become something else, something less.
I hope this trip across Africa will help raise interest and trigger the urge to better conserve and manage these unique ecosystems.
Morocco’s argan trees
Not far from Agadir, on the Moroccan Atlantic coast, grows the argan tree (Argania spinosa). It is the only member of the large Sapotaceae family growing in the northern hemisphere, the only species of its genus and endemic to an area of about 800,000 hectares.
It’s been exploited and managed by humans for more than 3,000 years for argan oil. Argan oil is the most expensive oil in the world, costing up to US$300 a litre in a US$500 million market. Argan oil is perhaps most commonly used as a moisturiser and is often found in products such as lotions, soaps and hair conditioners.
In addition to the oil, argan trees are also a source of wood for fencing, charcoal and fodder for goats. It’s a true multipurpose tree, critical especially for women’s livelihoods.
Unfortunately, despite its status as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, the argan forest is slowly dying from over-grazing, deforestation and climate change. Hopefully the argan oil boom will help to conserve and restore this unique forest ecosystem.
Congo Basin rainforest
Flying south-east, over the Sahara Desert and the Sahelian savannas, we reach the Congo Basin rainforest.
The Congo Basin rainforest is the second largest rainforest in the world (after the Amazon). It’s home to many forest giants, trees like the Sipo or Moabi. These and other giants are the origin of precious timber but also of important resources for local people, such as food and medicines. It’s also home to animals like forest elephants, buffaloes, and lowland gorillas.
Deep in the heart of the Congo Basin forests lies the largest peat swamp forest of the world. Only recently “discovered” by science, this place was known by the Aka community who live there as the place where roamed the Mokele Mbembe, a mythical dinosaur-like monster the size of an elephant.
No one has never seen it but now we know that this peatland forest stores more than 30 billion tonnes of carbon. Should these be released, by clearing the forest above, into the atmosphere, we will have unleashed a much worse monster than the Mokele Mbembe.
Fortunately, because of its remoteness and difficulty of access, the Congo Basin peatland complex has been naturally protected till now, but it could be threatened soon by oil exploration should we not pay attention.
East Africa’s Afromontane forests
At the eastern border of the Congo Basin rise the Ruwenzori mountains. On the mountain slopes are the last Afromontane forests.
These forests are home to the tallest tree in Africa, a whopping 81.5 metres tall Entandrophragma excelsum hidden in a remote valley of Mount Kilimanjaro.
These forests harbor a high level of endemism – meaning many of the trees can only be found here – and biodiversity. They also act as water towers, regulating and providing water for the lowlands and their inhabitants.
These Afromontane forests store more carbon per hectare than the Amazon rainforest. Sadly, in the past 20 years, 0.8 million hectares of mountain forests have been lost to agriculture. This is mostly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia. This has resulted in over 450 million tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere.
Continuing our journey down south, we soon reach the immense area of Miombo woodlands. They span an estimated total area of around 2.7 million km² from Angola in the west to Tanzania in the east, and down to the northern edge of South Africa.
Over 65 million people rely on these ecosystems for their livelihoods, making use of resources such as fuelwood, timber, charcoal production, fruits, honey, mushrooms, medicinal plants, and fodder for livestock.
One tree species only makes the canopy, Colophospermum mopane.
They are an important ecosystem for large mammal diversity and biomass in southern Africa, including some of the most significant remaining populations of black rhinoceros, elephant, white rhinoceros, hippopotamus, buffalo, giraffe and greater kudu.
The forest is also the only source of a less emblematic but very important animal: the mopane worm. Gonimbrasia belina, by its Latin name, is a very important seasonal source of protein for the populations living near mopane woodlands.
Unfortunately, decline in mopane tree density, lower-than-normal precipitation, and higher-than-normal temperatures have significantly affected mopane worm availability and outbreak events, threatening the already precarious livelihoods of local populations.
Madagascar’s Spiny Forest
Crossing the Mozambique channel, we arrive in Madagascar. On the south-west of the “Grande Ile” grows the Spiny Forest. It’s a place like nowhere else on Earth, where endemic oddities like the octopus tree (Didierea madagascariensis) and other strange members of the Didieraceae family grow mixed with swollen baobabs (Adansonia rubrostipa) and other bottle trees (Pachypodium geayi).
The Spiny Forest is inhabited by even weirder animals, ghostly white lemurs impervious to thorns, birds that sing communally and a chameleon that spends most of its life as an egg.
Unfortunately like the other unique forest wonders of Africa, the Spiny Forest is threatened by over-exploitation for charcoal production as local farmers have been put out of business by the more and more unpredictable climate and have few other opportunities in the impoverished and dry Madagascar south-west.
We have reached the end of our trip over Africa. Our choices are subjective and we could have presented other forest wonders but we hope this will be enough to convince you of the importance of these ecosystems and of their threatened status because of us, humans. We should better protect and manage these ecosystems as we depend on them for our survival.
This image, taken in 1993, shows historical forests of Atlas Cedar in Morocco that are most vulnerable to a hotter, drier climate. Photo: Csaba Mátyás, professor emeritus, University of Sopron, Hungary.
By: Kirsten Romaguera
How hot is too hot, and how dry is too dry, for the Earth’s forests? A new study from an international team of researchers found the answers – by looking at decades of dying trees.
Just published in the journal Nature Communications, the study compiles the first global database of precisely georeferenced forest die-off events at 675 locations dating back to 1970. The study, which encompasses all forested continents, then compares that information to existing climate data to determine the heat and drought climatic conditions that caused these documented tree mortality episodes.
“In this study, we’re letting the Earth’s forests do the talking,” said William Hammond, a University of Florida plant ecophysiologist who led the study. “We collected data from previous studies documenting where and when trees died, and then analyzed what the climate was during mortality events, compared to long-term conditions.”
After performing the climate analysis on the observed forest mortality data, Hammond noted, a pattern emerged.
“What we found was that at the global scale, there was this consistently hotter, drier pattern – what we call a ‘hotter-drought fingerprint’ – that can show us how unusually hot or dry it has to get for forests to be at risk of death,” said Hammond, an assistant professor in the UF/IFAS agronomy department.
The fingerprint, he says, shows that forest mortality events consistently occurred when the typically hottest and driest months of the year got even warmer and drier.
“Our hotter-drought fingerprint revealed that global forest mortality is linked to intensified climate extremes,” Hammond said. “Using climate model data, we estimated how frequent these previously lethal climate conditions would become under further warming, compared to pre-industrial era climate – 22% more frequent at plus 2 degrees Celsius (plus 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), to 140% more frequently at plus 4 degrees Celsius (plus 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit).”
Those higher temperatures would more than double how often forests around the world see tree-killing droughts, he adds.
“Plants do a phenomenal job of capturing and sequestering carbon,” Hammond said. “But death of the plants not only prevents their performing this critical carbon-capturing role, plants also start releasing carbon as they decay.”
Hammond says that relying, in part, upon trees and other plants to capture and sequester carbon, as some proposed climate solutions suggest, makes it is critical to understand how hot is ‘too hot,’ and how dry is ‘too dry’. “Otherwise mortality events, like those included in our database, may wipe out planned carbon gains.”
One of the study’s co-authors, Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero of Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo in Mexico, offered an example of how recent climate patterns affected a Mexican temperate forest.
“In recent years, the dry and warm March to May season is even more dry than usual, but also warmer than ever,” he said. “This combination is inducing a lot of stress on the trees before the arrival of the next June-to-October rainy season. For example, in 2021, more than 8,000 mature trees were killed by bark beetles in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Central Mexico. The effect of the La Niña Pacific Ocean stream resulted in drier, warmer conditions, a deadly combination that favored pest outbreaks.”
Hammond has also developed an interactive application on the website of the International Tree Mortality Network to host the database online and to allow others to submit additional observations of forest mortality to the database.
The organization, founded and coordinated by co-author Henrik Hartmann from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, among others, is a collaborative effort between scientists on every forested continent and aims to coordinate international research efforts on forest die-off events. Hammond is the network’s data management group leader.
Using maps or aerial images, scientists assign to them real-world coordinates.
Information confirmed or validated by direct observation and measurement. In the case of machine learning, it refers to checking results for accuracy.
“We’re hoping that this paper will create a bit of urgency around the need to understand the role of warming on forest mortality,” Hammond said. “Also, we expect that our open-access database will enable additional studies, including other climate fingerprints from local to regional scales. Current climate modeling and remote-sensing research communities need ground-truthed datasets to validate their predictions of important processes like forest mortality. One of the really important elements to this study was bringing all this data together for the first time, so that we can ask a question like this at the planetary scale.”
The paper, “Global field observations of tree die-off reveal hotter-drought fingerprint for Earth’s forests,” can be accessed at nature.com/articles/s41467-022-29289-2. In addition to Hammond, Sáenz-Romero and Hartmann, it is also co-authored by A. Park Williams, University of California, Los Angeles; John Abatzoglou, University of California, Merced; Henry D. Adams, Washington State University; Tamir Klein, Weizmann Institute of Science; Rosana López, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, Spain; David D. Breshears, University of Arizona; and Craig D. Allen, University of New Mexico.
As part of its efforts to protect and enhance Melbourne’s tree cover, some 3,000 trees are planted in the city each year. This juvenile Cinnamomum camphor laurel tree was planted on Exhibition Street in Melbourne’s central business district in 2021. Credit…Alana Holmberg for The New York Times
A program in Melbourne, Australia, that tracks every public tree — and even gives each an email address — is seen as a way to manage climate change.
By Peter Wilson
MELBOURNE, Australia — High in the branches of a 122-year-old Dutch Elm, two workers in a bucket crane framed by the city’s skyline used a chain saw to slice large limbs from the top of the tree.
Office workers strolled past, seemingly enjoying the afternoon sunshine of Flagstaff Gardens, the city’s oldest public park, while the workers carried out their “reduction pruning” aimed at controlling the tree’s bulk to help improve its vitality and extend its lifespan.
It is one of the most time-tested forms of tree maintenance, but at ground level, the workers’ supervisor, Jake Shepherd, added a high-tech wrinkle.
Mr. Shepherd, a 27-year-old Englishman, touched a yellow circle on a portable electronic device. The circle was within a map of the park that is part of the city’s elaborate tree database and it instantly turned green to register that this specific elm was back in top shape.
Across town in the Queen Victoria Gardens, another crew recorded the results of its own maintenance work so that it also could be entered into the database, a crucial part of an innovative forest management scheme that has attracted attention around the world because of its successful focus on community engagement.
New York, Denver, Shanghai, Ottawa, and Los Angeles have all unveiled Million Tree Initiatives aimed at greatly increasing their urban forests because of the ability of trees to reduce city temperatures, absorb carbon dioxide and soak up excess rainfall.
Central Melbourne, on the other hand, lacks those cities’ financial firepower and is planning to plant a little more than 3,000 trees a year over the next decade. Yet it has gained the interest of other cities by using its extensive data to shore up the community engagement and political commitment required to sustain the decades-long work of building urban forests.
A small municipality covering just 14.5 square miles in the center of the greater Melbourne metropolitan area — which sprawls for 3,860 square miles and houses 5.2 million people in 31 municipalities — the city of Melbourne introduced its online map in 2013.
Called the Urban Forest Visual, the map displayed each of the 80,000 trees in its parks and streets, and showed each tree’s age, species and health. It also gave each tree its own email address so that people could help to monitor them and alert council workers to any specific problems.
That is when the magic happened.
City officials were surprised to see the trees receiving thousands of love letters. They ranged from jaunty greetings — “good luck with the photosynthesis” — to love poems and emotional tributes about how much joy the trees brought to people’s lives.
Members of the public were subsequently recruited to help with forestry programs such as measuring trees and monitoring wildlife, and politicians were left in no doubt about how much Melburnians valued their trees.
City of Melbourne councilors of all political stripes agreed on the ambitious goal of increasing their tree canopy cover to 40 percent of public land by 2040, from 23 percent in 2012.
Their plan is on track after a decade and has been gradually replacing many of the grand European elms and London plane trees that shade the city’s widest boulevards, moving instead to indigenous species such as eucalyptus and other trees better able to cope with climate change.
Abigail Brydon, a 40-year-old project manager for a telecommunications firm, echoed the widespread affection for the city’s greenery as she took a walk past the elm that was being worked on by Mr. Shepherd and his team.
“I have always loved the city’s trees and parks but more than ever during lockdown,” she said, explaining that she was halfway through her twice-daily “sanity check” of a 15-minute walk around the park.
“A lap of the park clears my head, then I can go back inside and get back to work,” she said. “There are even more people now than there used to be sitting under the trees and wandering around, and Covid hasn’t stopped the city from keeping the park fantastically maintained.”
A walk around the central business district showed a series of recent plantings, including a spindly stand of lemon-scented gums on Flinders Street; new “green” tram tracks on Southbank; and a row of 7-foot camphor laurels near the theaters on Exhibition Street.
Melbourne’s outbreak of talking to trees was noticed far and wide, particularly among urban planners such as Gillian Dick, who helps to plan the forests of Glasgow.
Ms. Dick planned to pay tribute to the Melbourne experience on March 30 when she addresses a global online event on urban ecosystems, the Nature of Cities festival, about ways to encourage city dwellers to appreciate their local trees.
“In Glasgow we have set up a website and a Twitter account to capture community stories about what the city’s trees mean to people, to give us some background information for developing our forest and woodland strategy,” Ms. Dick explained in a telephone interview.
“It’s no good planting millions of trees if you are not going to have the community buy-in to sustain the long-term support you need to make a success of those trees, and if you look around the world at that sort of community engagement with trees, Melbourne’s experience is just amazing.”
“They accidentally discovered the latent desire of people to say how much the trees meant to them.”
Cathy Oke, a former Green Party city councilor who played a pivotal role in Melbourne’s tree policies, said data and evidence-based decisions had been crucial since the city revamped its forest strategy in 2012 after discovering that a 12-year drought had left 40 percent of its trees declining or dying.
Many of its most impressive trees were planted in large batches as far back as 1875, meaning that whole blocks of trees would die at the same time and need to be replaced by immature trees unless they were steadily replaced in advance.
“We learned from what other cities were doing, especially New York with its planting of a million trees,” said Dr. Oke, a researcher in urban sustainability at the University of Melbourne.
The program has evolved to focus not only on trees but also on biodiversity including flowers, insects, and native animals. Rohan Leppert, a councilor who now leads the forest program, says the city will soon launch an online “biodiversity visual.”
“In all these things, we are bending over backward to do hyperlocal consultations to find out what trees people want in their own streets because these sort of changes work best when you do them with the community, not to the community,” Mr. Leppert said.
“We are determined to keep at it for the long term because keeping the city cool by planting trees is the single most cost-effective thing we can do to mitigate against climate change,” he said, noting that a healthy tree canopy can reduce a city’s temperature by 4 degrees to 6 degrees Celsius, or 7.2 to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
James Fitzsimons, the director of conservation and science for the Nature Conservancy Australia, said the city of Melbourne’s successful forest strategy had not been matched across the wider metropolitan area, but attempts were underway to get a more united approach to forestry.
“The big challenge is that there is talk about Melbourne doubling its population size by 2050, so housing is becoming much denser and we’re losing native vegetation,” he said.
Gregory Moore, an expert on ecosystems and forests at the University of Melbourne, said another major problem was that planning laws controlled by the state of Victoria did little to protect greenery on private land, allowing development that contributed to the annual loss of 1.5 percent of canopy cover across the greater metropolitan area.
“A good tree cover can save you an enormous amount in health spending alone by reducing deaths in heatwaves and getting people outside and taking more exercise,” he said. “Politicians and bureaucrats seem to think that all of these benefits from planting trees are simply too good to be true, but I think they will eventually get the point when economists keep telling them how much money they will save.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 29, 2022, Section A, Page 10 in The New York Times International Edition.
Changing the genetic makeup of trees could supercharge their ability to suck up carbon dioxide. But are forests of frankentrees really a good idea?
Of all the potential fixes for the climate crisis, none has captured hearts and minds quite like tree planting. It’s a goal that seemingly everyone can agree on: Scientists, politicians, even billionaires are putting their heft behind efforts to green the land with new forests that will capture carbon and—hopefully—lock it away in trunks and soil for decades.
But no climate fix is ever that simple. Multiple studies have found that tree-planting campaigns don’t always deliver the benefits they promise. If newly planted forests aren’t properly cared for and monitored, the trees can die and any carbon they stored will be released back into the atmosphere. Sometimes there aren’t enough seedlings for these programs in the first place. The mass enthusiasm for tree-planting programs has sparked a partial backlash, with scientists arguing that planting trees is important, sure, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s a silver bullet for the vast challenges of the climate crisis.
Other scientists point to a different problem with mass tree-planting efforts: the trees themselves. What if existing trees just aren’t good enough at storing carbon? If scientists could find a way to increase trees’ carbon-sucking potential, we’d be unlocking more cost-effective carbon capture with every tree planted. A better tree could be what we’ve been waiting for. We just have to make it.
Maddie Hall, CEO and founder of the climate startup Living Carbon, is looking for the Tesla of trees. “Not just a tree that’s better for the environment, but a tree that grows faster and might be able to survive or perform better in climates than traditional varieties,” she says. “A lot of that comes down to how you could improve the growth rate and also carbon-capture potential of trees.”
The way that plants take carbon dioxide and sunlight and turn them into living material is nothing short of miraculous, a biological alchemy that supports almost all life on Earth. But this process—photosynthesis—is also woefully inefficient. Only a tiny fraction of sunlight that falls on leaves actually gets turned into living material—in the case of most plants around 95 percent of all that energy is wasted. For plant scientists like Amanda Cavanagh at the University of Essex, UK, this waste looks like an opportunity. If she can find a way to get plants to cut out some of this inefficiency, trees might put that energy into growth instead. Like most researchers in this area, Cavanagh’s focus is on faster-growing crops that can feed more people, but the same approach could be a boon for pulling carbon from the atmosphere, too. Photosynthesis-enhanced trees should be quicker at turning atmospheric carbon into trunks, leaves, and roots. That’s the theory, at least.
In 2019, Cavanagh and her colleagues published a paper in Science that strongly suggested they were on to something. By inserting a couple of new genes into tobacco plants, the scientists could get them to recycle a waste product of photosynthesis back into a molecule the plant could use to grow. Once they were planted, Cavanagh’s edited tobacco plants were 40 percent more productive than their non-edited equivalents. (Tobacco plants are the lab rats of the plant science world—the ultimate goal is to repeat this trick with crops like wheat or soy.)
Now a Californian startup has taken the same approach, but this time with poplar trees. In a non-peer-reviewed preprint first posted on February 19, scientists at Living Carbon claimed that by inserting new genes into poplar trees, they can make the plants grow 53 percent more quickly than their non-edited equivalents. Both sets of trees were grown under controlled conditions that differ significantly from the ones the plants would face in the wild, but Hall hopes that the edited trees will supercharge tree-planting plans by drawing down atmospheric carbon more quickly.
“Our belief is that climate change is a problem of relative rates. And also it’s one that we can’t just solve with man-made, intensely managed human processes like direct air capture,” she says. (Direct air capture means building devices that could scrub atmospheric carbon dioxide—or others that might trap methane—but by one recent estimate it could take 10,000 such machines to make a difference in CO2 levels.) Living Carbon’s eventual business model will be to plant its genetically engineered trees on land leased from private landowners, then give those landowners a share of the money earned by selling carbon credits earned against the growth of the trees.
When most plants photosynthesize, they produce a toxic byproduct called phosphoglycolate, which they then have to use energy to break down—a process called photorespiration. Living Carbon’s edited trees have extra genes from algae and pumpkin that help the plant use less energy to break it down, as well as recycling some of the sugars created by this process. This pathway was an obvious target for making plants more efficient, says Yumin Tao, Living Carbon’s VP of biotechnology. “You channel that byproduct into energy and nutrients for plant growth,” says Tao. And more plant growth means more carbon captured.
Tao and his colleagues grew the genetically engineered poplars for 21 weeks in a lab before harvesting and weighing them to see how much biomass they’d accumulated. The best-performing seedling had 53 percent more above-ground biomass than non-edited plants. Tests also showed that the edited plants took up more carbon than their non-edited cousins, an indication that these plants had a higher rate of photosynthesis.
“It’s a really exciting first step,” says Cavanagh, who was not involved in Living Carbon’s research. But she cautions that we don’t know whether these trees will be better at storing carbon in the long run. Living Carbon’s poplars were harvested after only five months, but in the wild, the trees can live for more than 50 years. Only further studies will reveal whether the edited trees will continue to grow quickly as they mature. Their growth rate might slow, or they might become so unhealthy that they fall over and release all that carbon back into the atmosphere when they rot. “Is the effect you see at the seedling phase the same at different stages of maturity, or does the plant fight back?” asks Cavanagh.
Soon this will be put to the test. Living Carbon has already planted 468 of its photosynthesis-enhanced trees in central Oregon, part of a field trial it’s running with Oregon State University. The company will analyze how quickly the trees grow over longer periods of time and also how they perform in different environments. It has also secured agreements to plant poplars created using a slightly different technique on around 3,500 acres of private land in the US, with the first plantings scheduled to start in late 2022, according to Hall.
But releasing genetically engineered trees into the wild is still controversial. Researchers at the State University of New York have engineered a chestnut tree that is resistant to a blight that has ravaged the species in the US, but the tree has still not been approved by the Department of Agriculture. Only two genetically engineered trees have been approved in the US: varieties of virus-resistant papaya and plum trees. The trees that Living Carbon is currently working with don’t produce pollen, which should limit the problem of genetic material from the edited plants mixing with wild trees.
But some plant scientists think there’s a simpler path to making a better tree: cultivating them the old-fashioned way. Humans have been breeding better crops for thousands of years, says Richard Buggs, an evolutionary biologist who studies plant health at Kew Gardens in London. “I’m totally in agreement with that core premise that we need trees that are more productive and fix carbon faster. I just think there are fantastic opportunities to do that by variation that already exists in nature,” says Buggs. Typically, cultivation means either hybridizing two varieties through cross-pollination—fertilizing the flowers of one tree with the pollen of another—or reinforcing a desirable trait within a species by self-pollinating a plant with that trait.
Rather than meddling with something as fundamental as photosynthesis, Buggs suggests there are other traits that might be useful for making more efficient trees. “There are actually lots of things that are already happening in nature that affect the growth of a tree that we could be working with,” he says, like variation in how quickly trees grow, how straight their trunks are, and when they drop their leaves. All would affect their suitability for carbon capture, Buggs says. “I would prefer that kind of approach. I think it’s more realistic, and you’re much more likely to end up with a tree that will survive and fix carbon in the long term in natural environments.”
Hall doesn’t actually envisage giant public forests of genetically engineered trees. She says that most of the time her trees will eventually be cut down for timber—another reason to find a way to speed up their growth. Other companies are interested in fast-growing trees too: In 2015 the Brazilian government approved a eucalyptus tree engineered by a paper-producing firm to produce 20 percent more wood than conventional trees.
The debate between natural breeding and genetic engineering has been bubbling along in the agricultural world for more than half a century. Now a similar conversation is starting to play out when it comes to forestry. We might be able to cultivate more productive trees, but that approach could take decades. We might not have that kind of time, Cavanagh says. “Thirty years will be the end of my career,” she says. “I would like to know I’ve done everything I can to make sure that there are solutions if things look as bad as the worst-case projections.”
As the climate warms, this insect’s population is booming. That’s bad news for the ponderosa pines of the Sierra Nevada.
As he drove through the Sierra Nevada in 2019, Zachary Robbins noticed all the dead trees. Most of them had probably died around 2016 thanks to a combination of California’s drought and its growing population of bark beetles—tiny creatures that kill giant trees. Although workers had tried to salvage whatever they could for commercial timber, Robbins, a researcher in the Dynamic Ecosystems and Landscapes Lab at North Carolina State University, was astounded by how many withered pines still dotted the forest.
Of some 600 species of bark beetles, the western pine beetle is prevalent in this region. They chew away at bark and live within the phloem of ponderosa pines, the living tissue that transports nutrients. The infestation creates bark beetle “galleries” that look like long-legged centipedes living within the tree; these can kill the host by cutting off nutrient flow. Dead trees can present a perilous situation to nearby residents because they create more flammable material for wildfires.
According to the US Forest Service, about 150 million trees died during the state’s five-year drought, which ran from 2012 to 2016, and in its aftermath. Drought itself kills trees, but the lack of water also weakens them, making them easier for the beetles to attack. These infestations can be fatal for pines—a 2019 study found that among ponderosa pines attacked by bark beetles following the drought, an estimated 90 percent of them died.
Talking it over later with his colleagues, Robbins thought the pine die-off might be attributable to climate change: A warmer climate would mean more beetles, and more beetles would mean more dead trees. “We realized that this landscape will be fundamentally different in the next century,” Robbins says.
To test the theory, Robbins and his team used a computer model to show how both drought and warming temperatures could affect the Sierra Nevada. The data for their model was gleaned from other studies based on either satellite imaging or academic field researchers who counted the number of trees that have already died from beetle infestations. In a paper published in October in Global Change Biology, the team wrote that their model calculated that for each 1 degree Celsius that temperature rises, the number of dead trees will increase by about 20 percent, thanks to the increased success of the beetle population. During a drought, their model showed, this figure can worsen, climbing to 35 to 40 percent.
Beetles have more success in a drier, warmer climate because trees are more stressed. When an insect starts to chew through bark, a tree has a chance to defend itself by releasing waxy resin and chemicals to push the critter out. But under the stress of droughts, trees close the pores in their leaves and needles, reducing their ability to photosynthesize and create the carbon the tree needs to live. The tree then devotes its resources to tissue maintenance, making less of these defense chemicals and resins. All of this creates an opportunity for bark beetles to invade.
At the same time, the life cycle of the beetle speeds up. These creatures are ectotherms, which means their function depends on the external temperature. If temperatures rise, they reach reproductive age sooner and produce more and more offspring.
“Warming temperatures allow bark beetles to go through stages of maturation more quickly, allowing populations to grow to larger, more explosive sizes,” says Chris Williams, director of environmental sciences at Clark University in Massachusetts, who studies droughts, bark beetles, and wildfires. Their larvae live within the tree, and when they are old enough, they turn into beetles, which fly out to find other trees to destroy. Once they start an invasion, they release pheromones, which signal to other beetles that there is room for more. (Beetles are also less likely to die during a warmer winter, but Robbins says this was not a main factor in his California study.)
The 2012 to 2016 drought was particularly harmful because of just how long it lasted. But 2018, 2020, and 2021 have also been extreme drought years. Tom Smith, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection senior plant pathologist, has witnessed the droughts’ effects firsthand. “We are seeing this right now with increased bark beetle activity of the western pine bark beetle and other species around California while we enter yet another year of drought,” Smith says. “My major concern is that with the vast number of dead trees on the landscape there is a huge amount of dry fuel just waiting to burn.” These tree graveyards act as catalysts for the landscape-scale wildfiresthat have beenplaguingCalifornia.
Mass deaths of 100-year-old ponderosa pines can increase the risk of wildfire for another reason: The pines are a fire-resistant species due to their thick bark. Yet after a beetle outbreak, the old trees are replaced by much younger pines and also incense cedars, which are less resistant. The combination of younger trees that can ignite more easily with dead trees that provide fuel is a recipe for high-intensity forest fires.
Robbins and his team of researchers were floored that a small environmental change, like 1 degree Celsius of warming, could have such long-lasting effects. “This is one of those instances of climate change where there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle,” Robbins says. “Those trees, many were hundreds of years old, and they’re now dead—and they won’t be back for another 100 years.”
“Climate change is not a future event. We are living through the results of the altered climate now,” Robbins continues. “Our ecology is already behaving in ways we could not have predicted, and we will have to manage forests and natural resources with this assumption.”
But what might some of those management decisions be? Robbins thinks that increasing forest diversity will be a protective factor against bark beetle attacks. “And not just tree species, but tree ages,” Robbins says. “We often have trees that are the same age, and they’re all susceptible to bark beetle attacks at similar times.” Without reforestation efforts, Robbins thinks that forests may convert to chaparral shrublands.
Controlled burns to get rid of dead material should be part of the answer, Robbins says, but the sheer scale necessary is enormous. Smith wants to see this happen, too, but he agrees that there are some roadblocks: The right weather conditions don’t occur regularly, the terrain is often difficult to work with, and there are limited numbers of trained fire personnel. “The best option would have been to harvest the trees quickly to remove the dry fuel,” Smith says, but the cost of transportation is prohibitive and there are only so many mills ready to process the timber.
Biogeneration plants, which convert forest residue to heat for power generation, would be another option, Smith says, but not enough of them exist. He also thinks it’s important to educate people about fire prevention, as the National Park Service estimates that 85 percent of fires are human-caused.
It’s harder to imagine a solution directed just at the beetles. Their natural predators are white-headed woodpeckers and black-bellied clerid beetles, but Robbins doesn’t think it would be wise to increase the number of these predators. This is because during non-outbreak years, when beetle populations are low, the predator population would quickly collapse, undoing all the work. Another idea might be to use another kind of pheromone the beetles produce, one that lets their compatriots know when space has run out. But, Robbins adds, that’s not realistic given the size of the forest.
Now, Robbins is looking ahead to how his team’s model can be applied to other ecosystems that might host the same kind of beetle. “We think about the ponderosa pines throughout Oregon and Washington,” he says. “They may also be impacted by these things—just not yet.”
When Amanda Jensen’s four kids were younger, her husband Brian built them a treehouse, complete with bunk beds, a trap door, a swing, and a zip line. “After the kids decided they were on to more important things than playing in it, we joked about renting it out because treehouses were becoming ‘a thing,'” she told Travel + Leisure.
But after staying at an impressive treehouse in South Carolina themselves, they’ve turned that thought about their kids’ playhouse into even bigger ambitions. They’ve set out to build what they hope will become the world’s biggest treehouse resort, called Sanctuary Treehouse Resort, in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. When it’s completed, it will be the largest in the world with 130 treehouses spread out across 40 acres. Most of the treehouses will be in rows, but a few will be in circular pod formation.
The couple is working with Mountain Modern Architectural firm MossCreek to bring their vision to life. The resort will feature three types of accommodations. The Tree Fort can accommodate two to six guests and will have a king-size bed with a queen-size trundle bed that rolls out underneath and a bunk bed, along with a LED fireplace, kitchenette, whiskey barrel bathroom sink, and shower, plus a deck with Adirondack chairs, a grill, and wood-burning fireplace. But the real design fun comes with the tree house’s spiral slide, climbing rope, bucket pulley, net swing, secret ladder, trapdoor, telescope, and even a custom drink shoot for bottles and cans from the kitchen to the lower porch. For group accommodations, there will also be a Tree Fort Double, which is two of the treehouses connected with a movable drawbridge. Finally, the Luxe accommodation steps everything up a notch with a king-size gel cooling bed, copper clawfoot bathtub, bamboo jet shower, heated bidet toilet system, and outdoor tub.
“It will not be just a place to stay with astounding views, you will be able to interact and play in your treehouse, just as you would a ‘real’ treehouse,” Jensen said of the playful features.
About six to 10 of the treehouses will be available for stays starting this summer, with the rest of the first phase rolling out through the rest of the year. By the end of 2023, there will be about 30 units, as well as a check-in area. The plan is to keep building another 20 to 25 units each year until the resort is complete.
The Jensens, who also run the Gaitlinburg SkyCenter at the top of the Gatlinburg SkyLift, originally had planned just to build a handful of treehouses to rent out on their own property, but once they heard that the 40-acre site was available, they knew they had to expand their plans, especially since other potential buyers were looking to raze the area for apartments and other buildings. “We want to preserve the property as it is and build around the trees and into the existing landscape to respect its beauty and the nature that lives there,” she said of the property they just started construction on this year.
The resort will eventually also have walking trails, a community area, a central hot tub, and a lit enchanted forest for events and gatherings. Also part of the draw is its East Tennessee location, near two 18-hole golf courses and Great Smoky National Park.
“We are cultivating a unique resort like no other anywhere for guests to stay, play, and retreat for a one-of-a-kind experience,” the couple said. “We hope to provide our guests with lasting memories, breathtaking views, and customizable options to leave them with a desire to come back and stay with us year after year.”
Learn more about Sanctuary Treehouse Resort and follow the property’s progress here.
1. The first thing that’s wrong with a Bradford pear is its structure.
They have huge heavy limbs that all radiate out from one point. That makes the tree exceptionally weak and prone to breakage once it matures. When high winds hit – or snow or ice – these trees come apart easily. That’s a lot of weight coming down on a person, car, roof, or even a power line.
2. The second (and biggest) problem? They are invasive and spreading.
Once you see the puffy white trees in early spring, you’ll see them everywhere. Originally from China, they don’t have any threats here.
“They’ve been liberated from their predators in pathogens in their native range and brought to a place where they don’t have these predators or diseases so their energy is freed up to grow and reproduce,” said Kevin Heffernan, a Stewardship Biologist at Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
And they are really good at reproducing.
Originally thought to be sterile, when Bradford pear blossoms get cross-pollinated by bees, fruit production begins. It doesn’t look like a pear you get at the grocery store, but native birds love the small, sugary fruit. Sadly, it’s basically junk food and hurts our songbird’s ability to migrate.
Heffernan says eating the pear fruits, “tend to debilitate species ability to get all the way to their destinations. They should be filling up with more fatty fruits from other species.”
Plus, the birds spread the trees far and wide. If you look alongside highways and in unmaintained areas, you’ll see the white trees easily. They are one of the first trees to bloom in our early spring landscape.
And once they start running wild, they revert to their rootstock: a Callery pear. And that tree is nasty. It forms a thicket, crowding out native trees and it has huge, sharp thorns.
That makes it very hard to remove once it takes over an area. Just ask Laura Greenleaf, she spends her days removing invasive species and teaching others about them, and she says this piece of land, like many others across the state, just isn’t right.
“Ideally, this would be a naturalized area of the native Flora. native trees shrubs and a herbaceous layer,” she said.
And it’s not just us! Many other states are realizing the error of our planting ways. In South Carolina, there’s even a bounty! If you send a picture of a Bradford pear you cut down, they’ll give you a free native tree!
That hasn’t happened in Virginia, yet.
3. The third thing: they smell horrible.
Pretty much everyone agrees on that.
So cut them down if you have them in your yard. Spring is a great time because you can easily spot them.
Laura Greenleaf and Kevin Heffernan gave me a great list of links that might be helpful if you are interested in learning more about invasive species and how changes you make at your house can help our native species.
Reforestation can fight climate change, uplift communities, and restore biodiversity. When done badly, though, it can speed extinctions and make nature less resilient.
A tree planted for every T-shirt purchased. For every bottle of wine. For every swipe of a credit card. Trees planted by countries to meet global pledges and by companies to bolster their sustainability records.
As the climate crisis deepens, businesses and consumers are joining nonprofit groups and governments in a global tree planting boom. Last year saw billions of trees planted in scores of countries around the world. These efforts can be a triple win, providing livelihoods, absorbing and locking away planet-warming carbon dioxide, and improving the health of ecosystems.
But when done poorly, the projects can worsen the very problems they were meant to solve. Planting the wrong trees in the wrong place can actually reduce biodiversity, speeding extinctions and making ecosystems far less resilient.
Addressing biodiversity loss, already a global crisis akin to climate change, is becoming more and more urgent. Extinction rates are surging. An estimated million species are at risk of disappearing, many within decades. And ecosystem collapse doesn’t just threaten animals and plants; it imperils the food and water supplies that humans rely on.
Amid that worsening crisis, companies and countries are increasingly investing in tree planting that carpets large areas with commercial, nonnative species in the name of fighting climate change. These trees sock away carbon but provide little support to the webs of life that once thrived in those areas.
“You’re creating basically a sterile landscape,” said Paul Smith, who runs Botanic Gardens Conservation International, an umbrella group that works to prevent plant extinctions. “If people want to plant trees, let’s also make it a positive for biodiversity.”
There’s a rule of thumb in the tree planting world: One should plant “the right tree in the right place.” Some add, “for the right reason.”
But, according to interviews with a range of players — scientists, policy experts, forestry companies and tree planting organizations — people often disagree on what “right” means. For some, it’s big tree farms for carbon storage and timber. For others, it’s providing fruit trees to small-scale farmers. For others still, it’s allowing native species to regenerate.
The best efforts try to address a range of needs, according to restoration experts, but it can be hard to reconcile competing interests.
“It’s kind of the Wild West,” said Forrest Fleischman, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Minnesota.
‘Harm in the Name of Doing Good’
There is not enough land on Earth to tackle climate change with trees alone, but if paired with drastic cuts in fossil fuels, trees can be an important natural solution. They absorb carbon dioxide through pores in their leaves and stash it away in their branches and trunks (though trees also release carbon when they burn or rot). That ability to collect CO2 is why forests are often called carbon sinks.
In Central Africa, TotalEnergies, the French oil and gas giant, has announced plans to plant trees on 40,000-hectares in the Republic of Congo. The project — on the Batéké Plateau, a rolling mosaic of grasses and wooded savanna with patches of denser forests — would sequester more than 10 million tons of carbon dioxide over 20 years, according to the company.
“Total is committing to the development of natural carbon sinks in Africa,” said Nicolas Terraz, who was then Total’s senior vice president for Africa, exploration and production, in a company news release on the project in 2021. “These activities build on the priority initiatives taken by the group to avoid and reduce emissions, in line with its ambition to get to net-zero by 2050.”
To achieve net-zero, companies must remove at least as much carbon from the air as they release. Many, like TotalEnergies, are turning to trees for help with that. On the Batéké Plateau, an acacia species from Australia, intended for selective logging, will cover a large area.
The project, part of a Congolese government program to expand forest cover and increase carbon storage, would create jobs, the company said, and ultimately broaden the ecosystem’s biodiversity as local species are allowed to grow in over decades.
But scientists warn that the plan may be an example of one of the worst kinds of forestation efforts: planting trees where they would not naturally occur. These projects can devastate biodiversity, threaten water supplies and even increase temperatures because, in some cases, trees absorb heat that grasslands — or, in other parts of the world, snow — would have reflected.
“We don’t want to cause harm in the name of doing good,” said Bethanie Walder, executive director of the Society for Ecological Restoration, a global nonprofit.
The Batéké Plateau is one of the least-studied ecosystems in Africa, according to Paula Nieto Quintano, an environmental scientist who has focused on the region. “Its importance for local livelihoods, its ecology and ecosystem functions are poorly understood,” Dr. Nieto said.
Those who study forest restoration emphasize that trees are not a cure-all.
“I fear that many corporations and governments are seeing this as an easy way out,” said Robin Chazdon, a professor of tropical forest restoration at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. “They don’t necessarily have to work as hard to reduce their emissions because they can just say, ‘Oh, we’re offsetting that by planting trees’.”
‘There Have Been Bad Actors’
All trees store carbon, but their other benefits vary widely depending on the species and where it’s planted.
Eucalyptus, for instance, grows fast and straight, making it a lucrative lumber product. Native to Australia and a few islands to the north, its leaves feed koalas, which evolved to tolerate a potent poison they contain. But in Africa and South America — where the trees are widely grown for timber, fuel and, increasingly, carbon storage — they provide far less value to wildlife. They are also blamed for depleting water and worsening wildfires.
Experts acknowledge that forest restoration and carbon sequestration are complex, and that commercial species have a role to play. People need timber, a renewable product with a lower carbon footprint than concrete or steel. They need paper and fuel for cooking.
Understand the Latest News on Climate Change
Planting fast-growing species for harvest can sometimes help preserve surrounding native forests. And, by strategically adding native species, tree farms can help biodiversity by creating wildlife corridors to link disconnected habitat areas.
“This restoration movement can’t happen without the private sector,” said Michael Becker, head of communications at 1t.org, a group created by the World Economic Forum to push for the conservation and growth of one trillion trees with help from private investment. “Historically, there have been bad actors, but we need to bring them into the fold and doing the right thing.”
A challenge is that helping biodiversity doesn’t offer the financial return of carbon storage or timber markets.
Many governments have set standards for reforestation efforts, but they often provide broad leeway.
In Wales, one of the most deforested countries in Europe, the government is offering incentives for tree planting. But growers need only include 25 percent native species to qualify for government subsidies. In Kenya and Brazil, rows of eucalyptus grow on land that was once ecologically rich forest and savanna. In Peru, a company called Reforesta Perú is planting trees on degraded Amazonian land, but it’s increasingly using cloned eucalyptus and teak, intended for export.
Investors prefer them because they bring better prices, said Enrique Toledo, general manager of Reforesta Perú. “They are well-known species internationally and there is an unsatisfied demand for wood.”
When researchers from University College London and the University of Edinburgh evaluated national commitments toward reforestation and restoration, they found that 45 percent involved “planting vast monocultures of trees as profitable enterprises.”
‘The Same Species All Over the World’
When businesses promise to plant a tree for every purchase of a given product, they typically do so via nonprofit groups that work with communities around the world. The support may reforest after wildfires or provide fruit and nut trees to farmers. But even these projects can compromise biodiversity.
The planet is home to nearly 60,000 tree species, and about a third are threatened with extinction — mainly from agriculture, grazing and exploitation — a recent report found. But globally, only a tiny fraction of species are widely planted, according to tree planting groups and scientists.
“They’re planting the same species all over the world,” said Meredith Martin, an assistant professor of forestry at North Carolina State University who found that nonprofit tree planting efforts in the tropics tend to prioritize the livelihood needs of people over biodiversity or carbon storage. Over time, she said, these efforts risk-reducing biodiversity in forests.
Nonprofit tree planting groups often say they plant nonnative species because local communities ask for them. But deeper engagement can yield a different story, said Susan Chomba, who oversees forest restoration and conservation in Africa for the World Resources Institute, a global research nonprofit group. When given the chance to consider what they want to accomplish on their land, farmers will recall, for instance, that when they had more trees, they also had streams, she said. They want the water back.
“Then you say, ‘In your traditional, local knowledge, what kind of tree species are suitable for returning water into the ecosystem?’” Dr. Chomba continued. “They will give you a whole range of indigenous tree species.”
A major hurdle is the lack of supply at local seed banks, which tend to be dominated by popular commercial species. Some groups overcome this problem by paying people to collect seeds from nearby forests.
Another solution, experts say, is to let forests come back on their own. If the area is only lightly degraded or sits near an existing forest, a method called natural regeneration can be cheaper and more effective. Simply fencing off certain areas from grazing will often allow trees to return, with both carbon sequestration and biodiversity built-in.
“Nature knows much more than we do,” Dr. Chazdon said.
Trees have always migrated to survive. But now they need help to avoid climate catastrophe.
I drove to Oregon because I wanted to see the future. Our rapidly changing climate vexes me, keeps me up at night—perhaps you’ve felt this, too—and recently I’d become particularly preoccupied with trees. In California, where I live, climate change helped kill nearly 62 million trees in 2016 alone, and last year, 4.2 million acres of our state burned. I wanted to know what was in store for our forests and, because we humans rely on them for so much—for clean air, for carbon sequestration, for biodiversity, for habitat, for lumber and money, for joy—what was in store for us.
I’d read about a group of scientists who were not only studying the calamities befalling our forests but also working to help the trees migrate in advance of coming doom. So in May, I headed to a 3-and-a-half-acre stand of roughly 1,000 Douglas firs at a US Forest Service nursery outside of Medford. The grove was situated in a wide valley in the southwestern corner of the state, nestled between the Cascades to the east and the Coast Range to the west. Brad St. Clair, a Forest Service scientist who has studied the genetic adaptation of trees for more than two decades, met me by the road. He’s short and rugged as if built for adventuring and tending to the lives of trees, and he arrived in a souped-up Sprinter van loaded with an armory of outdoor gear. In 2009, he and his team planted this and eight other stands of firs after they’d gathered seeds from 60 tree populations all over Washington, Oregon, and California and grown them into seedlings in a greenhouse. The seeds were sourced from as high as 5,400 feet in the Sierras and as low as the coast, from Mendocino County, California, all the way north to Central Washington, and were planted in intermixed clusters at each of the nine sites to see how they would fare in a hotter, drier climate than the ones they’d come from. In other words, to see if they’d make it in the future.
Douglas fir, a tall, narrow-trunked evergreen often dragged indoors for Christmas, is a favorite of foresters and logging companies because of its combination of strength, fast growth, and pliability. It can also withstand a change in climate of about 4 degrees Fahrenheit without much trouble. But global average temperatures have already risen by almost 3 degrees since the 1900s, and all models predict average temperatures to blow through the 4-degree threshold in the next several decades, perhaps rising above 7 degrees by the end of the century.
In the wide, flat expanse of the nursery, the firs were rimmed by fallow land on all sides. St. Clair instructed me to put on safety glasses, and then ducked down, pushed aside the outermost branches, and slipped into the trees. I followed him. Within two steps, there we were in a veritable, dense forest as if an enchanted wardrobe had been pulled open to reveal a world transformed. On the periphery, it had been hot, but here, as we moved through the dapple, it was cool and fragrant with pine.
A sign mounted on a PVC pipe marked the provenance of the cluster of trees we stood beneath. They came, St. Clair explained, from the Oregon Siskiyou, a dry zone at only slightly higher elevation than where we were today. This is why they were doing so well: Their native climate wasn’t so different from Medford’s. As we moved on, the trees, while still lush and full, grew shorter. Because this next batch was from up in the Cascades, he pointed out, at an elevation far higher than where we stood, the trees were somewhat stunted in this new habitat and couldn’t grow as tall. We kept walking, and after a while the trees grew taller again, looming three times my height before breaking into the sky. These trees also came from climates that were dry like Medford, and so found here a happy home—at least for now.
We ducked and trudged through the lower thickets of the healthy trees until we suddenly emerged from the woods onto what I can only describe as an arboreal apocalypse—an open tangle of dead branches, brown and brittle, like an upright graveyard. These ill-fated trees, St. Clair said, had come from the Oregon coast, where it is far wetter. While they’d done okay in the first three years of the study, they just couldn’t make it in the long term. “As the climate warms,” St. Clair said, looking around and pointing up to a dead fir with his walking stick, “you’re going to see more of this.”
The future of forests is a grim one—too grim for some of us to bear. By 2030, 75 percent of redwoods will disappear from some of their coastal California habitats. In some climate scenarios, almost none of the namesake species in Joshua Tree National Park will exist. Sea level change is creating ghost forests all along the Eastern Seaboard—already, less than a third of New Jersey’s Atlantic white cedar habitat remains.
Like humans, forests have always migrated for their survival, with new trees growing in more hospitable directions and older trees dying where they are no longer best suited to live. The problem now is that they simply can’t move fast enough. The average forest migrates at a rate of roughly 1,640 feet each year, but to outrun climate change, it must move approximately 9,800 to 16,000 feet—up to 10 times as fast. And in most habitats, the impact of highways, suburban sprawl, and megafarms prevent forests from expanding much at all. Forests simply cannot escape climate change by themselves.
Back in 1992, forest geneticists F. Thomas Ledig and J.H. Kitzmiller coined the term “assisted species migration” in a seminal study in the journal Forest Ecology and Management. Since then, hundreds of biologists and geneticists like St. Clair have been studying how best to move forests in advance of their looming destruction. To do so requires a complex set of mapping and experiments—understanding, for instance, what climate trees are best suited to grow in, what region will most closely resemble that same climate in, say, 50 years, and what adaptations best ensure that a tree will take root and flourish, build symbiosis with the soil fungi, and not end up a mere matchstick awaiting the next mega fire.
St. Clair is something of an assisted migration evangelist, a firm believer that we need to move tree populations, and fast if we want to keep apace. But due to bureaucratic logjams and a fervent commitment to planting native species, there’s very little assisted migration in the United States— unlike in Canada, where the practice has been adopted with more urgency in recent years. St. Clair and other Forest Service scientists are working to transform assisted migration from a mere research subject to a standard management strategy in our vast, imperiled public lands.
We finished our walk through St. Clair’s baby forest, making our way back to the cars along its outer edges. “The future is terrifying,” I told him. He understood what I meant, he said.
During the talks he gives about his research, he likes to show an image from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, in which the Red Queen charges forward with her crown and sturdy scepter, pulling frenzied Alice along in her wake. He had the slide printed out and handed it to me as we walked. “Now, here, you see,” the Red Queen says to Alice, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
“So that’s what we gotta do,” he told me, pointing to the Red Queen. “We gotta run.”
While assisted migration is a relatively new concept, the movement of forests is as old as trees themselves. Since they first evolved, trees have been shifting north and south, east and west, up and down in elevation as the climate has changed. Forests outran the frost as an ice age set in, and as the ice began melting, they darted back the other way, traversing mountain ranges and unfurling themselves across continents—moving, sentiently, toward climatic conditions that suited their ability to grow and produce the trees of the future.
Of course, while forests move, individual trees can’t. “They are stuck where they are,” explained Jessica Wright, a senior Forest Service scientist based in Davis, California, who studies conservation genetics. Trees must try to survive in whatever environment they land in. And yet, Peter Wohlleben writes in The Hidden Life of Trees, while every tree has to stay put, “it can reproduce, and in that brief moment when the tree embryos are still packed into seeds, they are free.” The seed sets forth, as Zach St. George chronicles in The Journeys of Trees, carried by the wind or in the belly of a blue jay or stuffed in the cheek of a squirrel, toward its destiny. If it is among the luckiest, it will find a hospitable home and carry the forest forward. Because seeds will only take root in areas suited to their growth, forests tend to move in the direction of their future survival.
Unlike humans, most trees are long-life species, ranging from the yellow birch, which lives roughly 150 years, to the bristlecone pine, the oldest known of which is nearly 5,000 years old. Forests are the trees’ complex civilization, functioning not unlike human cities: a community of beings that talk to one another and organize and defend themselves and create offspring and bid farewell to their dead. In this way and many others, recent research has revealed, trees are spellbinding, rife for anthropomorphism. They tend to live in interdependent networks, like families, where, with the help of symbiotic fungi, scientists like Suzanne Simard have discovered, they care for their sick, feed one another, and, like a mutual aid society, share resources with those in need. Trees of the same species—and sometimes even those across species—tend to respect one another’s personal space, shifting their growth patterns so that everyone gets enough sunlight. Trees are also adept community organizers who know how to band together to crowd out competitor trees and guard against other threats. When a pest comes, trees can issue chemical warnings to one another so they can launch their defenses. Trees can also register pain. Scientists have found that their root networks, which work with the underworld organisms of fungal mycelia, seem to hold intergenerational knowledge, like a collective brain. Read enough about the mesmerizing science of trees and one begins to feel certain that, if humans behaved like a healthy forest, we’d be far better off—and that we wouldn’t be in our current climate mess in the first place.
Left to their own devices, forests migrate on a near-geologic scale. But people have been moving trees for our own purposes for thousands of years. We’ve done this in small doses, such as planting trees in city gardens or backyards for shade and aesthetic delight, or planting a wall of cypress along a tract of farmland to block the wind. We’ve also moved trees on a far more substantial scale, to a range of outcomes. While apple trees originated in Central Asia, early settlers brought seeds to the Americas and infamously scattered them throughout what is now the United States, where apple pie is now both a signature dessert and a cultural symbol.
Such interventions haven’t always panned out so well: In 1895, the emperor of Ethiopia ordered the planting of fast-growing eucalyptus trees imported from Australia so people would have abundant firewood. But the thirsty eucalyptus crowded out existing trees, and parched once-fertile farmlands. (Eucalyptus trees are also invasive transplants in California, though they have also become critical nesting habitat for the threatened monarch butterfly—the web of interconnectivity is a tangled one.) And in 1904, US foresters began planting Japanese chestnuts to cultivate for wood, which brought chestnut blight to their North American cousins ill-equipped to fight the fungus; by 1940, most adult chestnuts were gone. The movement of trees, scientists caution, must be done with extreme care—and based on history, many are hesitant to do it for fear of throwing off the delicate balance of an existing landscape.Three Ways Humans Move Forests»»
Assisted Population Migration Trees or their seeds are moved from one place where they traditionally grow to a new place that’s also within the historical range of their species. Not only is this considered the least risky type of assisted migration; it’s also the one that scientists in the United States and Canada have tested out the most.
Assisted Range Expansion Think of this as sylvan sprawl: To increase the area currently inhabited by a given species, scientists plant it beyond its traditional boundaries—farther than where it would have otherwise naturally lived. Because range expansion introduces new trees to places they’ve never lived, there is some risk of disturbing the balance of the new habitat.
Assisted Species Migration Species are transported from their native habitat to regions where they’ve never lived—or haven’t for millennia. The risk here is substantial: These invasive species could weaken or wipe out native ones, but it might be the only chance for trees in critical need of a lifeboat.
Illustrations by Brown Bird Design
Proponents of assisted migration claim that this balance has already been upended by climate change. They also stress that assisted migration is an umbrella term for a range of activities, some way more far-reaching than others. The most drastic intervention is known as assisted species migration, which transplants species of trees from places where they naturally occur to faraway places where they do not. Then there’s assisted range expansion, which plants trees slightly outside their naturally occurring territory. The strategy involving the least human intervention is known as assisted population migration, which, like St. Clair’s studies of Douglas fir, plants trees of a single species with certain adaptations to a new location where other members of that same species already live. Most scientists advocate the latter two strategies and consider the first one too extreme.
So how to safely move a population to a new habitat—and to know how far to do it, and how fast? “If I knew the answer to that,” Forest Service scientist Kas Dumroese told me, “I’d have the Nobel Prize.” To find out which plants are best suited to which environments, scientists tend to use something called the Common Garden Study, which, like the artificial forest I visited in Oregon, plants flora from a wide range of locations—and thus adapted to a range of conditions—on a single plot to study their response and growth patterns. What scientists have found in most assisted migration garden studies is that the trees that do best are those whose parents and ancestors thrived in similar terrain.
If you move a population of trees adapted to a particular climate too slowly, it’s bound to succumb to the hotter, drier conditions brought on by climate change. But move it too fast to a colder, wetter climate, and the trees might fall victim to too much frost, or to root rot in damp conditions that make them vulnerable to pests. Shifting trees that can handle midcentury climate projections—so new forests are adapted to the temperatures of roughly 2040 to 2070—seems to be the Goldilocks balance that will ensure a population’s survival.
But there are other important considerations, including the symbiotic relationship between soil fungi and trees. Simard, the author of the recent bestselling book Finding the Mother Tree, explains that, while trees will likely find some symbiotic mycelium as long as they are moved within their species’ existing range, that mycelium might not be the best adapted for their needs. Trees can’t be seen as growing in isolation, but need to be considered in terms of the overall health and relationships of a larger ecosystem. “There’s a lot we don’t know,” she told me. Assisted migration “is risky, but, you know, we also have no choice. We have to start experimenting with this. We have to start moving things around and watching and seeing how they do.”
The Forest Service scientists who study assisted migration couldn’t agree more, and they hope that the agency’s forest managers will start using this strategy in actual forests. Despite decades of research, the Forest Service has rarely put assisted migration into practice, in part due to some foresters’ and scientists’ resistance to moving trees outside their agreed-upon range. In the 1930s, the Forest Service created the idea of seed zones—mapping the landscape into areas “within which plant materials can be transferred with little risk of being poorly adapted to their new location,” as the agency states on its website. Ever since, forest managers have stayed loyal to these zones when selecting seeds for planting.
While assisted migration isn’t strictly prohibited by the Forest Service Manual and its accompanying handbooks—the official policy documents that, as Forest Service land manager Andy Bower explains, guide “every aspect” of how the agency operates—it isn’t encouraged, either. Last fall, Bower, St. Clair, and five other forest geneticists in the Forest Service proposed changes to the manual that include assisted population migration and, in some cases, slight range expansion, as forestry strategies. If their recommendations are accepted, it could drastically accelerate the use of assisted migration nationwide.
The Forest Service doesn’t have to look far for an example of a country taking a more aggressive tack: Canada is substantially ahead of the United States in research and implementation of assisted migration. This is, in part, a result of urgency. In the early aughts, aided by worsening climate change, lodgepole pine forests were devastated by invasive bark beetles and massive wildfires. This was also true in the United States, but when it happened in Canada, the country acted far more aggressively. “It was huge,” Greg O’Neill, a scientist working for the Canadian Forest Service, told me, “like they got hit by a sledgehammer. It really woke up the forestry community.” The Forest Service of British Columbia launched the Assisted Migration Adaptation Trial, or AMAT, in 2009, planting roughly 153,000 trees to see how each would fare in different climates. With more than a decade of results, they have begun to use this data to reforest areas that have been logged or burned.
This is not to say that the method should become the land management strategy in all or even most scenarios. Moving species across a landscape in response to climate change, Dumroese says, should be undertaken according to the Hippocratic Oath. “We’re talking about making some decisions that have some implications that we may not understand or even be recognized for 100 years,” he said, “or even longer.”
One of the troubles with assisted migration is that it’s difficult to know what future climate to plan for. Human choices are hard to predict. The adoption of a Green New Deal, for instance, would significantly affect climate modeling, as would the reelection of Donald Trump in 2024 or the continued reign of Amazon-destroying Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
But even in the most optimistic of climate scenarios, the forests need to get moving, from south to north, from lowlands to highlands, so that our landscapes remain populated with trees.
“It’s almost like we have this temporal-centric view of nature,” O’Neill said. “A lot of people view climate change as something that’s going to happen, not something that has already happened.” And though all trees can generally survive a change of 4 degrees Fahrenheit in either direction, O’Neill reminds me that 2.7 degrees—the amount that the climate has already warmed in the past century—is a cataclysmic change of circumstances from a tree’s perspective. Seen this way, he said, “these trees are already a long way from home.” If all we do is help them get back to the kinds of habitats they’d lived in before the climate began to change so rapidly, he added, “I think we’ll be doing a great service.”
In May, a few weeks before driving to Oregon, I accompanied Forest Service scientist Jessica Wright from her research station in the Sierra Nevada foothills up Route 50 and into the mountains of the Eldorado National Forest, one of the most ecologically diverse tracts of land in California, spanning nearly 1 million acres. The road wound us upward into the rolling expanse of the Sierras, where towering green pines spread in all directions. Such sights always reminded me of the state’s largesse, and I used to find them transcendental: the sanctity of open space, the vastness of the landscape a mirror for the vastness of the human spirit. But now, this feeling is accompanied by a twin coil of fear. Fire. Those trees are exquisite fuel, and it all feels doomed to burn.
We turned onto a dirt road and knocked our way through the forest. After a few minutes, the trees thinned; the lowest branches of ponderosa pines and Douglas firs were charred, and the blackened sticks of former trees pointed skyward like bayonets. The road took us to an open clearing, bare and treeless like a wound. This was the site of the King Fire, which destroyed roughly 250 square miles of the central Sierra foothills in 2014, and it was only now, seven years later, looking green again.
A few years back, Wright started talking to a Forest Service program manager named Dana Walsh about the prospect of an assisted migration research trial on a tract of land that Walsh oversaw—and they decided to plant along this 12-acre patch that had burned. In the winter of 2019, they sowed their 1,200 trees sourced from 24 origin populations. Their hope is to convince other forest managers that assisted migration can be used to replant burned forests in the future—instead of reforesting strictly with local seeds. And several Forest Service scientists, including Wright and St. Clair, are building new seed selection databases that map climate predictions with seed source adaptations, should assisted migration finally be put into practice in the States.
Wright, who has hip-length hair and seems equally at home sporting a hard hat and presenting at a conference, is particularly optimistic about the prospects of planting in burn zones. If a forest will be replanted anyway, why plant what was already there and burned, when we can reforest these burn sites—which have grown all the more common, and so much bigger—with trees that will be better suited to that future in 30 to 50 years? A stressed forest brings diseases and pests, which kill trees, offering more kindling to burn. The healthier a forest, the less likely it is to catch fire.
Assisted migration “is risky, but, you know, we also have no choice.
We have to start experimenting with this.
We have to start moving things around and watching and seeing how they do.”
Burn zones, like this one seen from a drone in California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest, offer a unique opportunity to create the forests of the future. As assisted migration has gained more traction, researchers believe burn zones are prime spots to plant trees that will be adapted for the warmer climates of the middle of the century—and beyond.
Along 12 acres of the King Fire site, Wright and her team had planted two kinds of pine: ponderosa—which grow up to 200 feet tall with thick, striated bark—and a type of sugar pine resistant to white pine blister rust, a fungus decimating western sugar pines. To mimic nature, the trees had been planted somewhat willy-nilly along the hillside, as they would grow in the wild. We walked along the planting site, where I tried to spot the trees; at only two years old, the saplings were not much higher than my ankle. Some hadn’t made it at all, and some were still slight wisps of life, while others were growing strong and burly.
I asked Wright what she made of the differences in growth. She laughed.
“It’s too early to say,” Wright told me.
But weren’t they impatient, I wanted to know? I was. Why was this tree, on the lower slope, doing so beautifully, its tiny trunk much thicker than the rest, its needles skewering outward like porcupine quills, its yellow-green buds promising new growth?
Wright countered that it’s not until about 10 years into a study that the data starts to be meaningful. “That’s when I start to believe it,” she said. So many things could happen between now and then, and early growth might not end up meaning much. After all, those dead Douglas firs that had so rattled me in Oregon had done great the first few years of the study.
We found some shade under the trees that had survived the 2014 fire, and sat down for lunch. To consider the future of forests is to slip into a timeline so abstract that it’s hard to conceive, but scientists like Wright are in it for the long haul, imagining a lifespan far beyond their own.
“I won’t see this big tall forest we’re planting now,” she said. Her kid might see it, or perhaps her grandkid. Tending to any kind of future is a gesture of optimism, she concedes, particularly such a distant one. “But I’m good with that.”
As a member of the living, it can be difficult to understand how unlikely it is, statistically speaking, to become alive. A healthy beech tree, explains Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees, will produce roughly 1.8 million beechnuts in its lifetime. “From these, exactly one will develop into a full-grown tree,” he writes, “and in forest terms, that is a high rate of success, similar to winning the lottery.”
For Joshua trees, the odds of successful reproduction are even longer. For a Joshua tree to be born—a tree that lives in far starker conditions than the beech—its mother has to flower and seed when it reaches sexual maturity. The seed, which resembles a flat puck of black putty smaller than a dime, has to find a home conducive to its germination and bloom. That’s hard enough in the dry expanse of the desert, and harder still as the landscape warms. Its best-case scenario is to find its way to a spot beneath a nurse shrub or blackbrush, where it can germinate protected from the chomp of roving jackrabbits. It would particularly benefit from finding a spot atop a symbiotic soil fungus that lurks beneath the sandy loam and can help the baby Joshua tree grow. If the tree makes it past the perils of early life, it needs another 30 to 60 years before it’s ready to reproduce. Then it would rely on the yucca moth to pollinate it; otherwise, it won’t bear fruit. Then and only then, after this confounding and unlikely gauntlet has been run, will a Joshua tree be able to set seed, the whole tenuous cycle repeating itself.
Scientists have mapped Joshua tree survival against the most dire climatic conditions—i.e., if humans continue at our current rate of consumption and emission—and found that by the year 2100, essentially zero Joshua tree habitat will remain in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, even for trees that are already among the most drought-tolerant.
Lynn Sweet, a plant ecologist who studies Joshua trees at the University of California, Riverside, told me that her team calculated that, under more mitigated scenarios in which carbon emissions were reduced, “we could preserve up to 20 percent or so of habitat in the park and the surroundings,” assuming the moth and mycelium make it in this scenario, too.
When it comes to conservation efforts, humans most often think of the forests most dear to them—the places they grew up visiting, the places where they got married or take their beloved weekend hikes, the national parks known for their iconic trees. These places—Sequoia National Park, Olympic, Muir Woods, the Everglades—loom large in our collective consciousness. “I often joke with reporters,” Sweet told me, “that no one is coming out to do a climate change article on the blackbrush bush,” an equally imperiled species in the desert.
Joshua Tree National Park is central on my personal map of sacred places. It was the first place I went backpacking as a kid, the first place I slept under the stars, and a place I’ve returned to again and again to reattune with the world. The Joshua tree’s silhouette is imprinted on many significant memories throughout my life—these are trees I really, really, really want to survive.
After getting vaccinated last spring, I headed down for a few days in search of desert light and those fabled trees. I drove from the south end of Joshua Tree to the north, moving through a low, flat valley where Joshua trees and cholla clustered in mighty, baffling stands. The Joshua trees here in the valley looked healthy enough, but botanists know better: Look closely, they told me, and you’ll see there are no young sprouting among the noble elders. This was a forest of childless parents, living their final days as the last of their kind to call that spot their home.
Sweet had directed me to visit Black Rock Canyon, where the healthiest of Joshua trees were now finding space to grow. Here we were at a higher elevation than the park’s sweeping flatlands, meaning it was cooler and slightly wetter. “They’re essentially running uphill,” she told me, on an intergenerational march toward higher ground. I took a long solo hike through these highlands where hundreds of Joshuas stood. The trees were lovely to behold from all angles, like benevolent apparitions from some absurdist underworld. But the best view was from above: beholding all those Joshua trees across the valley floor that were thriving, surrounded by their young, with room still to move upward. The problem with up is there’s only so far to go before it’s just sky.
The living will do whatever they need to survive. In the apocalyptic grove near Medford, I had seen one desiccated former tree whose branches were covered in hundreds of cones still affixed to it like Christmas ornaments. St. Clair explained that this behavior was normal enough for a tree in distress. Sensing it will die, the tree bursts forth into cones in a frantic final act of hope: not so much for itself, but for its species.
I left the desert like I’d left Oregon, having seen what I’d come to see: the future. There wasn’t a single version of it, but many. Another quote St. Clair likes to share is by the late forester and politician Gifford Pinchot: “The vast possibilities of our great future will become realities only if we make ourselves responsible for that future.” If we look into the crystal ball, we see ourselves peering back at us in search of answers to the same questions.
The paper T. Qiu et al., “Is there tree senescence? The fecundity evidence,” PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.2106130118, 2021.
According to Duke University ecologist James Clark, many researchers think that, given the right conditions, trees can generally continue to grow for a very long time, producing more seeds all the while. But the common agricultural practice of replacing fruit and nut trees every few decades to avoid declining yields belies this dogma, he points out. “Nobody who’s trying to produce seeds or nuts for a profession would rip out their trees and plant new ones if they didn’t have to.”
To get to the root of this apparent contradiction, Clark and a team of more than 60 researchers from 12 countries embarked on a massive undertaking: analyzing a long-term plant monitoring database to analyze the relationship between tree size (which they used as a proxy for age) and seed production in more than half a million trees representing nearly 600 species.
The researchers found that although seed output, or fecundity, initially increased dramatically with tree size across all species, there was a point where fecundity started to decline in 63 percent of the species they studied, while in another 17 percent, the rate of fecundity instead plateaued at a certain size. In the remaining 20 percent, there appeared to be no negative effect of tree size on fecundity, although the authors note this could have been due to the difficulty in finding larger members of those species.
Because the team didn’t have access to data on tree age, it’s impossible to know whether the observed decrease in fecundity was due to aging or to some other aspect of their large size, says plant physiologist Sergi Munné-Bosch at the University of Barcelona, who was not involved with the study. Nevertheless, “it’s amazing to collect such huge amounts of data,” he says, adding that “having almost 600 species is a treasure.”
RICHMOND, VA – In the fall of 2022, Henrico County Public School (HCPS) students will make nature their classroom – on land protected by Capital Region Land Conservancy (CRLC). The School District announced the establishment of a new Center for Environmental Science and Sustainability anchored at Varina High School at a School Board meeting in August and entered into a memorandum of understanding with CRLC. Applications for the new program were accepted until January 10th.
The Center will provide students with a unique opportunity to expand their understanding of environmental stewardship through student-centered learning, community partnerships, and foundational academic knowledge. The goals of the new Center are to utilize the broader community as a context for learning, encourage interdisciplinary instruction, incorporate experiential learning that fosters collaborative, creative, and critical thinking skills, implement environmental service-learning projects, and to allow students to earn college credits and credentials. As one of several sites where students will have outdoor access, CRLC’s recently acquired 353 acres near Deep Bottom and Four Mile Creek will provide an environmentally and historically rich location with abundant opportunities for experiential and place-based learning.
“The innovative learning opportunities created by this partnership are boundless. CRLC’s property offers a rich landscape for hands-on learning about sustainability, environmental science, and stewardship,” said Amy Cashwell, Superintendent of Henrico County Public Schools. “We are fortunate to have a visionary school board, board of supervisors, and community partners who understand and embrace the immense possibilities when learning extends beyond the traditional classroom.”
CRLC Land Holdings LLC, a single-member, wholly-owned subsidiary of Capital Region Land Conservancy, received the Deep Bottom property in May 2021 as the result of a generous donation from the prior landowner, Randy Welch. The conservation easements protecting the property, recorded in 2017 and 2018, will remain enforced. The property boasts over 400 feet of frontage along the James River, 1.3 miles along Four Mile Creek, 3,700 feet along Roundabout Creek, and contains more than 75 acres of wetlands and riparian buffer within a resource protection zone. The land contains 173 acres of prime farmland and 57 acres of soils of statewide significance. Deep Bottom’s historical significance is equally impressive. There are documented historic resources associated with the Battles of First Deep Bottom, Second Deep Bottom, and New Market Heights in which the U.S. Colored Troops fought. With all these values protected, CRLC’s land makes for a perfect campus to explore many of the great natural and historic resources of eastern Henrico County.
“While the property was already protected by conservation easements, taking ownership of it affords us a greater opportunity to enhance connections to the land through meaningful, site-specific immersive learning for our youth and the general public,” said Parker C. Agelasto, CRLC’s Executive Director.
Since August, CRLC has convened HCPS representatives along with representatives of Henrico Education Foundation, Henricopolis Soil & Water Conservation District, James River Association, National Park Service, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond Audubon Society, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Department of Forestry to begin envisioning the possible educational uses of the property. Funding provided through the Upper and Middle James Riparian Consortium ($10,000) as well as the James River Buffer Program of the Virginia Department of Forestry ($22,000) has allowed CRLC to initiate the restoration of 9 acres of important forest buffer which will enhance water quality and habitat. Students could study these improvements in water quality, forest succession, native grass propagation, migratory bird breeding and stopover habitat, and more. These educational opportunities support the center’s goal for an integrated interdisciplinary approach to science, technology, and history.
“It feels good knowing that our work will enhance the riparian forest around the streams and river on the Deep Bottom property and will contribute to CRLC’s goals for nature-based education, especially around the role of trees in water quality protection,” said Deya Ramsden, Middle James River Forest Watershed Project Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Forestry.
In addition to the work of the Advisory Group to support the educational initiatives of the new Center for Environmental Science and Sustainability anchored at Varina High School, CRLC is working on a land management plan for the property. Funding for the plan is provided in part by a $23,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, a fund generated from the sale of Chesapeake Bay license plates at the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The plan for the property will include the interpretation of the property’s historic resources, maintaining and/or improving the ecological health of the plant communities found there, and providing for quality recreational opportunities for the public that also educates them regarding the history and ecology of the site. The plan will promote healthy ecosystems and clean water mitigating threats to the various sensitive features of the property. For example, the entire 353 acres fall within the National Audubon Society’s Lower James River Important Bird Area and with the right management, goals can support many migratory species. Future public access for outdoor recreation may include camping, hiking, bird watching, orienteering, geocaching, and other potential uses which are compatible with ecological goals.
About Capital Region Land Conservancy (CRLC): Incorporated in March 2005 as a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, CRLC seeks to conserve and protect the natural and historic land and water resources of Virginia’s Capital Region for the benefit of current and future generations. CRLC is the only non-profit organization devoted specifically to the conservation of land within the capital region serving the City of Richmond and the Counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent, and Powhatan. CRLC educates landowners about voluntary land protection tools, facilitates the process of donating conservation easements, and holds or co-holds conservation easements. CRLC is accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, an independent program of the Land Trust Alliance. CRLC has helped protect more than 13,000 acres that includes fee simple ownership of 460 acres as well as easements on more than 2,300 acres.