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For the past six months I have been working on a “sustainable,” organic sugar bush. In that time I have seen a number of impacts, which seem like a necessary consequence of our activities, that certainly appear to impact the landscape. However, the industry maintains that when tapping is done right, the impact to the trees should be negligible and the woods should be preserved. In fact, one of the aspects my company brags about, is that the woods have been preserved from logging and development. While clearing the woods for logging or development may be more obviously impactful, there are still aspects of the process which should be more deeply investigated before we can call the industry sustainable.

 

The first (and probably most noticeable) impact which should be examined is the use of plastic piping to convey the sap down the mountain. Best practices suggest that the 5/16″ lateral lines be replaced every five years, drop lines every three to five years and one inch branches every ten to fifteen years. The plastic can sometimes be melted down and reused, but it is uncommon to see recycling of these materials on a large scale as of yet. Considering that we’ve used tens of thousands of feet of one inch piping and possibly hundreds of thousands of feet of 5/16″ lateral line, we are certainly creating untold tons of plastic waste, every few years. The University of Vermont claims that as many as 88 tons of maple tubing are replaced in the Vermont woods, per year, as of 2009. This number is surely higher by now, given that there are many more large producers taking up residence in the state. UVM then predicted that sugarmakers would make progress in recycling in the years to follow, and they have, but to what degree is not yet clear, and there is certainly still a large amount of waste being produced.

 

Waste is not the only question raised, when we consider sustainability in this industry. There is also the question of tree health. The industry claims that when tapped properly, sugaring should have no negative impact to the health of the tree, or at least negligible impact. Producers have been using smaller tap sizes to reduce the amount of dead transport wood created in the tree, but they have also started using vacuum systems to create a pressure differential, tricking trees into thinking their is higher atmospheric pressure, and thus that it is an appropriate time for sap to run. The impacts of vacuum are still an open question, as far as how trees are impacted. On a basic level, the vacuum has allowed syrup producers to collect more sap per tap. This alone should be a red flag. Trees use the sap we wish to collect to build new structures each spring. This includes the leaves needed to photosynthesize and reproductive organs. The greater the sap we succeed in pulling from the tree, the less it has for itself. While research done by UVM would suggest that there are no known impacts, it seems obvious that there must be at least some detrimental effects, and that perhaps we just aren’t seeing them yet.

 

Furthermore, there is the open question as to whether the scarring is expanded by draining more of the tree’s transport wood. In experiments conducted by UVM, the trees subjected vacuum did not show statistically significant impacts, compared to those tapped with gravity. I would consider the results of the 2007 study to be inconclusive and requiring further investigation. I would hypothesize that trees subjected to multiple years of 25″ Hg of vacuum would show advanced scarring, compared to gravity taps of the same size, but there is no available data yet.

 

Finally, sugar bushes fragment habitat, in woodlands considered by the companies tapping maple trees to be “conserved.” The larger the sugarbush, the more infrastructure and development is necessary to get the sap out. First roads are needed to make the installation possible. Second, branches are often cleared of brush to make the installation of one inch pipe and main lines easier. The installation of tubing further fragments the woods. Many involved in the installation of sugaring infrastructure anecdotally claim the impacts on wildlife to be negligible, but this seems highly unlikely. The use of noisy machinery like chainsaws and ATVs disturb wildlife and often chase them from the immediate area. The infrastructure installation fragments the areas where animals need contiguous habitat to range.

 

Study has been done on how sugarbush management compares with biodiversity management standards. However, there seems to be an open research question in verifying whether the practices in use are, in fact, impacting habitat. Simply using observed control species-area relationships vs. experimental species area relationships on sugarbushes could help to answer this question.

 

While the industry continues to claim it is operating in an environmentally sustainable manner, I feel there are many open research questions that need to be resolved before we can use the term sustainable. My hope is that research institutions like UVM will continue to investigate these questions, and that best practices can be improved within the industry. It will take cooperation between the private industry, research institution and governmental regulatory agencies to advance the cause of sustainability.

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A thicket of Japanese knotweed. Citation: Tom Heutte, USDA Forest Service, www.invasives.org

A thicket of Japanese knotweed. Citation: Tom Heutte, USDA Forest Service, http://www.invasives.org

 

Fallopia Japonica – known commonly to the conservation community as Japanese Knotweed is an invasive riparian zone plant. Infestations of knotweed typically invade disturbed areas along streams and rivers and can quickly become overwhelming. What is more, the extensive underground root network make complete irradiation quite a task. Knotweed infestations are notorious for taking numerous years of persistent efforts to control.

 

Not only is knotweed difficult to control once it gains a foothold, it is finding an easier route to gaining a foothold in recent years, especially in the north country, where washouts have been occurring with greater frequency than ever before. As more and more of the region has become developed, farm fields, roads and other structures have come to abut with the water’s edge, removing critical riparian habitat. Furthermore, when the streams overflow their banks, they often carry the plant material away from the edge, as soil erodes in the turbulent waters.

 

Riparian buffers are critical habitat. For one, riparian root systems help to hold stream banks together during minor floods, and create a protective buffer for the more flood sensitive habitat beyond the flood plain. Knotweed, on the other hand, does little to hold banks together, and promotes erosion of stream banks to a much greater degree than our native riparian plants. Once erosion occurs, the most likely plant to return to the bank is the knotweed, (which in many cases exacerbated damaging floods in the first place).

 

The other important role for riparian habitat is that it helps to filter pollutants out of runoff, before they enter the water supply. This is a critical role in the Champlain Valley, where agricultural runoff is a huge problem.

 

In recent years, Lake Champlain has seen beach closures, and increased monitoring of drinking water intakes, due to blue-green algae blooms. The lake often sees elevated levels of the cyanobacteria, which can cause skin irritations, liver damage and neural tissue damage. The algae blooms are common on all larger bodies of water, but particularly in Lake Champlain the algae is aided by phosphorus in agricultural runoff.

 

In other watersheds, such as that of the Delaware Bay or the Gulf of Mexico, similar problems with agricultural runoff have led to agal blooms sucking oxygen out of the water, leading to oceanic dead zones, where fish life cannot survive. This may end up being the fate of Lake Champlain, if the algal blooms cannot be reigned in.

 

The issue illustrates the interconnectedness of watersheds. Extensive knotweed infestations upstream aid the entrance of agricultural fertilizers into the lake waters, by impacting the riparian buffer areas. To solve the algae problems, you have to solve the problem of disappearing riparian buffers and thus the infestations of knotweed. While a stream side infestation may not seem like a problem worth tackling aggressively, it affects both human health and the ecosystem health downstream. This is just one example of why it is immensely important to protect the ecosystem services provided to our watersheds by the healthy functioning of riparian buffers.

 

The easiest defense against knotweed is prevention. For farmers, this involves developing realistic buffers, rather than planting or grazing cattle up to the water’s edge. These buffers, once in place, also provide crop protection, on top of helping to outcompete aggressive knotweed infestations. Roads should also be planned to include a buffer area. Often times, in Vermont especially, roads are placed in stream valleys because it is the easiest, latest place for a road. However, as recent floods have shown, these sections of road often washout in floods, and are costly to repair. It is better, then, to take on the initial building expense, and build the roads in more sustainable locations, with hydrology better accounted for. Since riparian zones help to stabilize banks, this can also help to protect the roads from the periodic washouts.

 

As climate changes, and we see more and more deluges washing out the north country, it is ever more important to develop protective buffers that realistically consider the changing nature of streams. Flood plains and ephemeral wetlands need to be better accounted for, so that the floods that do occur will be less devastating to infrastructure.

 

If these best practices are more widely instituted, we will found ourselves more prepared for what is inevitable.

 

 

http://healthvermont.gov/enviro/bg_algae/weekly_status.aspx

http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/2015/07/14/warm-spell-triggers-cyanobacteria-alerts-in-lake-champlain/30131655/

http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/deadzone.html

 

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Many worried, going into COP 21, that we’d have a repeat of Copenhagen, where the world’s powers (especially the United States) drag their feet on making a deal, while some remain in complete denial of the problem. As the scientific consensus has grown stronger in the past decade, the American people still believe that there is a debate about the cause of climate change. While there is room for dissent in science, and the scientific community has occasionally been wrong, it is fair to say that there is next to no debate about what is causing climate change. The only remaining debate in the scientific community is over how bad warming is likely to be, (though most expect well over the targeted 2 degrees). As a result of the state of politics, many feared deadlock, and a refusal to acknowledge what the scientific community has had evidence of for more than 30 years, and has been sure of for probably the last 15.

With the state of politics the way they are, most admit that any deal, at all, is a victory. The United States has touted itself as a major leader on climate at COP 21, but it was, in fact, the United States that dragged its feet over many aspects of the deal being legally binding. For instance, the US pushed for monetary aid to nations afflicted by climate change to be voluntary, and for targeted emissions reductions to also be voluntary. This is likely a reflection of domestic politics, since congress passed a bill recently blocking any budgetary appropriations for climate change, and some republics have decried that attention be given to climate at all, in the wake of the Paris shootings. With this being the state of affairs, one cannot help but wonder if all the praise for a climate deal was the world’s leaders patting themselves on the back prematurely, simply for having come to any agreement at all…

Sure, the wording of the deal sounds nice.

Emphasizing with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre- industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre- industrial levels. [1]

But if this is merely a suggestion, how can we expect any party to consistently hold themselves to it. Furthermore, the United Nations has long been a governing body that lacks the authority necessary to actually make progress (on anything). If none of the agreement bears the weight of an international treaty, then how can we expect to raise the necessary $23 trillion necessary to wean the developing world off of carbon heavy energy sources?

If the deal had been legally binding, on the other hand, it would have never been approved by the US congress, leaving the world’s biggest per-capita carbon emitter out of the deal completely. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is largely just a legacy piece for the Obama administration, and means even less than Kyoto, which was also never passed into US law, and thus easily overturned by the Bush administration.

All of the “victories” of the climate deal will do absolutely nothing to change the way we live, and to preserve a planet that is clearly suffering at our hands. None of it address that we’ve already lost 1/3 of earth’s arable land, and that forest pests, fires and droughts are all already more common and more severe. The only “meaningful” victory was to prevent China and India from taking money from the developing nations fund, even as their economies continue to grow well beyond the bounds that would be defined as “developing.”

It seems, to me at least, that policy on the world scale is probably impossible in a democratic setting, and it has already gotten about 20 years behind the science thanks in part to a massive, multi-million dollar disinformation campaign, on the part of oil, coal and natural gas producers. We’ve already likely damned ourselves to the 2 degree rise many scientists consider the breaking point, beyond which the system will cease to function in the predictable manner we’ve come to rely on for our civilization, as a result of positive feedbacks we’ve introduced. (See bifurcation in complex systems). As far as I can tell, this “agreement” does little more than kick the can to the next conference, in the hope that the free market will decide to voluntarily take actions — which is ironic because climate change is by definition a market failure.

 

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Introduction:
Boreal forests represent the largest undisturbed eco-systems in the world, accounting for about a third of all forest cover, or 12 million square kilometers. About half of the Boreal Forest is undisturbed, primary forest. It is known for its vast expansive of conifers, (largely Spruce/Fir forests), but this biome also consists of bogs, fens and shallow lakes, which hold vast quantities of fresh water. Species that live in the Tiaga are specialized to withstand long winters, (for instance, the conical shape of Spruce trees, designed to shed snow and ice, or the snowshoe hare, which sheds its brown summer coat for a white winter one). Perhaps most impressive, however, is the role these forests play in the carbon cycle. Trees are known to uptake carbon through photosynthesis, and store it in their biomass as carbohydrates. The average carbon content is generally 50% of the tree’s total volume. Old growth forests, like those in the Boreal Forests, are capable of storing carbon for up to 800 years in the live mass of trees. Since Boreal Forests represent the largest portion of old growth forest, they are responsible for storing more carbon than any other biome at 703pg. The nearest biome is the Tropical Rainforest at 375pg. However, this living carbon sink is particularly vulnerable—first, because temperatures are rising faster in the adjacent arctic region, and second because a change of just 1.5 degrees Celsius would cause climate zones to migrate north at rate of 5 kilometers per year, far outpacing the migration rate of trees. Even if the biome could migrate quick enough, the carbon from dying trees in the southern extent of their range would release much of the carbon they have been responsible for storing, thus accelerating the greenhouse effect. This effect is consequential not just for the healthy functioning of the ecosystem, but also for the health of the entire planet.

I. The Boreal Biome:
The Boreal Forest is the northern most forest type, occurring just south of the Arctic Tundra, and transitioning from the northern hardwoods of the Temperate Broadleaf forests to the south. Boreal forests overlay areas formerly covered by glaciers and permafrost. The vegetative biodiversity is relatively limited, with most of the forest existing in patches of subclimax plant communities. The Boreal Forests of North America are primarily composed of Balsam and Douglas Fir, White and Black Spruce, Hemlock, Cedar and other conifers, but also include some populations of deciduous trees such as, Sugar Maple, Speckled Alder, Yellow and Paper Birch, White Ash and American Beech.

Winters are long in the Boreal Forest: typically up to six months of below freezing temperatures. The growing season is also very short: between only 50-100 days without frost. When the sun is near the horizon, during winter, the angle of incidence at which energy is received in the Boreal Forest is lower than it is in the tropics, causing more energy to be received by diffuse radiation as opposed to direct radiation. The species that live in this biome must develop adaptations in order to survive the strict economy of energy, during the winter. Many mammals are larger as a defense against the cold, and many hibernate through the coldest months to prevent starvation and freezing. While the nesting range of many bird species, like Cedar Waxwings, Red-winged Blackbirds, Hermit Thrushes, Boreal Chickadees and Common Loons, lie within the Boreal Forest, most migrate south for the winter. Conifers dominate the northern extent of the forest due to their adaptation to snow and ice loading. The broader shape of hardwoods make them more susceptible to ice loading, and the premature shift of sap from the roots to the trunk and branches in spring can cause the trees to crack in a late frost. However, conifers have capillaries that have evolved to be able to turn water movement on and off, depending on conditions. They also have stronger cell walls, and can better withstand ice expansion.

While the Boreal Forest may seem inhospitable, it is, in fact, a vital ecosystem. Between carbon capture and storage, water filtration, waste treatment, biodiversity maintenance, pest control and other services, the Boreal Forest provides ecosystem services estimated to be worth about $250 billion per year. The boreal forest has been described as “a giant carbon bank account.” Boreal Forests “store an estimated 67 billion (tons) of carbon in Canada alone – almost eight times the amount of carbon produced worldwide in year 2000.” Globally, the Boreal Forest contains about 1/3 of the world’s vegetation and soil carbon.

It is important to remember, however, that carbon uptake and carbon storage are vastly different, and the slow rate of primary production in the Boreal Forest acts as a limit to the forest’s ability remove carbon from the atmosphere at a rate that could combat our use of fossil fuels. That said, the destruction of the forest causes carbon that has been stored for hundreds of years to be released, acting as a positive feedback to global climate change. What is particularly disturbing about this fact is that the Boreal Forest may be in decline as a result of global climate change, as well as contributing to it.

II. The Effects of Climate Change on the Boreal Forest:
Boreal Forests are, by their very nature, extremely resilient. However, as the abstract to “Boreal Forest Health and Global Change” suggests, “(…) projected environmental changes of unprecedented speed and amplitude pose a substantial threat to their health.” Though the biome remains one of the largest on earth, “it faces the most severe expected temperature increases anywhere on Earth.” It is widely accepted that a warming of 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius would increase the risk of major vegetation changes, including the loss of heat sensitive species in the Boreal Forest.

As this 2010 report from the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station suggests, “One of the big uncertainties of the global climate change phenomena is what will happen to the trees.” Many optimistic foresters predict that increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide will improve photosynthetic rates and thus accelerate tree growth. While there is evidence to support this prediction, there is also concern about what effect changes in temperature and precipitation patterns will have on forest and species distribution. Already, some research points to climate change contributing to advancing infestations of invasive and pest species such as the Hemlock and Balsam Wooly Adelgids, the Emerald Ash-borer, the Spruce Budworm, Mountain Pine-beetle and the Asian Longhorn Beetle. Many of these invasive insects cause forests to be more susceptible to pathogens, as Professor Tom Wessels notes in Reading the Forested Landscape of New England: “Beech-bark Scale Disease, Dutch Elm Disease, Chestnut Blight, and White Pine Blister Rust—are all caused by fungi, their spread often facilitated by insects.” In at least the case of the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid (HWA), cold winters can hamper the spread of the insect. It has been found that the HWA struggles when winter temperatures average less than negative 5 degrees Celsius, which has so far hampered their spread into the boreal forest. However, as Anna Szyniszewska writes on the Climate Institute’s website, “The impact of climate change and rising average world temperatures can have a profound influence on species’ geographical ranges that are often set primarily by climate…”

Professor Wessels also writes about the destructive potential of the HWA:
At the doorstep of central New England awaits another insect defoliator. Accidentally introduced from Asia and first discovered in Pennsylvania in the 1960s, the wooly adelgid has spread as far north as southern Massachusetts. Its tolerance to cold temperatures has researchers worried about the future of its host, the eastern hemlock.

It is largely expected that as climate changes, many damaging invasives will be able to expand their ranges, and this is expected to be very damaging to host trees in the Boreal Forest. As Roger Olsson notes in “Boreal Forests and Climate Change,”

The impact of insect damage in boreal forests is significant. In terms of area affected it exceeds that of fire. Spruce Budworm, for exampled, defoliated over 20 times the area burned in eastern Ontario between 1941 and 1996… Insect outbreaks are expected to increase in frequency and intensity with projected changes in global climate through direct effects of climate change on insect populations and through disruption of community interactions…

It is likely that both native and invasive pests will increase, and that the damage to forests will amount to billions of dollars, (in both crop loss in the forestry sector, and somewhat less directly in the loss of ecosystem services).

Invasives are not the only concern when considering the impacts of climate change on Boreal Forests, and animals are not the only species capable of expanding or contracting in range. As the U.S. Forest Service notes, “Tree ranges in ancient times certainly shifted according to changing climates, but the changes were relatively slow.” Northern Research Station scientist Christopher Woodall used existing data to analyze movement in the geographic distribution of current trees. His study found evidence that northern tree species “are exhibiting a northward migration,” and that, “Over 70 percent of this study’s northern species have mean locations of seedlings that are significantly farther north than their respective mean biomasses.” Woodall also recorded a number of species, which exhibited negative area changes, “that is the areas in which they thrived decreased.” Black Spruce, Bigtooth Aspen, Quaking Aspen, Balsam Fir, Paper Birch, Yellow Birch, Northern White Cedar, Striped Maple, Black Ash, Scarlet Oak, Eastern White Pine, Red Pine, Eastern Hemlock, Red Spruce, Sugar Maple, Sweet Birch, American Basswood, Hawthorn, Sourwood and Northern Red Oak, all lost area, while southern species “demonstrated no significant shift northward despite greater regeneration success in northern latitudes…” Woodall estimates that tree migration amongst northern species may accelerate to a rate of 100 km per century, which sounds like a small amount, but this rate will likely outstrip the rate at which southern species can take the place of northern species, potentially leaving a vast savannah, where once there was a Boreal Forest. As Dmitry Schepashenko, co-author of, “Boreal Forest Health and Global Change,” notes in an interview with the Canadian Broadcast Company, “The (southern) forests can’t go so far to the north. The speed at which forests can move forward is very slow, like 100 meters a decade.”

The decline in thriving habitat of many boreal species is likely due to temperature induced drought stress. As Roger Olsson suggests in “Boreal Forests and Climate Change,” “Some tree-growth declines are large and have been seen at different points across a wide area. Temperature induced drought stress has been identified as the cause in some areas.” He notes that studies of tree-rings have shown a negative correlation with temperature increases during the 20th century, and that growth decline occurred more often in the warmer areas of a species distribution, “suggesting that direct temperature stress might be a factor.” As temperatures increase, and drought becomes more common in the already arid biome, the destruction of habitat may become as widespread as Schepashenko suggests. To again quote Roger Olsson:

If global warming exceeds 2 degrees celsius the change of ecosystems in the boreal forest region may be even more far-reaching than outlined… Direct effects of warming on forest growth and distribution, combined with indirect effects of climate-induced changes in disturbance regimes may transform vast areas of boreal forest into open woodland or grassland… In regions where the boreal forest presently is succeed by continental grasslands in the south, a contraction of forest is projected due to increased impacts of droughts, insects and fires. With global warming of more than 2-3 degrees Celsius extensive forest and woodline decline in mid-to high latitudes is predicted.

Besides simply degrading forest aesthetics by replacing vast primary forest with anti-entropic, high growth, early successional habitat, there is one glaring problem that would result from the recession of an old growth carbon sink. With so much of the world’s untapped carbon reserves existing in the biomass of the Boreal Forest, it is daunting to think of the impact that releasing that carbon would have. If global warming negatively impacted the Boreal Forest, as it seems almost certain to, the carbon released would be a positive feedback into the carbon cycle, causing more warming, and thus more forest degradation.

The spectre of carbon cycle feedback was raised in a 2006 “Realclimate.org” article entitled, “Positive Feedbacks From the Carbon Cycle,” and suggested that warming could be accelerated between 25-75 percent. In Michael E. Mann’s summary of the IPCC’s findings entitled, Dire Predictions, he notes that current emissions due to deforestation amount to between 4.5 and 5.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. The result may be that the forests we have known to be carbon sinks may no longer be providing us that service. Again, Roger Olsson suggests that, “Modelling results suggest that forest ecosystems in Canada shifted from a carbon sink to a carbon source around 1980… Projections for a hypothetical North American boreal forest landscape indicate that carbon losses from disturbances cannot be offset by increases in growth, if higher decomposition rates caused by altered disturbance regimes are taken into account.” Thus, even the successional habitat that is likely to replace the disturbed forest, even being anti-entropic (taking up exponentially more energy and nutrients, using energy to increase complexity over time), it will not be able to take up as much carbon as is currently stored in the Boreal Forest.

Conclusion:
Professor Tom Wessels of Antioch University writes extensively on the topic of forest disturbance. He argues that complex systems like a forest ecosystem are self-organizing, meaning they, “take in energy and use it to increase their level of complexity through time.” He notes that, “A clear cut forest is left in a simplified state. In time it grows back to a forest with complex structure and a wide variety of organisms.” However, he also suggest entropy, “a process where things naturally move from a state of order toward disorder,” effects complex systems. He notes that all energy conversion is inefficient and that some diffusion results from all complex systems. However, he defines systems as anti-entropic if they take in more energy than they release, as is the case with early successional habitat. The goal of a forest ecosystem is to reach the dynamic equilibrium of an old growth, which would be defined as taking in as much energy as is released, and where nutrients are recycled across trophic levels. However, when ecosystems die they become highly entropic and release both stored energy and carbon dioxide. This is what is behind the aforementioned feedback. The high level of entropy of dying forests is greater than the anti-entropic effect of the savannah habitat that will likely replace the forests.
Professor Wessels points out that Global Climate Change is largely an entropy imbalance, and that positive feedbacks, like dying Boreal Forests releasing carbon, eventually cause bifurcation. He writes:

In a system with positive feedback, the feedback amplifies the system’s behavior in a directional, accumulative way… With sustained positive feedback the impacts eventually may build up to such a degree as to throw the system into a totally new mode of behavior. The point at which a complex system jumps into a new behavioral patter is known as a bifurcation event…Although the positive feedback leading up to bifurcation may be gradual, the change in system behavior is abrupt.

Global warming is essentially a gradual building of positive feedbacks related to a high level of entropy. To get under the hood of how the positive feedback works, defoliation from pathogens, pests, increasing acidity, drought and other climate related causes reduce the forest’s ability to photosynthesize. Reduced canopy means more radiation reaches and warms the forest understory. Warming on the forest’s floor increases decomposition rates, “a process that releases nutrients.” As Professor Wessels notes, “When photosynthesis drops and decomposition increases, the loss of nutrients from the ecosystem is accelerated…” Nutrient availability becomes greater, but because of the reduced photosynthesis, less is taken up. Eventually trees start to dieback. When a tree species is lost, the reverberation is felt amongst all the species that associate with it, and if there is not enough niche redundancy this results in a loss of biodiversity. Forest ecosystems are intensely interconnected, and such declines can have a snowballing effect.

What will the bifurcation eventually look like in northern forests? Professor Wessels suggests that:

For species of trees that don’t grow south of New England… the warming climate will most likely translate into an inability to germinate successfully… Drought sensitive trees like sugar maple and white ash will experience more dieback… Southern trees will take centuries to complete a northern migration to the region… Coupling these reductions with those already created by introduced forest pathogens and potential declines from atmospheric deposition, we see a very bleak picture of our future forests.

The complexity of the relationship between global climate change and the largest biome on earth is immense. Yet, there is one factor that unites the entire issue: the ecological interconnectivity of each of these issues. This is why declines in on part of the forest result in ecosystem feedback. For centuries the Boreal Forest has served as the largest carbon sink in the world. However, this appears to be changing, and concern is rising that, a decline in productive biomass in this biome, defoliation and deforestation, are releasing carbon and energy as a carbon source. Since the decline of the forest creates positive feedback in the global system, once decline starts, it is likely to escalate, causing both localized and global destruction. The habitat that will likely result from the shrinking or loss of Boreal Forests, though anti-entropic, is neither likely to be able to absorb the release of carbon and energy, nor to replace the ecosystem services currently provided. If the Boreal Forests transition from sink to source, as some research suggests has already happened, not only will it accelerate global climate change, but we would likely lose the last, largely undisturbed, functioning forest ecosystem in the world.

Bibliography To Be Added Later

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A large diameter white pine in an old growth forest.

A large diameter white pine in an old growth forest.

While hiking in a remoter section of the Essex Chain, I had the good luck to stumble, quite accidentally, upon a stand of old growth. This stand was contrary to everything I had here to for known about the Essex Chain tract. The Finch and Pruyn company, having owned the parcel for over one hundred years, had cleared just about every marketable tree, at one point or another. The evidence of some of the oldest cuts appear to have decayed, but there is pretty clear evidence of 50 year old cuts and 30 year old cuts, sometimes in the same stands. Finch Pruyn took only softwoods (that I know of), so it is not uncommon to see some sizeable hardwoods, though in some stands even those are gone. Once the paper company knew they were going to sell the land, they, like most extractive companies, pulled every marketable piece of timber, leaving huge swaths in a state of early succession, with degraded, nutrient deprived, acidic soil.

So, imagine my surprise, when I hiked up a steep lakeside embankment, and cresting it, meandered into an open, mature, northern hardwood stand. In this forest, there are only occasional ground cover plants, such as hobble bush, maple leaf viburnum, wood and bracken ferns, and more rarely, stripped maple. Along the ground there is an abundance of wood sorrel, dew drop and gold thread, with occasional red and painted trilliums. More rare, there are showy lady slipper orchids in the damp and shady places. Also in the shady places there is shin-leaf pyrola, and Indian pipe. But, amidst this glorious show of rich northern hardwood plants, stand the most impressive site of all.

Intermediate Wood Fern

Intermediate Wood Fern

Dew drop

Dew drop

Indian Pipe

Indian Pipe

Shin-leaf Pyrola

Shin-leaf Pyrola

I was first drawn to a White Pine, Five feet in diameter. This tree, by my estimates, would be between 200 and 250 years old, predating the Finch Pruyn acquisition, and the only known clearing on this tract. Amidst the pines were similarly large Hemlocks and some smaller but still impressive Black Spruce. The spruce grows more densely and thus does not achieve the stately diameter of the pine. Further into the stand, Yellow Birch were reaching their peak and dying of old age. Wherever a dead stump marked the spot of a once stately tree, the associated dead fall lay near by, victim, most likely of wind or ice loading. On the stumps, new, shade resistant, hemlocks had colonized the canopy gap, using the nutrients of the downed logs to fuel their growth. Perhaps most impressive were the White Ash, of similar diameters as the pines, with trunks nearing 150 feet tall, and growing perfectly straight. From so far below the canopy, these giants seemed to whisper and groan, each catching the gentle breeze in their ample limps.

Despite all I had heard to the contrary about habitat preference, there amidst the rolling wooded topography, a moose appeared between two pines, looming six feet tall, but still dwarfed by the trees. She shook her head confusedly, before lumbering off into the deep woodlands. An impressive sight, to cap my peaceful afternoon in the cool, breezy quiet of the old growth timber stand.

Finally, a pair of black-capped chickadees descended to ward off my intrusion into their nesting area, and I was reminded that here, I am only an admiring visitor.

Forest sunset

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Some of the first people to recreate in the Essex Chain of Lakes were sports brought in by hunting and fishing guides in the late 19th century, from the old farmhouse on Chain Lakes Road South. This later became known as the Main House at Hutchins, and was established as the first Gooley Club Camp. Up the road, on the shore of Third Lake, the club (at the time of  my writing this) still has a camp, originally founded by the Chain Lakes Sportsman’s Camp in the early 1800’s. This camp consists of several roughly hewn rustic camps, some of them more than 60 years old–the remnants of a lease granted by the Finch Pruyn paper company, which allowed hunting and fishing by club members on the Essex Chain of Lakes tract. The lease allowed recreation and industry to co-exist in a delicate balance for the better part of 100 years. The lands have since been sold to New York State, in the largest acquisition to the Adirondack Forest Preserve in more than a century. By 2018, the Gooley Club will be gone, and the lands will begin the long trek back to their wild state.

 

Most visitors to the Essex Chain, in the first few years of being open to the public, are canoe paddlers. After my first week of being a Backcountry Steward, it was not hard to tell why there were not more hikers. The previous owners, Finch and Pruyn, did not tread lightly on the land. Most of the “trails” in the area are just old logging roads, which traverse clear cuts every so often, which are, I must say, less than scenic. Still, there is some value of a clear cut, to the ecosystem of the Forest Preserve. Since natural disturbances such as fire are suppressed, and micro-burst blow-downs are fairly rare on a large scale, clear cuts are about the only disturbance that provides for early successional habitat. Early successional habitat is both regenerative to forests, as well as providing habitat for many birds that would not be present in a fully forested environment. Yet, there is a good deal of concern because logging removes nutrients and energy from the enviroment, and causes a high level of entropy in the inefficient dispersal of energy and resources from a concentrated system operating at dynamic equilibrium. Since logging cannot occur on forest preserve lands, the hope is that these clear cuts will follow the normal pattern of succession… That is provided invasive species do not take over the vulnerable early successional habitat in the interim. Ideally, these meadows will fill in with grasses and herbaceous plants, followed by scrub brambles, eventually to be invaded by early colonizers such as Aspens and Birches, before growing into a forest again.

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Early successional habitat is anti-entropic, in that it uses more energy than it releases, in order to fuel growth. This will continue until the forest reaches a sort of homeostasis known as dynamic equilibrium, in which the amount of energy taken up by all of the organisms in the ecosystem is equal to that which is released by the ecosystem as heat. (See Tom Wessels’ “The Myth of Progress”).

Still, as this process occurs, the indelible mark which human activity has left behind, will persist. Even in the section of forest, where the DEC has placed primitive campsites, one can still see stumps cut more than fifty years ago. Even as those decay, and new forest grow around it, there are certain signs of logging, such as forest age continuity and trees with multiple trunks, where the cut tree stump sprouted. These impacts will disappear with time, but it will take a long time, until we can no longer perceive them.

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Yet, to the untrained eye, these sites are primitive, and the area appears in many places to have a reasonable level of wilderness condition. From a canoe, on Third Lake, the only sign of disturbance is the stunted height of the trees, and with the backdrop of Dun Brook Mountain beyond the lake edge, it is hard to tell that man’s hand has ever touched this environment.

The campsites along the water’s edge prohibit fires, in order to maintain vegetative screening, that is otherwise lost, as campers pluck all the low lying branches from the trees, and trample the understory, in search of viable firewood. These impacts are measurable, and measuring them is my job. By using a radial transect, we can define the area of a campsite and determine if that area is increasing year after year. By collecting data on ground cover, at both the campsite and a control site, we can tell if human impacts are significantly damaging the condition of the area.

Here the Perimeter of the campsite is established using Global Information Systems and Global Positioning Systems data.

Here the Perimeter of the campsite is established using Global Information Systems and Global Positioning Systems data.

Metrics recorded at the site, systematically express the level of human impact.

Metrics recorded at the site, systematically express the level of human impact.

One of the myths that seems to perpetuate itself amongst hikers and paddlers and campers, is that if you are surrounded by trees you are in an undisturbed environment, and that human recreation is not damaging the resource in the way that industry had. While the scale of impacts, from say logging, are much less, to say the millions who visit the Adirondacks each year, or the thousands of people who complete an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, are not damaging the resource or stressing the environment, is patently false. If it were otherwise, organizations like Vermont’s Green Mountain Club of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, would not have to hire caretakers and ridgerunners, whose job is almost solely to clean up after less than considerate recreationalists, who often consider themselves beyond the scrutiny of conservationists, or even worse… part of the solution.

As the number of people recreating in the outdoors continues to rise, these resources are becoming ever stressed, and the impacts are spreading to a greater number of places. As one place is degraded, pioneering recreationalists search out more pristine areas, not realizing that such activities enable the sort of impacts that made their original haunts undesirable. We often call this “site creep,” as impacts gradually extend beyond their original extent by the effects of crowding and degradation.

Ideally, recreation is limited, in order to suppress impacts into reasonable, manageable, concentrated areas. However, with more people making the argument that public land is there to do with what individuals want, since it is their’s by way of taxes, we now run into an insidious type of impact, that negates conservation efforts, often perpetrated by individuals who are in favor of conserved land. However, many do not understand that conservation is for the perpetual preservation of the land itself, and recreation is a loosely associated benefit. Such a collective mindstate has been perpetuated by the National Park Service, which increasingly has to justify itself to congress in terms of economic growth produced. Economic growth is necessarily counter to conservation, as the idea of perpetual growth is fallaciously based on infinite resource availability, the very thing conservation recognizes to be false. Without recreation, public lands would not benefit economic activity, unless you consider industrial uses, which are perhaps the only thing more impactful than recreation.

 

As the Essex Chain tract shows, forests are resilient. When impacted by human or natural forces, the woods have a regenerative cycle of succession. However, I have heard this as an argument for why “sustainable” logging should be allowed on forest preserve lands. The counter argument is based largely on the second law of thermodynamics. When we remove trees from the woods, the energy stored in concentrated organized ways within the biomass, is inefficiently converted, where some of that energy goes to human benefit, but the majority is released into the atmosphere and then space. While early succession is anti-entropic, it is not enough so to negate the energy that is released as heat. Furthermore, carbohydrates are broken up and carbon that was stored in the tree’s biomass is released into the atmosphere contributing positive feedback to global climate change. Lastly, nutrients, which would be reabsorbed by the ecosystem, in the case of natural disturbance, are removed from the closed system, degrading the quality of the soil, and often contributing to extended denuding of the forest. If there is any doubt of this effect, take a walk on the woods roads in the Essex Chain and observe the barren places.

 

The Essex Chain now has a chance to recover from the dominion of human history, and revert back to natural history. In 300 years, there may again be old growth, in a state of dynamic equilibrium. We will only know if we take care of the land and avoid contributing to negative impacts. It is vitally important that those who choose to recreate on conserved land follow Leave No Trace principles, as we allow natural processes to dominate the landscape again.

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