Posts Tagged ‘conservation’

In order to successfully conserve land, you must first understand what you are trying to conserve and why. Land Trusts typically spell out, in their mission statements, what their goals are. It is often better to be narrow, in this regard, than to try and “drink from a firehose.” There are, after all, many lands out there that need to be conserved, and not enough resources to conserve them. On the organizational level, this fact is most magnified.


In order to be successful, conservation organizations must be thoughtful about each step of the process. For instance, what grants should be applied for, will they build capacities for the organization’s mission or stretch the organization thin with new requirements. It is rare that a grant will cover an entire program. Often there is thee requirement that the organization receiving the money match it with a certain amount of their own fund-raising capacity. Grants come with requirements, so organizations do better to find grants with requirements they can easily meet, without building new capacities.


This is why it is important to define, as specifically as possible, what a conservation organization wishes to conserve. Many Land Trusts conserve land as wildlands, and others conserve agricultural land. It is more difficult to try and do both well. Many organizations that conserve wildlands, conserve forests, riparian zones, different types of wetlands, etc. Even in this regard, a degree of specificity is important. When trying to decide whether a particular tract is work putting resources into conserving, it helps to use Overlays. If any organization decides to preserve forested land, it can favor forested lands that are near other protected lands, in order to expand the conserved landscape. It may choose the favor those near riparian zones or wetlands. It may choose the favor those with endangered species habitat or certain soil types. All of these aspects can be represented spatially, and GIS can be used to better construct an effective overlay.


It is important to identify a geographic region of importance. In this case, I have identified South Whitehall Township as an important area, because of its low percentage of total lands being conserved. (An organization can choose to value areas with a high level of conserved land instead). Since I have chosen South Whitehall, all the other layers will be clipped to focus on just South Whitehall.


Overlay Map2

Percent of Land Conserved


Lets say an organizations wish to favor forested properties, near protected lands, riparian zones and wetlands, with a presence of endangered species. One can make a model, taking land use layers, protected lands layers, riparian and wetlands layers and endangered species habitat layers. Each of these can be used to create a buffer (how close to the object should the protected land be). Again, this is derived by deciding how much certain layers should be valued. After making buffers, these can be merged into a single layer and joined to a tax parcel map. The join will maintain the geometry of the conservation layers, and tell you which properties are intersected by the conservation buffers, and thus a high priority for conservation. The output, in the example of South Whitehall Township, near Allentown, Pennsylvania, would look like this:

Overlay Map

The Green shows properties of potentially high conservation value.



Read Full Post »


As I hiked Haystack Mountain in Pawlet, Vermont yesterday, I was impressed with the amount of diversity preserved in just a small tract of land. The North Pawlet Hills Natural Area preserves a little over 1,000 acres, yet from the trail it is possible to observe a strikingly large number of distinct habitats. Part of this is undoubtedly because the elevation changes so drastically, but it is also noteworthy that the Nature Conservancy intentionally focused on the preservation of land of high conservation value.

The conservation movement, over the years, has made strides in putting high value lands in the public trust, but it has also been a strategy with limits. This is why land trusts are so valuable. Land trusts can step in to conserve parcels  when there is not the political will to conserve the land in the public parks systems available.

When the government protects land, it protects lands that are valuable for recreation or for natural resources. Ecology is more often than not a secondary concern. The Forest Service manages forest resources for what it deems to be a sustainable timber harvest. In other words, a rate of timbering that does not degrade the forest in the long term. This is a useful strategy, seeing as we live in a society dependent on forest products. The Parks Service, on the other hand, manages lands for the recreational experience of National Park visitors. In the case of many of our previously wild parks, this has meant developing the kind of infrastructure that can handle the ever increasing (and under-educated in regards to leave-no-trace principles) visitorship. In both cases, governments have an anthropocentric management style, and this has resulted in a long term degradation of the resource, (barring the occasional, but rare wilderness area, where greater restrictions exist).

Even this anthropocentric management style has dried up in recent years. As budgets have become tighter, political will for conserving land has all but evaporated. This all during a time when the scientific community has raised concerns about biodiversity loss, due often to habitat fragmentation. As more land becomes developed for human interests, and the government fails to push back, land conservation has been left in a vacuum.

Fortunately, many non-profit land trusts have cropped up, in order to nickel and dime properties deemed to be of high conservation value, but often too small, or too lacking in recreational opportunities, to be of public interest. Often times, the trust will buy a tract in fee simple (meaning full ownership), but more often land trusts utilize scenic and conservation easements that spell out rights, restrictions and responsibilities of both the property owner as well as the land trust. Land trusts monitor the properties periodically to ensure the terms of the easement are met. Easements are backed by law, and there are legal ramifications for violating the agreed upon terms, however they are entered into voluntarily by private landowners interested in preserving  their property for future generations.

This is not a great strategy for large land acquisitions, but it has worked, piece-meal, to make additions to conserved lands, or fill in the gaps that the government is not willing to. For instance, in the Essex Chain of Lakes acquisition, in the Adirondacks State Park in New York State, it was uncertain whether the Department of Environmental Conservation would have the resources necessary to take over the property, which had previously been held by the timber company Finch Prine. As it became clear that the paper company wanted out, the Nature Conservancy acquired the parcel in fee and then sold it at a discount to the State of New York for admittance into the Adirondack Park. This process took years, but the Nature Conservancy was able to identify a parcel with high conservation value, and protect it.

Haystack, similarly is a property with high conservation value. As one walks up the mountain, you start in a typical example of Northern Hardwoood Forest, along rolling terrain that varies from wet to mesic, and often consists of Rich Northern Hardwood forest matrix communities. These communities are dominated by Sugar Maple, Beech and Yellow Birch. There is one point in the beginning of the trail, where a wetland is visible, though it is unclear whether it is a bog, fen or swamp (from the trail). However, with wetlands being home to immense biodiversity, being providers of essential ecosystem services, and being highly productive ecosystems, it is clear the area is of high ecological value.

Through the lower forest, one can hear an incredible diversity of bird life. From canopy birds like the blue-headed vireo to the elusive hermit thrush, it is well worth stopping to take the varied calls in.

There is also great diversity in the understory, from the common witch hopple, blue cohosh, jack-in-the-pulpit, blue-bead lily, red trillium, cranesbill and various ferns, to the poisonous nightshade.

As the elevation picks up, the change from wet northern hardwod foorest to mesic oak habitat becomes clear. The southern exposure is dominated by northern red oak and white pine, as well as a wide array of understory shrubs and plants. The herbaceous layer, once dominated by jack-in-the-pulpit and blue-bead lily, and blue nightshade, is now taken over by foam flower and witch hopple. As the elevation rises, the understory becomes thinner and there are more hemlocks, though the dry southern exposures still contain oaks.


White oak trunk, surrounded by maple leaves.

At the summit, there is almost an alpine meadow. Here there is only a stunted canopy of Northern Red Oak. Here and there there are speckled alders, but mostly there is an abundance of alpine bilberry, three-toothed cinquefoil and pale corydalis. There area few sedges lining the rocky escarpments, but the soil is very thin and dry at the peaks.


pale corydalis


View from  the summit of Haystack, Mt, Pawlet, Vt.

Just in the course of an hour, the trail traverses this entire diversity.

It is clear that the Nature Conservancy considered recreational value to the community in preserving the North Pawlet Hills property. However, the biodiversity preserved on the property is extensive, and provides an oasis of habitat for species that might otherwise be threatened by fragmentation, caused by extensive farming in the region. For its size, the preserve accomplishes a lot of positive goals.


There can often be public confusion at the decision of a land trust to preserve properties with low recreational value, as is the case with the Natural Lands Trust’s preservation of wetlands in western New Jersey. However, when you consider that the protected worm-eating warbler utilizes this habitat for nesting, and the wetlands are home to plants that are rare and endangered in the state, it becomes clear that the land has high conservation value. However organizations like the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference have been clamoring for more access and the right to build extensive trail improvements for the Highlands Trail through these habitats. Many in the hiking community cannot see why there is resistance from the land trust. However, this lays bare the argument in favor of protecting lands through the use of land trusts. The mission of the Natural Lands Trust is to preserve biodiversity, not improve recreational opportunities or garner public interest. Thus, land trusts such as this have the ability to resist public pressure, in order to do the right thing ecologically.


The benefits of land trusts are many. While sometimes those benefits align with public interest, often times they are able to take a longer view, for the purpose of serving the greater good. As the will to preserve large tracts of land continues to dissipate, it will become increasingly important to ensure the resources are available to protect the smaller habitat corridors, that enable extensive ecosystems like the north woods to function.

Read Full Post »

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.

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

Read Full Post »

Dying Norway Maple

Over the last few years I have noticed that the Norway Maples in the Lehigh Valley were not looking so great. The most immediately apparent problem  was the crown die-back, and increasingly completely dead trees. This stands in stark contrast to the way things looked when I was a kid. The Maple lined streets were lush and green then… So, what happened?

After reading up on Norway Maples and Crown Die-Back, and listening to several episodes of You Bet Your Garden on NPR, I came up with a number of theories. First, I though, as Mike McGrath often suggests on the aforementioned show that over-mulching was causing root girdling. Basically, how this occurs is, when you over-mulch it concentrates the water over too small an area. The tree’s roots concentrate in that area, instead of spreading into a wider radius, and eventually strangulate themselves. Another issue that came up was decline from road salt. This relationship has long been noted in relationship with the New England Sugar Maple population, and the symptoms typically include crown die-back. Finally, I came across evidence of a fungal blight that is found throughout the northeast called Verticillium Wilt.

Verticillium Wilt is a fungus that starts in the soil, enters the trees through its roots, and causes a blight in the pith wood. Amongst the common symptoms are stunted growth in the tree’s new growth, discoloration of pith wood and, of course, crown die-back. Because the blight offers several diagnosis points, I was able to study the trees in the area, and found they exhibited all three tell-tale symptoms.

Discolored wood fibers around a rotten pith, characteristic of Verticillium Wilt.

Discolored wood fibers around a rotten pith, characteristic of Verticillium Wilt.

On the left is stunted new growth, characteristic of Verticillium Wilt. Compare to healthy growth on the right.

On the left is stunted new growth, characteristic of Verticillium Wilt. Compare to healthy growth on the right.

Various states of die-back.

Various states of die-back.

So how is Verticillium Wilt spread and why are so many trees dying. After reading that Verticillium Wilt can survive in soil or mulch for ten years without a host plant, I had an ahah! moment. I now have a hypothesis about the vector for this disease. When a tree contacts Verticillium Wilt it is typically fatal. When these trees that die are in people’s yards, they call the tree removal service, and they come by and fell and remove the tree. Typically the tree is then mulched, and the mulch is sold to contractors to then mulch people’s yards. This then spreads the disease to more suburban trees, which then die and are themselves mulched and so on.

I have started to study this with the aid of GIS. I have a suburban sample, which is mulched and an urban sample which is not mulched. In the suburban sample 54% of the trees examined show signs of Verticillium Wilt. Meanwhile, in the urban sample I found no trees that exhibit clear signs of the blight. I then ran a correlation on diameter, to see if the age of the tree could be affecting the sample. However, I found a -0.62 correlation, which is a weak correlation between an increase in diameter and decrease in occurrence of the crown die-back. This suggests that there may be a resistance in older trees, that older planting methods were more effective, or that mulching may indeed play a role. I did find a 0.41 correlation between mulching and die-back. Again this is a weak correlation and will need more data to flesh it out. I am hoping to add a  forest plot to expand the available data.

This is the sample of the suburban neighborhood, where Verticillium Wilt is present.

This is the sample of the suburban neighborhood, where Verticillium Wilt is present.

Test Plot at Kutztown Park. Verticillium Wilt is not present and there is not mulching around the trees.

Test Plot at Kutztown Park. Verticillium Wilt is not present and there is not mulching around the trees.

Read Full Post »

A list of all the flora and fauna I have spotted, during my summer in the Essex Chain. As would be expected, birds and wildflowers dominate this list. There were many more spotted in the Adirondacks and many that were unidentifiable by me. Inevitably, as my knowledge is incomplete, my list is flawed. But, it is a pretty good representation of what one could expect to find in a summer here.

Mammals: 9 species.

Beavers, Red Squirrel, Black Bear, White-Tailed Deer, Mink, Chipmunk, White-footed Mouse, Coyote, Moose.

Amphibians: 3 species.

American Toad, Green Frog, Eastern Newt.

Reptiles: 3 species.

Painted Turtle, Snapping Turtle, Garter Snake.

Birds: 49 species.

White-throated Sparrow, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Raven, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, American Robin, Wood Thrush, Black-capped Chickadee, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Common Grackle, Cedar Waxwing, American Crow, Turkey Vulture, Great Blue Heron, Common Loon, Barred Owl, Bald Eagle, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Canada Goose, American Black Duck, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Belted Kingfisher, Red-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-winged Blackbird, European Starling, Roughed Grouse, Yelow-bellied Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush, Black-throated Green Warbler, Wild Turkey, Mourning Dove, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Black and White Warbler, Hairy Woodpecker, Gray Catbird, Pine Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Pine Siskin, Scarlet Tanager, Common Merganzer, Eastern Wood Pewee, Mgnolia Warbler.

Trees: 18 species.

Yellow Birch, Grey Birch, River Birch, Paper Birch, White Ash, Sugar Maple, Red Maple, American Beech, Spotted Alder, Quaking Aspen, Big-tooth Aspen, Black Spruce, Balsam Fir, White Pine, Red Pine, Northern White Cedar, Tamarack, Eastern Hemlock.

Shrubs: 7 species.

Witch Hopple, Striped Maple, Mountain Maple, Maple-leafed Viburnun, Sheep Laurel, Low-bush Blueberry, American Mountain Ash.

Ferns: 3 species.

Sensitive Fern, Bracken Fern, Internmediate Wood Fern.

Mosses and Lichens: 4 species.

Shining Club Moss, Tree Clubmoss, Big Redstem Moss, Old Man’s Beard.

Flowers: 64 species.

Jack-in-the-pulpit, Red Trillium, Gaywings, Partridgeberry, Starflower, Indian Cucumber, Solomon’s Seal, Yellow Violet, Common Violet, Canada Mayflower, Wild Stawberry, Indian Strawberry, Bluets, Painted Trillium, Goldthread, Common Mullien, Bunchberry, Pink Lady-slipper, Common Cinquefoil, Blue-eyed Grass, Sundrops, King Devil, Yellow Rocket, Hellbore, Small-flowered Cranesbill, Common Daisy, White Clover, Pinesap, Wood Sorrel, Twin Flowers, Blue Flag Iris, Viper’s Bugloss, Yellow Wood Sorrel, Blue Vetch, Bird’s Foot Trefoil, Yellow Hop Clover, Common Milkweed, Rough- fruited Cinquefoil, Hedge Bindweed, Indian Pipe, Selfheal, Swamp Milkweed, Common St. Johnswort, Herb Robert, Dewdrop, Shinleaf Pyrola, Marsh Skullcap, Pickerlweed, Day Lily, Water Hemlock, Bull Thistle, Tall Buttercup, Queen Anne’s Lace, Sweet Goldenrod, Grass-leaved Goldenrod, Evening Primrose, Jewelweed, Tiger Lily, Steeplebush, Fall Phlox, Black-eyed Susan, Virgin’s Bower, Cardinal Flower, Bladder Campion.

Read Full Post »

Screenshot (8)

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.

Screenshot (13)

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.

Screenshot (12)

Screenshot (11)

Screenshot (10)

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.

Screenshot (9)

Read Full Post »

Within the last 20 years or so, the deep green movement has pushed people to recognize that wooded ecosystems have value intrinsically, that is not bestowed upon them by what humans get from them (be it wood products or recreation). However, it is still difficult to  justify to the average Joe, that a wood lot should remain a wood lot, and not be sub-divided or sold for timber… Or at the very least, opened up to trail users… Yet all of these things are impactful, in that they effect the way the ecosystem functions. Trails, when used responsibly can help to concentrate use, and ultimately are a best case scenario for many woodlands… Yet, many people have convinced themselves that trails are a net positive for a forest. They are not. They remove biomass for the benefit of human recreation. At best, they keep people from going out  into the woods and impacting a greater area.

That said, the other two typical alternatives, both subdividing and timbering, are surely more impactful to a mature forest, than trail building. Nevertheless, a deep green philosophy would generally argue in favor of wilderness areas, where man is just a visitor (if that), and some would go further into the realms of primitivism.

In this day and age, it hurts the cause of conservation to be anything but pragmatic. We can have our ideals, but we must recognize other interest, and negotiate for the best possible outcome in a given circumstance. Thus we must understand, the least common denominator positives of preserving our neighborhood wood lot…

*  *  *

Recently, it was announced by the South Whitehall Township Board of Supervisors that the cornfield behind my house was to be sub-divided, but the wood lot that I grew up playing in, and came of age as an ecologist by studying, was to be spared. While part of me is sad to loose the farmland, I am at least relieved to be keeping the wood lot. I have always appreciated it aesthetically, and I have always appreciated what it gives us, but more than that, I see it as a home to a Red-tailed Hawk and a Great Horned Owl. A fox and a family of deer. I visit it from time to time. Each year, I measure the diameter of the two greatest Chestnut Oaks. But, I fear that the neighbors view it as a nuisance. They see wildlife as pests, and overgrowth as a tangled mess. Yet, there is a least common denominator, that rests on the tip of everyone’s tongue in this age of super-storms… Climate Change… Carbon Emissions especially.

Last year, the world emitted 35 million tons of carbon. The United States contributed 5.2 million tons of carbon. Or 16.4 tons per capita.

Why is this important? The vast majority of climatologists believe that climate change is happening, and that it is anthropogenic. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found there to be a 90% chance that humans are contributing to climate change. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6321351.stm). Even Fox News reported on the panel’s claim that an estimated sea level rise of 7-23 inches would be likely. (http://www.foxnews.com/story/2007/02/02/un-report-global-warming-man-made-basically-unstoppable/). In 2013, Environmental Research Letters found that amongst abstracts discussing Anthropogenic Climate Change, 97.1 expressed agreement with the consensus that human activity is a contributing factor.

Still, I can understand skepticism. I have never been the sort of person to take a consensus at face value. After all, one only need look back through history, and the ridiculous beliefs that have been considered a consensus are immediately apparent. So, lets go into the basic logic that goes into conclusions favoring climate change.

Scientific Fact: Carbon is an unstable element. When exposed to radiation (i.e. light from the sun) it releases heat to stabilize. This is undisputed.

Scientific Fact: Temperature data indicates a net increase in average yearly temperatures, and suggests that individual climate zones are changing as a result.

Logical Reasoning: If Carbon releases heat when exposed to radiation, it will inevitably release some into space, and some back down to earth. Thus, the higher the concentration of Carbon in the atmosphere, the more heat will be released down to earth. Since burning fossil fuels, and wood, releases carbon that had been trapped and stored in organic material, and humans burn fossil fuels on a constantly increasing basis, humans can be said to be a contributing factor to high carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. This, not climate change in and of itself (which is almost universally recognized to be occuring, since that is what 100 years of data plainly spells out), is what is debated.

If we accept this hypothesis, that the world is warming on the whole, and that is causing climates to change, and that is resultant of greenhouse gas concentrations, and the concentrations are largely a result of releasing CO2 and hydrocarbons, we come back to the main point, the importance of the neighborhood wood lot.

*  *  *

As discussed in the previous entry, the wood lot behind my house contains a biomass of 582.4 (tons per hectare). Since the lot is approximately 1 hectare, we can say the biomass is 582.4 tons. Approximately 50% of biomass in a forest ecosystem is made up of Carbon, much of it stored in the plant as Carbohydrates, formed during photosynthesis. Given that fact, the wood lot contains 291.2  tons of Carbon. Considering that there are about 75 homes in the neighborhood, with an estimated 4 people per household, there are about 300 people living in my neighborhood. Since the per capita production of tons of Carbon in a year in the United States is about 16 tons, that means that the people in my neighborhood produce roughly 50 tons of Carbon in a year.

Thus our wood lot is important in its role of mitigating the amount of carbon we produce in a year.

Admittedly I did not calculate the forest’s respiration levels, and that would likely bring us pretty close to being a net zero effect… Which, at the end of the day, is pretty good.

If we could have a hectare of forest for every 80 people in this country, we could go a long way to bringing our carbon footprint down.

If for no other reason, that is why our wood lots are important.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »