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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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