Adirondack Forests Changing: Maples Dying, Beech May
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July 21, 2002 By Hart Seely
A mile into the woods, the old logging trail had vanished,
leaving a vast confusion of greenery in every direction. ''About 500 feet
further,'' State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry
professor Paul D. Manion said, peering into a hand-held Global Positioning
Satellite unit. ''We're almost there.'' In the quest to protect New York's
Adirondack forests, scientists use technology to analyze soil, uncoil strands of
DNA and, sometimes, just to get where they hope to go. Despite all the advances,
they're not there.
With a growing sense of urgency, scientists seek an
understanding of the forest that allows them to distinguish the cycles of nature
from the follies of humanity. In an era when rains bring pollution, the climate
may be changing and the next environmental crisis could crawl from the Pandora's
box of an overseas shipping crate, the consequences of being wrong can take
generations to heal. ''You can make all kinds of calculations about acid rain or
global warming or whatever,'' Manion said, as he untangled his way. ''But it
won't get us anywhere until we understand how the forest operates.''
At stake are the public and private forests of the
Adirondack Park, an area roughly the size of Vermont, which have shrugged off
catastrophic fires, loggers bent on clear-cutting and an annual invasion of
tourists. These forests rose after the glaciers of 10,000 years ago. They'll
outlast the abuses of civilization, but, people might not recognize them.
Across the central Adirondacks, majestic old trees are
steadily dying, and blighted dense thickets are sprouting in their wake, leaving
scientists to ponder a critical question: Is this the latest cycle of nature, or
is something new here going on.
In the next decade, the large paper birch trees will die
across the Adirondacks,their distinctive white bark vanishing from the
landscape. It cannot be stopped.Those birches sprouted from the ashes of early
20th-century fires that razed vast sections of the forest. Before, few birch
saplings could fight their way up through the dense canopy. The fires opened
windows of opportunity, and they thrived.
''Now they're dying, simply because they're 80, 90 years
old,'' said Donald J. Leopold, an ESF professor of forest and wetland ecology.
''You simply can't expect much more time out of them.'' Trees only live so long.
In the forest, their deaths let other species take over, whether humans like the
change or not. In the western United States, to the dismay of people, forest
fires periodically spur massive regeneration of trees. Forest ecologists say a
three- or four-year drought could turn the Adirondacks into a fire hazard, but
the mountains historically are drenched by rains.
Other events have reshuffled the Adirondack forests. New
Yorkers caught a glimpse of nature's hand in 1995 when a microburst flattened
parts of the forest, and again in 1998 when an ice storm snapped thousands of
trees like twigs. Neither event was unprecedented. In fact, accounts of
blow-downs date back to ancient Mohawk Indian legends of ''flying heads'' -
winds so powerful that they had personalities. Scientists say that around 1750,
something happened that forged the central Adirondack forests, as people have
come to know them. They suspect ''flying heads.''
At Huntington Wildlife Forest, a 15,000-acre preserve in
the center of the Adirondack Park, ESF professor Richard W. Sage Jr. knelt near
the base of a maple tree so huge that two adults could barely stretch their arms
around it. He pushed a long stick into a hole in the tree, until it disappeared.
The maple, about 250 years old, is rotting from within.
"'We don't expect maple to live much beyond 300 years in
this environment,'' Sage explained. ''If we were to come back to this site in 50
years, we would not find any maples to speak of, except for a very rare
Across the central Adirondacks, most of the towering sugar
maples, which give autumn its dazzling colors, are believed to have sprouted
during a relatively brief period around 1750 - an era when a young George
Washington was advising British troops in the French and Indian War.
Something gave those maples a boost. It might have been an
ice storm, a hurricane or fast-moving winds. Whatever it was, it toppled as much
as one-half of the forest's tallest trees. That's all it took.
''A very short period of time can dictate what a forest
will look like for a very long period of time,'' said ESF professor William F.
Porter, of the Adirondack Ecological Center at Huntington Forest.
Maples weren't the only tree species to rise from that
event, but the others have died of old age. ''What we see in these maple trees
is the last component of that forest,'' Sage said. Soon, they'll be gone. It
cannot be stopped. ''When this tree falls over, the next-tallest trees will
occupy the open spot,'' Sage said. ''See around here, they're all waiting for
the light.'' He motioned to the thick, knee-high understory of beech tree
saplings. ''When that window of opportunity happens for them, these beech trees,
they're going to claim this site. We see that happening over and over in a lot
''Now, the question is, why is the beech in this position?
Why isn't the sugar maple competing at that same level? Both have that ability
to persist for long periods of time, waiting for that hole to open. ... Why
The Forest Formula
A mile deep into the woods, a low rumble grew louder until
it overwhelmed all else. Then it diminished, and the forest became still. It was
the sound of a dump truck, rolling somewhere, far off in the distance. Manion
said it's common to be standing in a remote spot and get a reminder of
He stood at Site No. 6107, near Harrisville in the western
foothills. The site, picked randomly by a computer, was in a dense forest near a
hogsback ridge, surrounded by toppled trees covered with bright green moss.
''There was a serious blow-down here at one time, and this
area is regenerating,'' Manion said. He pointed to a huge white birch that rose
above all others. ''See that strike on it?'' he continued. ''It was hit by
lightning at one time. ... That will generate an infection spot for decay fungi,
and it will weaken it. Eventually, it will speed up the process of that tree
He bent to reveal the leaves of a maple sapling. ''See how
this tree is smaller than the rest?'' Manion said. ''It soon will be
over-topped, and it will die. It's one of the five that won't grow another
inch.'' One in five: that's Manion's formula of the forest. For the last six
years, teams from the ESF campus have hiked into forests across New York state
to survey the living and the dead. By bushwhacking to remote locations, Manion's
teams have compiled a database of more than 30,000 trees.
The unprecedented volume of this data helped Manion
establish a mathematical model that can, in essence, gauge the health of a
forest. It's based on one question: In a normal forest, how many trees must be
dying? The study, published last fall, shows that in a healthy Adirondack
forest, one in every five trees - no matter how big or small - will die before
it grows one more inch in diameter. Four trees live, one tree dies. If more
trees are dying, something's wrong. If fewer are dying, something's wrong.
The data show the Adirondack forests to be lush and
healthy, with trees species dying consistently near the 20 percent rate. Four
live, and one dies. But in one species, death rates soared to 33 percent - way
out of whack. The species was the beech.
Scientists believe current deer populations in the
Adirondacks far exceed those of 200 years ago. Cruel winters and the abundance
of predators, such as the timber wolf and cougar, made the mountains a harsh
habitat for deer. That changed as settlers cleared the land of predators. Around
1900, deer populations began to jump. Studies suggest the mid-1900s saw some of
the highest Adirondack deer populations in centuries. And their dining habits
re-created the forest. Deer love to eat maple and birch saplings; they disdain
beech. So for decades, as competing species were being devoured by deer,
generations of beech saplings thrived.
''What happened 250 years ago set the stage,'' Porter said.
''What happened 100 years ago, with deer populations, set another stage. And
then, what happened 50 years ago set another stage. ... Each of those events
lined up to create what we have here today.''
Porter motioned to a low-lying thicket of beeches, none of
which would ever grow past a foot in diameter. They will produce no wood, create
little animal habitat and grow no taller than 30 feet. Doomed trees, every one,
dominating the forest. He might have been looking at the future. Almost 50 years
ago, the third event that Porter mentioned hit the Adirondacks with little
fanfare. Beech bark disease, imported by humans from Europe, began killing beech
A nasty collaboration of bug and fungus, the disease came
to Nova Scotia around 1934 and advanced steadily southwest. To this day, it has
marched unstopped into the Midwest and down the East Coast. It begins with a
tiny insect that taps into the beech bark, like a mosquito bite, modifying the
tree's live cells. When the fungus invades - and it is everywhere in the forest
- the tree's natural defenses don't detect it. The fungus kills the bug, the
living cells and the layer of tissue between the wood and bark. A cottony
outgrowth forms on the bark, and the beech tree dies.
The disease hit the Adirondacks in the 1960s, at a time
when SUNY-ESF researchers were studying the overgrowth of beeches in the lower
tiers of forest. They blamed it on the selective eating habits of deer and the
preferences of the timber industry. For decades, loggers had harvested
high-quality birch and maple, leaving behind the less-valuable beech.
Ecologists were starting to worry about the dominance of
beech trees and an imbalance in the forest. Then came beech bark disease. ''When
this pathogen arrived, it was as if it just said, 'Whoa, look at all this, ...'
'' Sage said.
Within 15 years, the disease killed nearly nine of 10 large
beeches at Huntington Forest, as it did across the Northeast. Scientists have
compared the effects of the disease on trees to that of a smallpox epidemic on
humans. To foresters studying ways to control beech overgrowth, such a disease
might seem heaven-sent. But nature had a surprise. Beech trees possess a unique
aspect of self-preservation. When something disturbs a beech root - be it a
hiker's boot, heavy wind or a falling chunk of ice - the plant reacts by
sprouting a new shoot. By attacking large trees, the disease caused more beech
saplings to sprout and continue choking the forest. And every one of those
rising offshoots is of the same genetic identity as the dying beech above them.
Which means they have no resistance to beech bark disease.
Thus, a new cycle has begun: Dense beech thickets grow
rapidly in the understory, choking off other trees, until the beeches get large
enough to be taken by the disease. It kills them, prompting new shoots to sprout
from damaged roots.
''If you look at this forest here, it's all beech,'' said
Ralph D. Nyland, an ESF professor of forestry and natural resources management.
''That sugar maple is what, 250 years old? It may have another 50 years, 100, if
it's lucky. What's going to replace it? Beech.
Everywhere, it's beech. ''My fear says that if we come back
here and have this discussion in 50 to 100 years, we could go from Lake
Champlain to Lake Ontario, across the Adirondacks, and find nothing but one
giant beech brush - where the beeches grow up to four to six inches in diameter,
get the disease, snap off and let new root suckers come up. And if so, the
forest you see today won't exist. ...
''It's a frightening scenario,'' Nyland said. ''And it's
frightening to me even more, because people won't think about it.''
In the search for answers Scientists still seek ways to
halt the spread of the beech bark disease. Recently, foresters in Maine and
Northeastern Canada - where the disease first arrived - reported that 1 out of
100 beeches are showing resistance to the disease.
Manion's teams have also found old beeches that appear
unaffected, though none at Huntington Forest has outlasted the blight. So what
should be done, if anything? Some researchers, including Manion, strongly
disagree with the assessment that the Northeast is moving toward a vast beech
thicket. And in areas such as the Adirondack Forest Preserve, where state law
forbids human encroachment, the idea of fighting blighted beech thickets with
herbicides or chainsaws makes no sense financially or politically. ''All we can
do is pose the issue,'' Porter said. ''But as this maple forest begins to fall
apart over the next generation, we're setting the stage for something that's
going to persist for a very long period of time.'' And scientists note that
despite best efforts to leave wilderness forests untouched, no such places
''We are responsible for bringing beech bark disease to
this country,'' Sage added. ''We were responsible for creating the kinds of deer
densities that proliferated the beech tree. We've had an enormous impact on this
forest, even if we never went in with a chainsaw and a skidder.'' At Huntington
Forest, Sage and Porter hiked to a stand of trees that looks, as best as anyone
can surmise, like the forest that existed 250 years ago.
Twenty years earlier, they removed about half the tallest
trees, cut back on the beech overgrowth and restricted deer access until the
saplings grew tall enough. From there, they let nature run its course. Today,
dozens of tree species intermingle. Trees that will die at the ripe old age of
75 stand beside those that could live to the year 2280. But Sage wouldn't
predict how it would look by then. ''When you wait 100 years, unexpected things
can happen,'' he said.
Twenty-one years ago, Manion wrote a book on the diseases
that kill trees, a topic he's studied his entire career. ''For years, most of my
writings were warnings,'' he said. ''I've shifted from being the pessimist, from
beating the drum that there's something bad out there, to saying, 'Hey, let's
stop a minute and figure out what's going on.' '' His surveys show forest death
rates keeping constant, even if beeches have died too fast for comfort. With the
disease beginning to attack smaller beech trees, it may be burning itself out.
Manion said the beech tree will become a smaller component of the forest,
leaving the maples, hemlocks and birches to poke through.
''The forest is going to make it through whatever gets
dumped on it,'' he said. ''It will just change, that's all. ... And it might not
be the changes we want.''
© 2002 The Post-Standard
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