Facing climate change: Foresters see a future without elms, ash and maples

Birch tree. Photo by Audrey Clark

Birch tree. Photo by Audrey Clark

Editor’s note: “Facing climate change” is series about the impact of global warming on Vermont’s people and environment.

Robert Turner isn’t panicking. He sees more foreign species invading our forests, more dying and downed trees and a shorter winter logging season. These are all things that could be attributed to climate change. But he’s not panicking.

“It’s hard to talk about these things without feeling like the sky is falling,” Turner said. “I think that there are reasons that we as a society and culture ought to be talking about these things. But we’re not in a panic situation by any means.”

That’s because Turner’s profession, forestry, tends to take a long view. When you won’t live to see the crop you planted this year harvested, perspective is a necessity. Turner, an independent natural resources consultant, says foresters have a lot to learn in a changing climate, but because they’re used to changing forests, they’re uniquely prepared.

“We like to think of our learning as adaptive kinds of learning. We try something, and we learn from it, and we change because of what we witness. And that’s certainly going to continue because the changes are going to come faster.”

Sandy Wilmot, a forester with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, has been spending a lot of time lately thinking about forests and climate change, a result of what she calls a “flurry of activity” in state government to prepare for climate change.

Wilmot says there are three main manifestations of a changing climate in Vermont: climbing temperatures (especially in the winter), intensifying winter rain and summer drought, and more frequent big storms.

“Each type of forest in Vermont is going to respond a bit differently to those impacts,” Wilmot said. “The species that are growing here in Vermont but are at the southern end of their range — in other words a lot fewer of those trees can be observed if you go south from here — those are the species that will be most affected.”

The cold hardy species that will be most negatively affected include balsam fir, red spruce and mountain ash.

“We expect in the next 40 years we will see a decrease in the abundance of those in Vermont,” Wilmot said. “We’re not sure how those changes will occur. It’s probably going to be a combination of current trees, full-grown trees dying back, some additional mortality and then the new regeneration of those species would also be affected as temperatures and climate on the forest floor change. So we expect to see changes in the amount of regeneration as well as the amount of these trees in the current forest declining.”

Even trees that are common and widespread in the Northeast, such as sugar maples, are predicted to die off in 100 years in Vermont if society doesn’t curb emissions.

Scientists also say indirect factors will also lead to dieoffs. Hemlock trees, common in Vermont forests, can handle warmer temperatures. What they can’t survive is the hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect that sucks a hemlock’s sap till the tree dies. The hemlock woolly adelgid has been moving north into Vermont as rising temperatures enable the pest to survive the winter and reproduce more frequently.

A number of Vermont’s most common trees are threatened by invasive insects. The emerald ash borer, which destroys ash tree species, is on the way. The Asian longhorned beetle, which kills sugar maples, is also closing in on Vermont from the south. This beetle, combined with a too-warm world, could ring the death knell for the state’s signature tree and the maple industry.

Invasive plant species are becoming more common as well. Common buckthorn, garlic mustard and honeysuckle colonize sunny areas in the forest and crowd out young trees seeking light.

Forests SLIDER

“Invasives are not something that you can pin to climate change,” said Turner, “but you’re certainly seeing invasives in a lot of places that they haven’t been. They’re moving along quite rapidly.”

With more frequent, intense storms, more trees are blown down. These sunny gaps in forests support a diversity of wildlife, which is usually considered a good thing.

But, Turner said, “Certainly if we have larger openings as a result of blowdowns, birds come in, and they’re often bringing in the seeds of invasives.”

That’s why Turner is seeing more invasive plants in the interior of forests, far away from roads.

It’s not just tree species that are changing. It’s also the industry that relies on them. Turner said that in the forestry community, “There is a growing consensus that our winter logging season has been shortened by about three weeks.”

Foresters prefer to move heavy equipment onto frozen ground; in the warm rainy seasons the machines damage the fragile, local environment. But Vermont’s winters are getting shorter and warmer. Three weeks is a quarter of the three-month winter logging season.

Turner is worried about the long-term survival of forests in Vermont and the forestry economy that goes along with it. “I think that our society doesn’t realize how much industry is connected to forestry and as forests change the biggest impact is likely to be economic,” he said.

Turner says as the climate changes, people need to be pragmatic. He believes it is essential to plan for the impacts of invasive species by planting certain species in preparation for future climate conditions. “As managers and communities we have to think about what kinds of mitigation we can do, not just reducing our carbon dioxide emissions,” he said.

Oaks and hickories, for example, will likely replace maples and birches over the next few hundred years.

“Trees take a long time to grow,” Turner said. “If we started planting oaks because we thought oaks will do better than maples, we wouldn’t be able to do anything with those oaks for 40 or 50 or even 70 or 80 years,” Turner said. “As foresters we’re used to thinking like that, it’s not foreign to us to be thinking like that, but in the past we’ve mostly been dealing with the ecology of the trees in the forest. Now we’re dealing with outside factors that we have to consider.”

The uncertainty of future climactic conditions scares Wilmot. “Forests grow really slowly and you’re talking about a crop, if you want to call it that, that takes 80 or 100 years to grow,” she said. “I don’t know how we can anticipate how our future forests will look and I am just hoping that we feel our way in the right direction so that we don’t make mistakes along the way.”

Feeling out a path is exactly what the state is doing, Wilmot said. “Right now, we have really a flurry of activities going on having to do with climate change. At the Agency of Natural Resources there are planning efforts right now to increase the resiliency of a lot of different natural resources, and that would include forestry. I’ve been working on several projects with other foresters to develop some methods that we can use to slowly adapt forests to these changes that we’re expecting.”

These include figuring out how to keep current woodlands healthy by considering the requirements of each species and how they might respond to changes in the climate of the forest floor and interactions with other species.

Wilmot is working on recommendations for how to maintain a healthy forest for foresters at all scales, from the woodlot to the state level.

“It’s not going to solve all the problems. It is taking our current understanding and trying to use the best science possible to feel our way forward,” she said.

Wilmot looks to natural resilience for hope. “We are very fortunate that in the past our forests have regenerated themselves. They’ve adapted to a lot of different problems that have been thrown at them and have recovered in one way or the other. We’ve seen other species fill in those gaps left by species we’ve lost, and these new species provide all the wonderful services that we need of the forests. For example, the elimination of chestnuts in the forest. We rarely think of that anymore because other species have been able to replace them. So that’s my optimism.”

Turner has faith in people. “I think that the fact that we’re beginning to address some of these concerns openly gives me hope, that we’re talking about them not in a reactive way. I think it’s also important for professionals in natural resources to be talking about what we can expect and then engaging in that community conversation so that it’s not scary, and I think that’s happening.”

Audrey Clark

Leave a Reply

35 Comments on "Facing climate change: Foresters see a future without elms, ash and maples"

Comment Policy

VTDigger.org requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Be succinct and to the point. If your comment is over 500 words, consider sending a commentary instead.

We personally review and moderate every comment that is posted here. This takes a lot of time; please consider donating to keep the conversation productive and informative.

The purpose of this policy is to encourage a civil discourse among readers who are willing to stand behind their identities and their comments. VTDigger has created a safe zone for readers who wish to engage in a thoughtful discussion on a range of subjects. We hope you join the conversation.

Privacy policy
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Charles Hohn
2 years 11 months ago
So I’ve heard several times that maples may decline… but why? Sugar maple extends nearly to Georgia and red maple into Florida! It’s not going to get too hot for these species. i actually think the red oaks may take a harder hit. They tolerate warmth, sure, but they are a dry-loving species for the most part and precipitation is expected to increase. It’s already increasing in a more dramatic manner than precipitation. If it warms say, 4 degrees and precipitation doubles, we may lose more oaks than maples. Elm already seems functionally absent from our forests due to Dutch… Read more »
2 years 10 months ago

We have Acer saccharum(sugar maple) in north east florida. However, it is not treated with spigots and a bucket to collect sap! We also have Acer rubrum and acer saccharinum in North East Florida/ North East Florida is quite a bit warmer than any part of Vermontat any time of the year and those trees are doing well down here in high temperastures and plenty of rain.

Kathy Nelson
2 years 11 months ago
I’m curious. When did the VT ANR start taking an interest in trees and forests? Or in wildlife either? I thought their mission was to encourage corporations to plant giant steel wind turbines anywhere they could do the most damage. On the side, I have been planting oaks on my NEK property for several years. I have been told that oaks don’t do well here but I have planted four red oaks, one english oak and one burr oak and they are all doing just fine. The red oak on my neighbor’s property is about 20ft high now. I believe… Read more »
Bruce Post
2 years 11 months ago
Thank you for this continuing series. It is excellent. A non-forester, I have been drawn to research on our Vermont and regional forests in connection with writing and presentations I have been doing on Vermont history. I believe our Vermont forests are still recovering from the destruction wreaked on them by the white settlement and land use patterns of the 19th century. While trees are back, the composition of our forests is different than it was in the pre-settlement forests. And, that has its own consequences. Reading Charles Johnson and others, I learn that Vermont is also faced with on-going… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago
Example of Deforestation and “Reforestation”: In New England, after 80% of it was stripped of its old-growth trees by about 1865, much of the top soil, a thin layer on top of rocks in most places built up over about 9,000 years, eroded. As a result, the new-growth trees that “reforested” less than 50% of New England can be only a pale copy of the old-growth trees. Acid-laden precipitation from Midwest coal plants has damaged the soil, sickened the trees, reduced their longevity and their CO2 absorbing capability. New England’s forest biomass quantity prior to 1865 likely was about 5… Read more »
Steve Wright
2 years 11 months ago
And thanks Bruce, for that cogent point, as I read it; keep the physical system intact and the biological processes can continue to function. Altering this physical system–especially the uplands–as an excuse for contending with climate change is precisely the inverse of an intelligent response. The author helpfully demonstrates the capacity of–in our case–the “forest” to resist surface perturbations if the physical systems are kept intact. Our European ancestors treated this forest as an obstacle. They went at overcoming that obstacle with great zest–and a lot of sheep, cows and crosscut saws. They imposed their culture on the landscape, in… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago

Willem, do you notice the deafening silence among the usual suspects who advocate RE build-outs, when it comes denuding our forests for bio-mass fuel? Also, lets not forget the CO2 and other noxious gases that will be emitted by the proposed Springfield plant. It looks like the usual suspects also have no problem with this reality based on their silence.

The developers of the proposed Springfield bio-mass plant would cut about 420,000 tons of trees each year to fire the plant. Can you imagine how long it would have taken the 19th century settlers to accomplish this amazing feat?

John Greenberg
2 years 11 months ago

What energy source DON’T you hate Peter?

2 years 10 months ago
Peter, The world’s annual CO2 emissions are about 34,000 million metric ton. Vermont’s about 8 million. Assuming Vermont’s CO2 emissions instantly disappear, then there would be about a ((1- (34000 – 8)/34000)) x 100% = 0.024% reduction. If the CO2 emissions of all of the US were to instantly disappear, there would be about a ((1-(34000 – 6000)/34000)) x 100% = 17.6% reduction. But China ADDS about 500 million metric ton EACH year and others add as well, for a total of 830 million metric ton ADDED from 2010 to 2011, i.e., equivalent to about 104 Vermonts. It is irrational… Read more »
Grant Reynolds
2 years 11 months ago
Mr. Post uses 1865 as a turning point for the forests,and Mr. Wright suggests that the mountains were left intact. It was a much less abrupt process, and probably regrowth began in the 1840’s or 1850’s. The sheep boom ended around 1840. Sheep flocks reduced quite dramatically at first, then more slowly as dairy cattle began to take their places. But Sheep can graze on much steeper, thinner slopes than cows,so the upper slopes began to regrow when sheep herds were reduced. On the other hand, the mountains were hardly left intact. It depends on the meaning of mountain. Most… Read more »
2 years 10 months ago
Grant, The 1865 turning point of Western civilization towards modernity was when coal and iron became more prominent, followed by oil and gas. It was also the around end of the Little Ice Age which had started in the 1450s and became less cold in the late 1700s. The world average temperature rose about 1.0 C from 1775 to 1865 WITHOUT A CHANGE IN CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Most of Europe was already deforested. It imported wood from Russia and Scandinavia. Relatively, the US was virgin territory. Excerpt from: http://www.vermontwood.org/documents/VHWW_50_lowmult.pdf “Early settlers in Vermont were eager to establish farms.… Read more »
Kevin Ryan
2 years 11 months ago
Wilmot and the other foresters interviewed for this article give little reason or basis to believe the claims that they make, namely that there will be any impact on maples or any other species of tree over the next hundred years. Unfortunately, this is fairly sloppy reporting. I expect a better standard from VTDigger. I suppose the headline is accurate, the foresters DID say they saw a reduction in native tree species, but the only reason given to believe such a claim to be true is the temp rising, which it is currently not, combined with the conclusion that Vermont… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago

FoLks: Here is a reality BOTANICAL post-I live in North Florida during the winter months and every day I see sugar maples.red maples and just maple-maples.,I ALSO SEE WHITE AND YELLOW BIRCHES, So botanically speaking I am not sure what this article is getting about as far as globa warming impact is concerned in Vermont?

Kristin Sohlstrom
2 years 11 months ago
Why is VT so behind on the times? That’s right, I forgot – money. The earth is cooling, C02 levels are rising. No one can explain this because the earth itself is proving rising C02 levels don’t cause global warming. So now the spin is to scare you using a term called “climate change.” You are supposed to feel guilty because you’ve caused the weather (a.k.a. climate) to change on I-89 from Barre to Burlington. That’s right – YOU are the culprit. Every time climate changes, feel bad about it so money can be spent on “fixing” a problem that… Read more »
Lance Hagen
2 years 11 months ago

Ms. Sohlstrom,

You do realize, the words you speak amount to heresy. The Grand Inquisitor will be at our door this evening, with a mob, holding pitch forks and torches. How dare you even hint that changes in the climate are a result of nature and not man?

Charlie Hohn
2 years 10 months ago

So I guess we have lost a huge proportion of our Arctic summer sea ice because of this cooling climate? Funny thing that this alleged cooling climate has led to loss of sea ice and glacier mass. Last I checked when it gets cold the ice expands. Or maybe the “the earth is cooling” thing is just more denialist silliness.

Colin Flood
2 years 10 months ago
Kristin, nothing you have written has any basis in scientific reality. The Earth’s temperature has warmed over 1 degree Celsius in the past century. That’s a fact. Anyone even remotely familiar with the sixth-grade science involved in the greenhouse effect doesn’t think it’s just a bizarre coincidence that CO2 emissions are rising along with the temperature. Is it our fault? Not really. We were born into a system that relies on fossil fuels and extractive industry, and we can’t step outside of it. Even if we could, that wouldn’t stop it. Our responsibility doesn’t lie in driving or not driving… Read more »
2 years 10 months ago

John Greenberg, do you think that annually cutting several thousands of CO2 absorbing trees to fuel a CO2 belching bio-mass plant is somehow a good thing?

I would also suggest you go to your dictionary again and find a word less ugly than “hate” in expressing your views.

John Greenberg
2 years 10 months ago

Peter,

Critiquing my language doesn’t answer my question.

You’re using electricity to participate in this online forum. What sources do you believe are acceptable? You’ve railed against wind, solar, and biofuels, so please be so kind as to tell us specifically where you think we should be getting our electricity? It’s not an unreasonable question.

2 years 10 months ago
John, you miss my point entirely. The point is the hypocrisy of the renewal energy movement and its failure to acknowledge that the strategies proposed do essentially nothing to solve the green house gas issue. On the one hand there are marches to the Department of Public Service to protest the gas pipeline because of CO2, yet no concern with bio-mass plant CO2 emissions. Then we have the Conservation Law Foundation putting forth CO2 analysis of the gas pipeline, yet remaining silent on bio-mass plant CO2 emissions. The renewal energy advocates wail over the danger of global warming and then… Read more »
2 years 10 months ago

John, also you owe us all another answer: Do you think that annually cutting several thousands of CO2 absorbing trees to fuel a CO2 belching bio-mass plant is somehow a good thing?

John Greenberg
2 years 10 months ago
Peter: Since you’ve advised me to consult a dictionary, I’m sure you have one handy. Check out the difference between “renewal” and “renewable.” With that out of the way, let’s proceed to what little substance there is in your claims: 1) You lump together the protesters at DPS, CLF, GMP, the fossil fuel divestment movement, presumably DPS (who writes the CEP, does the kinds of cost-benefit analysis that you claim have not been done, endorses GMP’s posture vis-à-vis the $21M, etc.) and Lord knows who else as though all of these entities represented one set of interests or one point… Read more »
2 years 10 months ago
John, as usual a lot of words from you along with distorted comments about what I think or mean, but no direct answers to the two questions posed. So here they are again: Do you think that annually cutting several thousands of CO2 absorbing trees to fuel a CO2 belching bio-mass plant is somehow a good thing? Where is the Vermont specific cost-benefit analysis that the state has done that demonstrates that industrial wind turbine development makes economic, environmental, technical and societal sense? In the past you indicated this analysis was in the CEP. It is not, so where is… Read more »
2 years 10 months ago
Willem, adding to your point on CO2 emissions to further demonstrate where the rest of the world is and the futility of Vermont’s clean air efforts, General Electric announced last week that it will be building a 400MW gas fired power plant in Tanzania. Willem, you know the numbers better than anyone, so I ask, what is the environmental impact of this new GE plant? How many ridgeline wind turbines would Vermont and throw in Maine and New Hampshire have to erect to off set the CO2 that the plant in Tanzania will emit? Tanzania is just the tip of… Read more »
2 years 10 months ago
Peter, Late vintage CCGT plants are about 60% efficient. They use 3413/0.6 = 5688 Btu/kWh. CO2 emissions/kWh = 117 lb of CO2/(million Btu x 1 kWh/5688 Btu) = 0.665 lb of CO2/kWh. CCGT production in base-loaded mode = 400 MW x 8760 hr/yr x CF 0.90 = 3,153,600 MWh/yr, steady, low-cost energy. Capital cost = 400 MW x $1,250,000/MW = $500 million Life about 35-40 years. Lowell production = 63 MW x 8760 hr/yr x CF 0.25 = 137,970 MWh/yr, UNSTEADY, VARIABLE, INTERMITTENT, HIGH-COST ENERGY, REQUIRING ENERGY BALANCING BY OTHER GAS TURBINES IN INEFFICIENT, PART-LOAD-RAMPING MODE, i.e., more fuel/kWh and… Read more »
2 years 10 months ago
Willem, thank you for the objective response. It will be interesting to see what others have to say about your analysis. Now, couple your numbers to the fact that the generation of electricity contributes so little to CO2 emissions. According to the Audrey Clark articles, electrical generation amounts to 4% of CO2 emissions. This highlights the futility of fighting global warming using industrial wind turbines. The strategy is economically inefficient, environmentally harmful and does little to improve air quality. Its interesting that the proponents of IWT are so reluctant to discuss or even acknowledge this type of analysis and instead… Read more »
Lance Hagen
2 years 10 months ago

Peter,

Mr. Greenberg is correct if you consider the entire US. I believe Ms. Clark’s number of 4%, is for just the state of Vermont

Lance Hagen
2 years 10 months ago
Peter, To place this in perspective, I did a study earlier as to how much CO2 would be avoided by using the 21 turbines on Lowell Mt. versus Vermont buying this power from the New England grid. Results: Avoided CO2 = 64,576 Tonnes/yr (assuming the power source mix on the New England grid) GMP published avoided CO2 = 92,785 Tonnes/yr (from the best I can tell they used gas power in their calculations for avoided CO2. According to ISO-NE, gas generates only 42% of the grid power and nuclear [CO2 free] generates 31%) On a global scale the CO2 avoidance… Read more »
John Greenberg
2 years 10 months ago

Electricity is 38% of US CO2 emissions: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/co2.html.

2 years 10 months ago

Lance, thank you for sharing your analysis. It does put CO2 avoidance into perspective and should provoke thought on the real effectiveness industrial wind turbines have on global warming vs their cost.

Your analysis makes me think of college board exam analogies such as: Industrial wind turbines are to CO2 avoidance as trays of ice cubes are to cooling a blast furnace.

Lance Hagen
2 years 10 months ago
Peter, from another earlier analysis and posting Let’s look at this CO2 avoidance a little differently, comparing wind turbines to energy efficiency. On average Vermont uses 214,267,000 gallons of fuel oil per year which generates 2,191,691 metric tons of CO2. GMP claims Lowell Mt. will avoid 92,795 metric tons of CO2/year. This GMP number is extremely optimistic. A more realistic number for CO2 avoidance is 64,576 metric tons/year. This means, that through efficiency measures, if Vermont could reduce its consumption of fuel oil by 5% it would avoid generating CO2 at a level better than Lowell Mt. by a factor… Read more »
John Greenberg
2 years 10 months ago

Geez guys, you’ve made a truly remarkable breakthrough here: Vermont is actually smaller than China. Wow! Who knew?

2 years 10 months ago

Yes, a big break though on the relative sizes of China and Vermont. This will be news to the state wonks who failed to take that fact into consideration when developing an energy policy to deal with climate warming.

2 years 10 months ago
Peter, The 2011 CEP is a strategy regarding RE to maximize federal subsidies. It has nothing to do with CO2 emission reduction. If that were the case, Vermont would put all its resources in EE, where it has not even scratched the surface. Denmark and Japan already have energy consumption about 50% of the US/$ of GDP, WITHOUT using Passivhaus housing. Their next step would be 25% of the US energy consumption/$ of GDP, etc. They can do that with higher mileage vehicles, and NON-plug-in hybrids, and Passivhaus buildings, plus using PV solar and thermal solar systems to have net-zero-energy… Read more »
2 years 10 months ago
Lance, by raising the issue fuel oil you have absolutely hit the ball out of the park in the fight to address global warming. Given the dire warnings of the consequences of global warming especially from Bill McKibben and the gang at 350 Vermont, why isn’t there more debate and consideration given to real methods of reducing fuel oil consumption? On a sleepy 4th of July afternoon, before my daughter and son-in-law arrive from home from Texas, I’ll share an opinion piece I wrote in early May, but didn’t post, addressing the issue of fuel oil consumption. The piece proposes… Read more »
wpDiscuz
Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Facing climate change: Foresters see a future without elms, ash and m..."