By Matt Stansberry, Illustrations by David Wilson
If there were but one erect and solid tree in the woods, all creatures would go to rub against it and make sure of their footing. –Henry David Thoreau
About twenty miles east of downtown Cleveland, there is a stand of forest with trees older than the U.S. government.
Elephantine, 400-year old American beeches tower over a healthy mix of understory plants and younger trees.
“This is about as virgin as we get,” said Dr. Constance Hausman, Plant and Restoration Ecologist at Cleveland Metroparks.
Mid-spring is the perfect time for tree watching, as the forest wakes up, before the leaves hide all the action.Trees cover nearly 8 million acres in Ohio, 30% of the state. Cleveland Metroparks holds over 23,000 acres, almost one third of which are beech-maple forest. But there aren’t many beech-maple forests like this anywhere. Less than 1% of old growth forests are left east of the Mississippi.
Hausman led me down a trail through the A.B. Williams Memorial Woods at North Chagrin Reservation, one of just a handful of ancient cathedral forest sites in the state, pointing out different species along the trail.
Mid-spring is the perfect time for tree watching, as the forest wakes up, before the leaves hide all the action. I noticed yellow spicebush blooming along the trail, and the first trout lilies and mayapples popped out of the forest floor, sure signs that winter was over.
A craggy red oak soared into the canopy, just off the trail. Hausman stepped into its massive root flares at the base of the trunk, flanges supporting the giant oak that came up to Hausman’s knees.She took out a 15-foot tape measure, and we wrapped it around the trunk at breast height. It didn’t stretch far enough, and we had to measure twice: 169 centimeters, about five and a half feet in diameter, over 17 feet around. “I’ve never maxed out a tape measure before,” Hausman said.
Hausman did some math on her phone. “With a growth factor of four, this tree is at least 270 years old.”
This tree was around before the state of Ohio existed, and yet without a close look, it would blend into the jumble of trunks and limbs. We see trees nearly everywhere we turn: backyards, parks, scrims of branches lining the roads. The ubiquity of trees hides their specificity.
Walking the forest with Hausman was like having a translator in a foreign country. There were details here I would never understand or notice on my own.
Further down the trail Hausman pointed out a shellbark hickory, fused at the base of the trunk with an Eastern hemlock. Hickories are incredibly slow-growing trees, even slower than the oaks. At just two feet in diameter, the tree was 177 years old.
This tree was around before the state of Ohio existed…Nearby she spotted a mound of raised earth and a declivity in the forest floor – signs of an old tip up. This is a place where an ancient tree had fallen over, the rootwad sticking out of the ground. Over hundreds of years, the huge tree had disappeared but the mound of dirt remained.
Further down the trail, a massive rotting trunk lay on the ground. “A tree of this size and age, could have been an American chestnut,” she said. “When you find those really old, really bright red stumps, sometimes those are chestnuts.”
I could tell Hausman wished like hell she could have seen one of those giants. None of us will.
American chestnuts once made up 25% of the deciduous forest in the eastern United States, but the chestnut blight, first discovered in New York in 1904, completely destroyed the entire forest population
Researchers are introducing blight-resistant genes from Japanese and Chinese chestnuts into moderately resistant strains of American chestnut, but the ultimate goal of large scale re-introduction into forests will not occur for some time, if ever.
We will never see the giant chestnut trees our great-grandparents grew up with. And we are losing more species diversity, rapidly.
The American beech is ODNR Naturalist Jim McCormac’s favorite tree. With their thick gray trunks, huge crowns of leaves, and triangle-shaped nuts, beeches provide a ton of food and shelter for wildlife.
“Beeches crank out tons of cool caterpillars which are food for birds. They naturally grow cavities which are used by flying squirrels, barred owls, raccoons. They also have a parasitic plant that blooms in the fall on their roots, called ‘beech drops’,” McCormac said. “American beeches hold their leaves all winter long. They’re still on the trees even at this stage in the spring. When the migratory red bats return to Ohio in the spring, they hide in those remaining leaves during the day.”American beech is a hugely important species for sustaining the abundance and diversity of wildlife in our region. And it’s in a lot of trouble.
Beech bark disease (BBD) has been killing trees across the eastern U.S. for decades. It’s a two-part disease complex – an invasive insect called “beech scale” feeds on the tree’s bark, creating an entry point for an invasive fungus to infect the disturbed areas. BBD causes cankers on the tree that weaken, and often kill it. The disease has spread from its discovery point in Nova Scotia in 1932 to most of the eastern forests.
Some trees are resistant to beech scale, and that resistance is an inheritable trait. The Holden Arboretum just east of Cleveland partnered with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to study resistant strains of American beech and planted resistant saplings in a research plot in 2006. In October 2013, the USFS published its research, outlining a plan to identify BBD resistance and to diversify the genetics of the resistant strains.
It looked like the researchers had found a way to stop the bleeding.
And then something new cropped up in Northeast Ohio. Lake Metroparks Senior Staff Biologist John Pogacnik first found the new beech affliction in 2012. And while he and other researchers are keeping an eye on it, no one seems sure what it is.
“The first sign is a striped effect of the leaves,” Pogacnik said. “The darker sections look almost blistered when you look closely. As the disease progresses on small trees, all of their leaves curl up. The larger trees will be affected on the lowest leaves and then moving up. I am guessing we will start seeing more dead trees this year.”According to Pogacnik, the USFS, Ohio Division of Forestry, USDA, Ohio Department of Agriculture, and Ohio State University are all looking for answers and nobody has found anything definitive. The symptoms have been found throughout Lake County, Ashtabula County, Geauga County, and even in Cuyahoga County all the way to Strongsville.
“There are a lot of experts that have theories, but nobody knows for sure. We have no idea how it’s being spread, but it definitely seems windblown. What I have seen is that trees have gotten worse very quickly,” Pogacnik said. “The theories right now are virus, Phytophthora root fungus, and mite damage. I am thinking virus or virus spread by mites.
“The reason the identification is taking so long is because there are so many other problems.”
Two years ago I hired an arborist to cut down a dozen dying ash trees that were going to fall onto my house.
There are still so many dead snags in my backyard that I will have firewood for as long as I want to burn it – maybe a third of the trees were ash. When I split and stack the wood, I can see the tell-tale sign of the infestation, the squiggled lines inside of the bark where the tree’s lifeblood had been eaten away.
There are five species of ash trees in Ohio, and they are found in a variety of habitats from urban street trees to upland forests to wet flat woods. The state had about 3.8 billion ash trees in 2003, when the emerald ash borer (EAB) was first discovered in Toledo. It spread rapidly throughout the state, and has killed ash trees everywhere. The bugs were found in Cuyahoga County in 2006.
The pest is a bright, metallic green alien-looking beetle from Asia that feeds on the living tissues of ash trees. Infested trees die within three to five years.“The loss of the ash trees trickles down and changes the whole function of a habitat,” Hausman said. “They are a dominant species and so the impact of their loss can significantly alter the function of the forest. With the loss of ash canopy cover, light can now readily penetrate the forest floor, altering soil moisture and temperature. This rapid change to the environment sets up a transition of plant species. And now, any time we have a disturbance from a tree dying – which is a natural part of any forest cycle – it creates a perfect situation for invasive plants to establish themselves.”
Instead of native trees and habitats that provide food for animals, we have virulent, aggressive invasives like honeysuckle and Japanese knotweed, plants that almost nothing eats, taking up habitat and space.
Since 2011, Cleveland Metroparks has planted 4,000 trees to try to make up for the loss of ash, and stave off the spread of invasives.
Researchers at Holden Arboretum are hoping to find other options.
“Initially, the U.S. Forest Service said there was no resistance in the native populations of ashes for emerald ash borer,” said Roger Gettig, Director of Horticulture and Conservation at the arboretum. “But they found some ash trees still alive up in Detroit – ground zero for the infestation. They’re not going to call them resistant, but rather lingering trees. Starting this year, we’re propagating those lingering trees here, and we’re going to challenge them to see if they are resistant. If they are, we’ll start a seed orchard. And start to distribute these, like Johnny Ash Tree.
“That is, if everything works out. We might find that it doesn’t.”
The list of other things killing trees in our region is terrible: butternut canker, hemlock woolly adelgid, oak wilt, Asian longhorned beetle…. Frankly, there’s a litany of goddamn problems, and if we spend much more time on them here, you’re all going to stop reading and slit your wrists.
So let’s transition to a brief history of the Ohio forest ecosystem, which can explain how our forests became so diverse, and why our tree communities are particularly important if not especially unique.
We start our modern forest timeline at the receding of the ice age glaciers 10,000 years ago. Cleveland sat under a mile of ice; there weren’t a lot of trees.
As the glaciers receded, we transitioned from ice and tundra to cool spruce and fir forests. The climate warmed, and beech and maple species moved in; a few thousand years later the climate dried a bit and oak and hickory species migrated north.While the climate played a role in shifting species, humans also dramatically shaped the forest. About 1,000 years ago, Native Americans managed the forests with cutting and burning, resulting in dryer soils and open understories, promoting mast species like oak, hickory, walnut and other food producing trees.
“The mast and fruit attracted white-tailed deer, turkey, raccoon, squirrels, and passenger pigeon, which the Natives hunted,” wrote John Riley, in The Once and Future Great Lakes Country. “In this system, humans were the key, taking both the forage and the forager. It had all the hallmarks of a robust ecological strategy.”
In the 1650s the native nations around Lake Erie collapsed due to disease and conflict. Uncropped, uncut, and unburned, the open woods, meadows and fields grew into old-growth forests. These were the dark, impenetrable, and seemingly endless woods that the European settlers found when they began to sever this land into a grid of small parcels, build roads, and clear the forest in the 1800s.
Despite the illimitable appearance, the settlers made short and brutal work of the forest.
Around 80% of the Great Lakes land was forested in 1600 when aboriginal agriculture was intact. Following the collapse of native cultures and people, the percentage of forested land spiked above 90%. During an incredibly brief period, settlers in our region cleared the primeval woods so that 6% of original forest remained around 1920. Since that time, a replacement second growth forest has reclaimed some farmland and the forested percentage of Ohio is around 30% today.
Despite the dramatic clearing, we have a broad diversity of trees and forest types.
When you consider the biota of this region, there aren’t a lot of endemic species, not many plants or animals that solely call Ohio home. Rather, it is a crossroads of forest communities. We have species at the easternmost, westernmost, southernmost, and northernmost borders of their range – and these borderlands are incredibly important.
“Ohio doesn’t have a lot of unique habitats, but we’re at the edge of a lot of things,” said Gettig. “Plants at the edges of their ranges have slightly different genetic makeup than the individuals at the core of their range. Maybe they are more adaptable to their changing times. They may have developed more genetic diversity, trying to adapt to different habitats.”
Ohio’s role in preserving genetic flexibility is going to be incredibly important as our forests face global climate change.
Tree experts are prone to dealing with longer timelines than many other folks in the ecological sciences – which explains why dendrologists are actively preparing now for climate change, while the rest of us are tweeting photos of polar bears and buying CFL lightbulbs.“We can say with certainty that our species will change,” said Colby Sattler, Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Urban Forestry & Natural Resources Project Manager. “Dr. Jason Grabosky of Rutgers University is a leading researcher in this important field. His modeling of change over time shows that we may see more southerly species, such as longleaf pine, moving north and here in Ohio, we may see our state tree, Ohio buckeye, move out of the region.”
Regardless of what may happen, tree folks are taking action now.
“Given the general long life of trees we’ll need to start planting species now that will proliferate in 20-30 years as opposed to planting trees that will proliferate now, but decline in 20-30 years leaving an infrastructure nightmare,” Sattler said.
At Holden Arboretum, Gettig had shown me on various maps how the sugar maple distribution was clearly moving north.
“How much effort do I want to put into planting new beech-maple habitats, when I know that it is a forest system that’s not going to exist here anymore?” Hausman asked. “It’s not really responsible of me to ignore that this forest type is going to move north in the future.”
Gettig thinks we need to at least consider a controversial concept called assisted migration.
“Trees don’t normally move. But their offspring do. Some of their seeds can fly, some can be dropped by mammals, some move by fruit, blackbirds moving and depositing the seeds,” Gettig explained. “This worked well back when we had contiguous forest over the eastern United States. Now we have oceans of cities and farms and only islands of natural areas, a lot of the forests are not connected. How are trees supposed to migrate? Migration happens over tens of thousands of years. And if global climate change advances as fast as predicted…”
Southern species could move north, but they won’t get here fast enough to compensate.The rate of global climate change is expected to outpace nature’s ability to rebound. There could be long periods between the time that our northern species die out, and the time it takes for southern species to fill the gap.
“The processes that were in place that created the plant communities we have now are no longer in place, or are so severely altered that we don’t know what to expect,” Gettig said. “Species can shift north. For example, maybe Northeast Ohio will be a great location for shingle oak. Are we going to wait for a squirrel to haul a nut up here from the Ozarks?”
Gettig quotes The Little Prince, “You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”
Despite a series of cascading disasters and challenges, there are a smart folks working on these problems.
Cleveland Metroparks, Lake Metroparks, Holden Arboretum, The Western Reserve Land Conservancy, and a whole host of other organizations have been working for over a decade under the auspices of a group called the Lake Erie Allegheny Partnership for Biodiversity (LEAP).
The group was organized by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in 2004. “We spearheaded it, but we don’t own it. We want the members to take the leadership role,” said Renee Boronka, Associate Director of Natural Areas and Botany at the museum.
“The initial reason for forming LEAP was to make sure there weren’t any natural lands in the region not being protected. There wasn’t great communication between the natural resources agencies. We’d think one agency was protecting something, they thought we were, and then it would be developed.”
345,000 private individuals and enterprises own 88% percent of Ohio’s forest land…This coordination is incredibly important, considering 345,000 private individuals and enterprises own 88% percent of Ohio’s forest land, according to a study by the U.S. Forest Service.
The vast majority of forest owners are families, and 29% of Ohio’s family forest owners are at least 65 years old. This group controls 2 million acres of forest acreage.
That’s a whole lot of woodland ecosystem that’s likely to be parceled up, sold and turned into McMansion lots.
How do we protect quality habitat? We need a way to evaluate it. Which is why one of LEAP’s current big projects to developing a new system to score and prioritize woodland health and biodiversity.
Cleveland Metroparks’ Hausman is leading the effort to create a forest vegetation index of biotic integrity – or in conservation geek-speak, a “VIBI.”
“A VIBI surveys habitats and gives them a report card,” Hausman said. “It’s like a doctor’s checkup. What are the signs and symptoms of healthy or stressed forest communities?”
“The reality is, we cannot afford, financially, aesthetically, economically, or environmentally to not be prepared for what’s next.”Ohio EPA uses a standardized VIBI to protect wetland habitats. Under Ohio law, if a developer were to try to clear a wetland, they would have to mitigate for that impact. High value wetlands typically don’t get developed because the VIBIs help rank and assign value to them, and the cost of mitigation is too high.
Hausman and LEAP are developing a scoring system for upland forest habitat. “I don’t see a legal component applied to upland terrestrial forests, but we want to have a way to consistently assess high quality habitats.”
By standardizing an assessment, the LEAP members should be able to prioritize habitat protections and land acquisitions. Between forest fragmentation, invasive species and climate change, they have their work cut out for them.
At a dark point in my research, I had been pouring through the grim list of invasive pathogens and insects in Ohio. I asked Sattler, how fucked are our trees? Should we be panicked?
“Let me flip this script,” Sattler said. “How fucked are we? The reality is, we cannot afford, financially, aesthetically, economically, or environmentally to not be prepared for what’s next.”
Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, Ohio. He is a dad, nature writer, and fly fisherman. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish. More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at dwillustration.com.
Matt and David’s monthly column, “North Coast Biodiversity,” is collected here. Order copies of the first edition of Redhorse — a print collection of the first six “North Coast Biodiversity” columns — here, and signed prints of David Wilson’s original art for the column here.
Looking for more tree-related reading? Check out The State Trees of the Rust Belt and/or Money Does Grow On Trees: Canopy Cover Reflects Income Inequality
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