Tears in the Forest Web

by Michael J. Caduto

2000 All Rights Reserved

(The first of two articles on forest health.

See also: "Of North Woods and Neotropics.")




There will be a day coming

when you will see the trees start dying

from the top down.1

— Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Prophecy


The thinning of treetops is one form of forest fragmentation hauntingly presaged by the ancient Haudenosaunee peoples. And that day has come. Forest fragmentation is ubiquitous; from the wasting of the tops of sugar maple crowns due to air pollution to the clearcutting of vast expanses of northern forest and the denuding of neotropical cloudland rainforest. It's easier to understand such a far-reaching issue if we look at what is happening in our own backyards. The march of suburban sprawl in southern New England, as well as the rampant growth of second homes in northern New England, are both contributing to the fragmentation of what have been, for many years, large contiguous tracts of forest habitat.

Not all forests, however, are felled by the proverbial axe. One recent sign of damage to deciduous forests in the northeastern states and maritime provinces is a decline in the health and vigor of sugar maples.2 Symptoms include thin foliage and dying branches. Air pollution wraps the crowns in a chemical blanket that stresses trees and weakens their immune systems. A high level of ozone in the lower atmosphere is a problem, as is, ironically, depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer which exposes trees to more of the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. Trees are also stressed by climatic changes—extreme fluctuations in temperature and rainfall. As a result of being weakened by these forces, trees are susceptible to damage from insects, diseases and even normal climatic cycles.

"Air pollution is having severe effects," observes Gerry Hawkes, a forester in Woodstock, Vermont who keeps a keen eye to the treetops. "You notice the pines browning in a lot of places this year. That's not forest fragmentation from infrastructure, but in a way it is because of pollution created by vehicles that run on the infrastructure. Once you get islands of trees starting to die out you get de facto fragmentation."

Hawkes traces the root of pollution, fragmentation, strip developments and scattered homesites to the automobile and its insatiable need for more roads and fuel. "A large part of the air pollution is transportation-generated. The automobile has allowed us to live away from population centers, which has in turn led to forest fragmentation. We would have, say, one-tenth the effects on forest fragmentation if we did not have the automobile that allows us to build way off and then chop roads through areas because we can easily hop in and travel."

"I've stopped building access into woodlands" says Hawkes. "A nice woodland road leads to building a house, then a bigger road—it just opens it up to people and they envision something more grandiose. The next thing you know you've got a fragmented forest. You can't just bemoan forest fragmentation without thinking about the social structure and transportation system that lead to it. You can't just think about air pollution, you have to think about the effects on peoples' social lives and communities, the effects on wildlife communities—it's all tied together."



Untying the Strands

The forest is a macro-organism, a community of living things interconnected by a vast web of root graphs, symbiotic threads that bind roots to fungal mycorrhizae, and an infinite variety of interrelationships between plants, animals and microbes, many of which we will never fully understand. In the Pacific Northwest the dragging of a single log along the surface of the forest floor may sever the shallow-growing essential fungal connections that help to define the ecological character of old-growth forests so disastrously that it takes 200 years for those interconnections to become reestablished. When it comes to forest habitat, the sum of the parts is exceeded by the value of the whole. It takes generations for an ecosystem to mature and to express itself ecologically and aesthetically. As Charles Little writes in The Dying of the Trees, "If the evolved, biologically rich ecosystem that created the original forest is once destroyed, by clear-cutting for example, it may well be destroyed forever."

Experience has taught that the axe has many faces; it can chop the hand that wields it. Fragmentation affects the ecological integrity of forest habitat. Increased boundaries between habitats, known as edge, lowers the quality of habitat for species that favor large, unbroken forest. Fragmentation encourages an incursion of species that thrive where forest edges border on other kinds of habitat, including invasive and exotic species such as raccoons, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and many insects and diseases. Some birds, such as the Chestnut-sided Warbler and Mourning Warbler, nest in clearings during the first few years of sprouting that follow a forest cutting.

These issues are of concern to biologists in the less populated regions of northern New England, such as Vermont's former State Naturalist, Charles Johnson. "We've been doing all kinds of things just to compare numbers of birds, movements of birds, behavior of birds, reproductive success of birds. Our great concern is that there may be a cumulative impact of things whittling away at the habitat. Who knows what the overall affect is."

Johnson observes that "Even with good intentions, if you start off with a piece of property that has one owner, say, a thousand acres or more, and you divide that in half, you have two owners whose objectives might be different. It's the same wildlife on that property, and yet, you've got two owners making decisions about it based on their own personal priorities. Even with the best goals you might be going off in two different directions. The more and more ownerships there are, the task of keeping it intact becomes harder and harder. You have to talk to that many more people, you have to deal with that many more objectives, you have to deal with that many more financial constraints they have on their future and that of their kids."

From a forester's perspective, smaller parcels are less productive. Fragmentation into small, privately-owned parcels also reduces recreational access to open lands and the kinds of intangible values that affect how much we enjoy living in our communities, and whether we feel a sense of connection to each other and the natural world.

While managing state land and observing wildlife in the north woods, Charles Johnson has given weight to the fact that habitat has to provide the basic needs of wildlife. "In a lot of cases, like some of the big predators, they'd clean themselves out of house and home pretty quickly, at least their food source. How many rabbits or snowshoe hares does it take to sustain, say, one bobcat over a year? Also, since they are top carnivores there are relatively few of them and there's competition between individuals and families, there's a spatial arrangement for territory as well. Maybe a lot of these big animals just like having space, period. Black bear may just like being alone, besides needing a lot of territory to hunt. I think that something happens when human beings lose that value. Although you're not going to sell this in a scientific forum: If it bothers us, why doesn't it bother a bear or a bobcat?"

Species with smaller habitat ranges, too, are affected by fragmentation according to Johnson. "Some of the smaller animals also migrate, like mole salamanders who need travel corridors and vernal pools. If you're continuously chopping up land, at what point does it become too small or these byways cut off? How are you going to say that this is what we need, a maximum or minimum size?"

Far to the north, where acres of forest outnumber the human population, largescale transactions are occurring that will determine the future of northern forests for generations. Champion Paper Company recently unloaded all of its 300,000-acre holding in one fell swoop—in northern New Hampshire, the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and in the Adirondacks.

In Vermont this purchase totaled 140,000 acres, most of which is in three large parcels. "Fortunately," says Charles Johnson, "there was a conservation buyer in this case. In the Champion case there will be 22,000 acres of land owned by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, adjacent to 26,000 acres owned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, surrounded by 84,000 acres of land that will stay in private ownership with the Essex Timber Company of Boston. Essex Timber's land will be under conservation easements, so it can't be clearcut beyond a certain size plot and can only have so many roads."

"That's great, but it’s still a subdivision. You're going from one ownership to many owners. Management objectives can change between those ownerships, which often are different. There was a study done on the size of parcels in the northern forest over a ten-year period, and, although a lot of the property is changing hands to other timber companies, many parcels are still getting smaller. Second home development also can be detrimental when the only motivation is to buy a chunk of land for privacy, and so they're often stuck further away and they subdivide deeper woods and critical wildlife habitat. It may not appear to be fragmentation, but it is, with a house and a driveway and a lot line, then may come a house for their son or daughter. I'm not condemning these people because, I suppose, if I'd lived in the city all my life I'd want to get away."

Johnson is also concerned that "Many mountains have been developed for skiing, and that is a form of fragmentation. You look at an aerial view of ski trails on a mountain and it can look like a braided glacial river flowing from the top down, with little islands and strips of habitat in between the slopes. A lot of the ski areas are now in an expansion mode, they want to get bigger. Almost every single major ski area has, or has had, expansion projects. There's linking of areas, too, like Sugarbush north and south, Mount Snow wants to link up with peaks to the south that have Bicknell's Thrush on them, Killington and Pico interconnect. Those are big projects with potentially big impacts."

As researchers work diligently and sort through their findings to assess the impacts of forest fragmentation, the general public is unequivocal about its support for forest conservation on public lands. Two United States Forest Service public opinion surveys of New England residents, conducted in 1996 and 1998 among visitors to the Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, found that 86 percent of visitors to the White Mountains would like a ban on clear-cutting, while 94 percent want undisturbed forests to be protected. Three quarters of those surveyed said logging should not be conducted where it will adversely affect wildlife habitats and nearly nine out of ten people placed the highest priority on protecting fish and wildlife. In contrast to common misconceptions about the public will, 91 percent said they are willing to make sacrifices in order to protect the forests for future generations. Since 93 percent of visitors rated aesthetics as being moderately to extremely important, this was the most cherished value. Opinions expressed in the study conducted among visitors to the Green Mountains were similar.



* * * *


What We Can Do to Keep the Forests Whole


We can all help to manage and preserve forest habitat. Here is a list of ideas shared by the experts interviewed for this article.


Private Lands and Individuals

Keep the habitat whole. The bigger and the less dissected a forest parcel, and the more connected, the better it is for all species.

Maintain buffers and wildlife corridors. This is especially important along rivers— riparian habitats. The Rivers Protection Act states that you cannot build closer than 200 feet of a permanent stream or river unless it can be shown that there will be no significant adverse impacts to wildlife habitat and that there is no practicable and substantially equivalent economic alternative. Leaving a buffer that is wider than 200 feet is even better.

Buy a pre-owned house rather than buying land and building a new home which destroys more habitat and uses more natural resources.

Use less fossil fuels to reduce the air pollution that harms trees and forests.

Work on local projects and maintain the integrity of the community. Our sense of belonging, of history and attachment are the foundation for our caring and action.

Teach realtors about ecology and conservation. Naturalist Charles Johnson says "This will help them to think of new ways to work with landowners about locating houses with an eye for habitat preservation."

When cutting forests, practice wise stewardship based on longterm, sustainable management plans that encourage biological diversity and ecological health. A truly sustainable forestry program needs to be both rigorous and independently monitored, such as the certification program run by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Purchase lumber and wood products that come from trees harvested according to the sustainable forestry management guidelines of the Forest Stewardship Council and which bears the Council’s logo.

Get involved in local communities and support your town if it is trying to purchase land for conservation. Think of the big picture—the whole environment of your town and the county you live in—and what kind of an environment that is going to look like when you pass it on to future generations.

Join organizations that are working to preserve habitat.

Make donations when local conservation groups are raising funds to purchase land. This might take the form of a fund raiser to add onto an existing sanctuary.

Be politically watchful for ways to support bond issues and other conservation initiatives. Tell your legislators that we should buy land to conserve a green environment.

Drink shade-grown coffee. Some neotropical habitat is being lost as the forests that support traditional, sustainable, shade-grown coffee are being cleared and converted to sun-grown coffee plantations that are less diverse and deplete the soil ove


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Contact Gerry Hawkes: ghawkes@eco-systems.org