Forest Leaves Log: Planning and Planting for Climate Change

Posted: January 7, 2014

In the Fall 2013 issue of Forest Leaves, we asked you to write in and share what you’re seeing as we experience change across our forested landscapes. The first contribution comes from Nancy G.W. Baker, a forest landowner in Bradford County, Pennsylvania. We invite you to share your observations.

My family’s tenure on our Northern Pennsylvania land extends over 150 years: there are tales of -44° F winters, killing frosts in every month, and struggles to grow Silver Queen Sweet Corn with its 92-day frost free requirement. Today erratic January temperatures reach 70°, neighboring maple syrup producers have a tough time predicting sap flows, drought is followed by deluges, and we suffer through a sauna called July. I’ve an invasion of hemlock wooly adelgid, white ash decline on sites that are parching in summer heat, and a veritable explosion of deer ticks. A warming, more erratic climate forecasts additional stress and a changing composition in my woods over the next 80 to 150 years. A “hands-off” attitude would be a recipe for disaster; my forester and I need to get into our woods, give them their annual physical, and design a preventive medicine plan for their future. 

My land has both north and south facing slopes. There are several elements of concern; here’s what the “doctor” proposes:

First is a section of south-facing woods, land which was cleared and then pastured until the 1940s when it was allowed to follow natural succession. Dominated by white ash, this once beautiful and robust young wood is now in declining health. Stressed by drought, subject to ash wilt, it’s waiting for the coup-de-grace of emerald ash borer. Its newly-opened canopy allowed a generous helping of invasives to gain a foothold, but they have been controlled using EQIP funding. There is some good young northern red oak regeneration here; 1939 aerial photos show a remnant patch of large red oaks in an adjacent stand. How about looking to oak-hickory dominated forests 100 miles or so to our south?  Plus we ought to try to create a more diverse forest which might be more resilient to future change. The prescription?  Let’s supplement the oaks, shagbark hickory and maples already there. Two years ago we caged (and cut) 475 current red, white and chestnut oak seedlings to encourage straight resprouts (some are now above 7’ high!). In the spring of 2012 we planted species which might have been in the original forest: red oak, chestnut oak, swamp white oak, cucumber magnolia, basswood, serviceberry, American mountain ash, butternut, most from more-southerly nurseries. In addition, we planted more southerly species: mockernut hickory, red hickory, yellow poplar, black gum, persimmon, flowering dogwood; we’ll try to add black oak when seedlings are available. We hedged our bets with some bur oak. Expecting the loss of hemlock, we’ve added clumps of Meyer and Norway spruce, but we’re looking for Pitch/Loblolly hybrid pines. 

Our stands of north/east-facing woods are of greater age than those above. Already beech, yellow birch, ash, sugar maple and hemlock show signs of trouble. With warming temperatures, trees at the southern edge of their range are both stressed and more susceptible to pests. Hemlock wooly adelgid, beech scale and winter moth are all temperature dependent invasive pests of forest trees and will likely be more prevalent in these woods as they move north with warming temperatures. In addition, temperature stressed trees are more susceptible to native nuisance species such as sugar maple borer and armillaria root rot. If these trees and woods are to survive, they will need to be protected from both native and non-native pests. I can start by waging war on garlic mustard, which interferes with the mycorrhizal fungi so necessary to the health of these north-facing forests. And our forester and I have begun the initial conversation about treating individual trees with systemic pesticides. I’m not thrilled with this; it’s expensive and like many medicines, there are side-effects. But unless I maintain the forest over my two trout streams, both the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems will suffer.

Like any good steward, I’m looking to the future of the patient. The prescription is increased diversity, planned resilience, and defense. Time, 100 years plus, long after I’m gone, will tell if the medicine works.