By James Barron
The city has 10,542 acres of forests. The Natural Areas Conservancy, which says they are at a tipping point, is thinking about how to care for them.
Sarah Charlop-Powers was comparing New York City’s forests to its subways.
The city has more than 840 miles of tracks for one. It has 10,542 acres of the other, about half as much as the Congaree Swamp in South Carolina, a small national park with an old-growth forest and, according to the website I Love National Parks, “more bugs than you can imagine.”
No doubt there are many bugs in New York’s forests, even cockroaches that have yet to find their way to somebody’s basement or bathtub. But Ms. Charlop-Powers, the executive director of a Manhattan-based nonprofit group called the Natural Areas Conservancy, is not focused on them. She sees the trees — and the forest. Most of the city’s forest is deep in parks, and on the worry spectrum, she is “concerned” about them.
“The situation is not dissimilar to the subways, in that we’re at a crucial moment,” she said.
Fortunately, urban forests appear to be at the point the subways reached decades ago, before transit policymakers decided that maintenance could be deferred.
By Janet Marinelli
Edward O. Wilson clambered partway down a slope in the Florida Panhandle, aided by a park ranger and trailed by a few dozen scientists, conservationists, and local landowners. The group had gathered in Torreya State Park, a landscape of dazzling botanical diversity along the upper Apalachicola River, as part of a whirlwind two-day meeting early this month to ponder the fate of its most storied tree. As the wind gusted through leafless branches, the lanky, white-haired Wilson, at 88 years of age still one of the most brilliant biologists of his generation, planted a seedling of the Florida torreya, North America’s most endangered conifer.
Wilson first visited the Apalachicola bluffs in 1957, as a self-described “young guy” with a new position at Harvard University, on an ant-collecting trip in Florida. “I came here,” he recounted, “the way you would go to Paris to visit a cathedral. I just had to see the torreya.” The trees had already begun their steep decline.
More than 60 years later Wilson was back. This time he declared the site “is not only a cathedral, but also a battleground at which one of the greatest events in American history will take place” — a turning point, as he sees it, in the planetary struggle to slow biodiversity loss.
Last spring, another “young guy” was at Torreya State Park on a camping trip with his lab. University of Florida forest pathologist Jason Smith “couldn’t believe how much worse the torreyas were” than when he had seen them the year before. “The population was crashing.” Smith, who has reddish brown hair and a bundle of energy, decided to assemble a team to reflect on the meaning of the species’ imminent demise, to catalog the “torreya tree of life” — all living things with which it associates in the wild — and to plan a last-ditch effort to save it.
“This is a now or never moment for the species,” he says.
While the massive wildfires and tree die-offs out West have gotten most of the press in recent years, the Eastern forests are also in crisis. An increasing number of the region’s iconic native trees are plagued by pests and pathogens introduced from abroad. This has researchers scrambling to find genes that can help impart resistance, and to breed them into the ailing trees. Because classical crossbreeding takes decades — perhaps too long for a critically endangered species like the torreya — options once unimaginable as conservation measures are now being considered, including the new group of gene-editing technologies called CRISPR that has taken the biotech world by storm.
The growing forest health crisis is forcing scientists, conservationists, and the public to answer some of conservation biology’s thorniest questions. Will we be able to use biotechnologies on the frontier of plant science to rescue imperiled species? Should we? And when so many species are at risk, does it make sense to go to extraordinary lengths to save a tree like the Florida torreya that has a tiny historical range and no commercial value?
Healthy forests, just like healthy human populations, are sustained by a diversity of ages and types. In many parts of the United States, forests are becoming largely homogeneous, and in places like the Appalachian Mountains, young forest and mature, old growth forests are in short supply.
A lack of diverse forests has negative impacts on wildlife and the economy, as different age classes support higher biodiversity and provide a more sustainable source of income for forest landowners. Through the use of sustainable forestry practices, forest landowners are able to compensate for lack of natural disturbance.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recommends a number of sustainable forestry practices to forest landowners. These practices provide landowners with a number of choices, depending on the land and a landowner’s goals.
By Robinson Meyer
As the consequences of climate change strike across the United States, ecologists have a guiding principle about how they think plants will respond. Cold-adapted plants will survive if they move “up”—that is, as they move further north (away from the tropics) and higher in elevation (away from the warm ground).
A new survey of how tree populations have shifted over the past three decades finds that this effect is already in action. But there’s a twist: Even more than moving poleward, trees are moving west.
About three-quarters of tree species common to eastern American forests—including white oaks, sugar maples, and American hollies—have shifted their population center west since 1980. More than half of the species studied also moved northward during the same period.
These results, among the first to use empirical data to look at how climate change is shaping eastern forests, were published in Science Advances on Wednesday.
By Kathleen Masterson
A new University of Vermont study finds that harvesting trees in a way that mimics old growth forests not only restores critical habitat for animals and plants, but also stores a surprising amount of carbon…
The “old growth” engineering technique succeeded in creating diverse habitats. But the kicker, Keeton says, is that it has also allowed the forest to store a significant amount of carbon, much more than several other conventional tree selection harvesting techniques. That’s key to fighting climate change.
Now, forests that are left alone — with no trees harvested — store the most carbon. But Keeton’s study is finding that it is possible to manage the forest to maximize carbon capture, and still keep it a working forest.
“This greater amount of carbon storage as compared to the conventional treatments was actually a combination of having left more trees behind in the first place, and growth rates that were actually 10 percent higher in this treatment as compared to the conventional harvest,” Keeton says. “And that was really surprising.”
Keeton says after 10 years, the old growth forest management plot stored nearly as much carbon as the unlogged control forest. It came within 16 percent of carbon storage in the unharvested plots.
WATCH: Scientists protect a vast carbon store by chopping down millions of trees in Scotland.
Foresters have long faced the challenge of explaining their work to decision-makers, the public, and even peers who are far removed, physically or culturally, from the woods. Increasing urbanization exacerbates the problem, such that we have now identified, as coined by Richard Louv, “nature deficit disorder”. Then how sustainable can our forests be when the population has no direct experience with them or even a frame of reference to understand their benefits and importance? Communication, the great catalyst, can transmit knowledge, facilitate understanding and even spur action, but traditionally, foresters are not good at telling their stories. We need all the help we can get to gain the public’s attention and to make our message understood.
We know that all communication media are not created equal. Graphs and tables are powerful tools for conveying certain types of information among professionals, but will never capture the full complexity of a forest system. A well written narrative or essay can capture the heart and stir the imagination, but our attention spans are becoming ever shorter and we are gathering information in smaller, graphically presented bites. Foresters, along with everyone else, must learn to use the new tools of communication that are now available.
One tool that is finally getting off the ground is virtual reality (VR). This puts panoramic or spherical imagery in three dimensions, so the viewer feels fully immersed in the scene being presented. Game developers presenting computer generated imagery (CGI) are at the forefront, but even the average Jane or Joe can get in the act thanks to our friends at Google. With just a smartphone, a free app (either Android or iOS), and a $15 viewer, anyone can produce and share VR content. This is a rapidly evolving area of development for the company, so the shelf life for the details to follow may be short. Still, the technology has come far enough to warrant some experimentation and it is probably wise to jump on rather than be flattened by this oncoming train.
The most accessible region of Google’s VR ecosystem is known as Cardboard. I became aware of it when a precut piece of cardboard with two plastic lenses inserted showed up in my Sunday New York Times. I followed the directions to fold the cardboard into a stereo viewer and then used my phone to access a website with links to VR content, some CGI and some based on photography or video. The phone was placed in the viewer to explore the VR, complete with sound played through the phone’s speaker. An entertaining novelty to be sure, one could also see the potential for a more substantive use of the medium.
The Google Cardboard app allows users to capture and share their own 3-D panoramas. Basically, the user launches the app, selects Cardboard Camera, and then rotates in place to capture the image. The software on the phone then processes the image and places it in a gallery accessible within the app. After selecting one of the images from the gallery it displays with a small icon of the Cardboard viewer. Touch the icon and the image converts to stereo mode. Place the phone in the viewer and the VR experience awaits. Images are sharable from within the app, but may be handled quite differently depending on the mode and target of delivery. Incorporating an image into a webpage takes some additional processing that will be described below.
While Cardboard Camera can certainly take vacation photos to a new level, it also seemed like a excellent mechanism to capture and convey the sights and sounds of the forest. It’s easy to imagine students peering into the viewer to learn about the redwoods or the rainforest. But could it also provide a valuable tool for resource professionals? In my own specialty of natural community restoration, I envisioned managers being able to visually compare their sites to reference communities documented in VR. It would not be a substitute for quantitative measures, but a way to convey details about a site that text and numbers cannot.
To test this vision, I took my Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone to the woods, first holding it by hand at near arm’s length and rotating in place. As might be expected, the finished image, while perfectly readable, had waves where the stitching software could not compensate for my erratic movement. To correct this, I bought an inexpensive ($15) phone mount and placed it on my Promaster XC525 tripod. It worked, but I wondered whether rotating the phone on top of the center point would affect the stereo image. Subsequent trials confirmed that the 3-D effect depends on rotating the phone at some distance from the center point.
There may be more elegant solutions, but I chose the forester’s path by creating an arm for my tripod using a three foot piece of 1×1″ poplar. I drilled a 1/4″ hole through it about one inch from the end. A 1 1/2″ inch long 1/4″ stainless steel bolt was run through the hole near the end of the stick. To this bolt I attached a small ball head from a TrekPod and then attached the phone mount. The ball head is necessary because the phone mount holds the phone horizontally while the Cardboard Camera requires the phone to be held vertically for image capture. Another hole was drilled 25 inches from the first. I ran the second bolt through a quick release plate for my tripod before inserting it through the hole and securing it with a wing nut. I then attached the assembly to the tripod using the quick release plate and finally set the phone in the mount at the end of the arm. Enough of the poplar stick extended behind the tripod to provide a handle that aided in rotating the phone during shooting.
From my relatively brief experience, there are a few of shooting tips to pass along:
- Carefully consider sky conditions before venturing out. When full sun would produce too much contrast, an overcast sky may help even out an exposure. Some of the worst results seem to come when shooting toward backlit clouds.
- The Cardboard Camera app has an exposure lock setting that is supposed to minimize banding in the image. However, disabling the exposure lock allows the camera to adjust as it is turned toward or away from the sun.
- Typically, photographers are told to avoid the flat light of midday, but for VR panoramas, the sun must be high enough to be out of the field of view. Otherwise, the flare will wash out sections of the image.
As mentioned, there are a variety of ways to share VR images. Social media are immediate and built for mobile technology, but posting them on a website provides a stable platform that is accessible to everyone and searchable. This ties back to the idea of having a visual catalog of reference sites for natural communities. The Florida Natural Areas Inventory has begun such a catalog and VR images would be a valuable addition. It’s easy to envision a number of similar applications.
The images from the Cardboard Camera are saved in a vr.jpeg format. Normal image editing software seems to remove the file information that enables the VR. Therefore, the image files must be copied and saved without alteration. Conversely, these images will be displayed as a flat image by standard web browsers unless they are processed before posting. Google provides a drag-and-drop image conversion utility to produce a stereo-capable panorama for the web. The converter works in Chrome, but not Safari. (I have not tested other browsers.)
My experimentation with the technology is still in its early days. A simple application of VR can be found on my website. One can view the panoramas on a desktop computer in full screen mode and navigate them with a mouse. From a phone with Google Cardboard installed, one can launch the stereo image ready for 3-D viewing.
I’m certain that VR will become easier to produce and more integrated into all forms of media. The trick will be to capture and present engaging images that will increase our understanding of and appreciation for our forests.
By Alexa Keefe
Photographer Tomasz Lazar asks us to envision the final walk of those who have died in Aokigahara forest—as well as the spirits that remain.
At the base of Mount Fuji is a dense, verdant forest. From above, the trees swaying in the wind are reminiscent of the sea, giving the Aokigahara forest a second name—Jukai, or Sea of Trees. The ground below is uneven and riddled with small caves, moss-covered roots growing on top of the dried lava that once flowed there. The soil has a high iron content which interferes with GPS and cell phone signals.
This is a very easy place to get lost. Visitors are strongly encouraged to stay on the trails.
There are some people, however, who enter the forest with the intention of not coming out. Signs at the forest entrances remind visitors that their lives are precious, to think of their families. At the bottom of the signs is the number for a suicide hotline.