By Grace Neumiller, Keller Leet-Otley, and Tommaso Wagner
Brown ash trees, also known as black ash, are critically endangered throughout the state of Maine. The emerald ash borer, a parasitic beetle that has already killed ash trees across the United States, was first detected in Maine last May — several years before it was anticipated. Faced with these ongoing threats, the Wabanaki tribes — Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot — have been leading the defense of brown ash trees in Maine.
Native to wetlands, but often planted in New England towns, brown ash trees play a critical role in basket-weaving practices, particularly to those of the Wabanaki.
Jennifer Neptune, a member of the Penobscot Nation, director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers’ Alliance, and co-curator of an upcoming art exhibition at Colby College, says that brown ash wood is integral to indigenous basket weaving traditions. Not only does the wood possess flexibility and strength, but the brown ash is also considered to be the source of life in Wabanaki creation stories, central to Wabanaki culture. Under threat of local and global extinctions, brown ash tree endangerment jeopardizes the livelihoods of basketmakers and cultural practices of the Wabanaki.
By PASSANT RABIE
Bigleaf maple trees in Washington state are on the decline. Researchers are on the hunt for the cause, and climate change is turning into a lead suspect.
Daniel Omdal has driven past the same bigleaf maple tree for decades, often stopping his car to take pictures of its full, expansive crown. In the past few years, however, the tree has started to look more lopsided, with bare branches and patches in its crown with little to no growth.
To Omdal, a forest pathologist, it seemed like an obvious case of an insect infestation. If not, perhaps some kind of disease: a damaging fungus, wilt or a rogue bacterium. Whatever it was, it wasn’t isolated to one tree. The extent of sick bigleaf maples was alarming, and Omdal wasn’t the only one who was worried.
Omdal’s colleagues at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, where he has worked since 1997, had noticed the same symptoms in many other bigleaf maples. So had many residents of the region, who called the state to report their concerns. The issue had also been occurring nationwide, with reports of sharp declines of urban tree populations in different states, such as the oak tree in Southern California. In Washington, the problem was hard to miss: Bigleafs, also known as Oregon maples, are a staple of the Pacific Northwest landscape.
“These calls became more frequent, I couldn’t so easily dismiss the concerns,” Omdal says. In 2011, he became part of a state-led team investigating the bigleaf die-offs.
The group discovered that about 40 percent of bigleaf maple trees in Washington state are declining, says Jacob Betzen, a graduate student at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, who has been working with the investigative team for the past two years.
The first suspect on their list was Armillaria, a fungus that causes the roots of the tree to rot. But when the team tested hundreds of trees for it, most of their results came back negative. Then, the researchers tested for another fungus called verticillium wilt. Also negative. Often, a few trees would be infected, but it was never widespread enough to be the primary cause of the species’ decline.
Omdal collected soil samples to test in the lab to look for other causes. Every time his team followed a new lead, it didn’t pan out. “We would come to a dead end,” Omdal says.
Patrick Tobin, Betzen’s advisor and a specialist in disturbance ecology, added, “It’s been puzzling, there’s no smoking gun here.”
Then Betzen noticed something curious about the die-offs. They are much more common in developed landscapes and areas that are warmer, drier and closer to roads. That led to a new suspect: climate change. “It seemed probably related to recent weather patterns, it’s getting hotter and drier in Washington in recent years,” Betzen says. The group’s results won’t be published until Betzen concludes his research at the end of the year, but Tobin is confident that the key driver causing bigleaf maple die-offs is, in fact, climate change.
A forester from Bancroft, Ont., says the province could be doing much more to deal with an insidious disease that’s killing beech trees across Ontario.
Svetlana Zeran called in to CBC’s Ontario Today Monday to say beech bark disease is a major concern on the nearly 400,000 hectares of forest her company manages.
“We have been dealing with beech bark disease for about a decade,” Zeran said. “Now that it is here on the [Canadian] Shield, it is moving very rapidly and we are seeing the disease come in and infect the trees and they are dead within two to five years.”
The disease begins when an insect bores holes in the bark, allowing a red fungus to invade the tree and slowly weaken it from the inside out.
The emerald ash borer is known by entomologists by its acronym: EAB. If you’re an insect aficionado or a tree lover, you likely already know this name. For the rest of you, it’s a name you will know soon enough. It is the cause of arguably the most catastrophic current tree death events in the history of North America.
By Guy Kovner
Sudden oak death has killed up to 50 million trees and 100 million more may be infeceted, according to new research.
A dry winter curtailed the presence of a deadly forest pathogen this year in Sonoma County and 13 other Northern and Central California counties, but experts still expect the oak-killing disease to spread and warned landowners to be vigilant.
Since the mid-1990s, sudden oak death has killed up to 50 million trees from Big Sur to southwest Oregon and is entrenched in the woodlands, spreading rapidly after wet winters and slower during dry years.
“It’s constant, it’s emerging,” said Richard Cobb, an assistant professor of forest health at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “It’s probably going to get a lot worse.”
Cobb said Monday he’s about to publish his estimate of tree mortality, 90 percent of which are tanoaks and most of the rest coast live oaks. Another 100 million trees may be infected by the insidious pathogen that typically takes one or two years to produce symptoms in the infected trees, he said.
The pathogen can be spread by human footprints and nursery plants, but in nature it rides on water droplets blown from the leaves of bay laurel trees, a host species that abounds among the oak and tanoak trees susceptible to the disease.
“We know there’s a lot of disease out there,” said Matteo Garbelotto, director of the forest pathology and mycology laboratory at UC Berkeley, which has organized annual sudden oak death surveys, known as the SOD Blitz, since 2008.
This year’s survey found the estimated rate of infection — based on lab analysis of leaves collected from bay laurels and tanoaks — at 3.5 percent throughout the 14-county region, a marked decline from 12.8 percent last year.
Sonoma County, divided into three areas, also showed sharp declines, which Garbelotto said were anticipated because the 2017 survey, conducted in the wake of two straight wet winters, found the highest infection rate ever recorded in 11 years.
But the survey conducted in May found another consequence — the presence of oaks showing symptoms of infection had increased to 12.2 percent throughout the region, up from 9.4 percent last year.
Next year’s rate should be higher, Garbelotto said, coming two years after the 2017 rains and matching the time it takes for symptoms, such as bleeding cankers in oak tree bark, to appear.
Hygroscopic aerosols — particles in the air that attract water — could be causing forest decline around the world, according to experiments performed in Germany. Researchers believe that aerosol accumulation on trees enables thin bridges of liquid to form between the leaf interior and the leaf surface, causing the plants to dry out much more rapidly.
“In the atmosphere, aerosols act as cloud condensation nuclei,” says Juergen Burkhardt of the University of Bonn, Germany. “Deposited aerosols on leaf surfaces act almost the same way but attract water from inside the plant.”
Plants have developed sophisticated mechanisms for taking up carbon dioxide from the air for photosynthesis without losing too much water but, as the scientists note, it’s a delicate balance. And one that appears to be upset by rising levels of airborne particles.
“Global aerosol concentrations have roughly doubled compared with natural conditions, and the concentration increase over the continents is even higher,” says Burkhardt. “Our results show that aerosols deposited on leaves interfere with this delicate balance, pointing to a direct mechanism by which air pollution can reduce the drought tolerance of plants.”
Burkhardt and colleagues grew three species of tree — Scots pine, silver fir and common oak — for two years in two greenhouses, one ventilated with ambient air and the other fed with air filtered to remove 99% of aerosols. Seedlings grown under filtered conditions had superior drought tolerance to those raised in ambient air, the team found.
By Gabriel Popkin
The trees are dying in three states and Canada, and scientists still don’t know why.
Ohio biologist John Pogacnik admits to mixed feelings about having discovered the latest disease imperiling a major American tree.
Pogacnik first noticed American beech trees with striped and shriveled leaves in 2012 during a routine survey of forests owned by his employer, Lake Metroparks. He didn’t think much of it at first: Just a few trees looked sick, and it had been a strange year, with an unusually warm winter and dry spring.
By the next summer, Pogacnik was seeing ailing trees throughout the six-county region in northeast Ohio where his agency manages more than 35 parks. He alerted colleagues at the Ohio Division of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service.
“I’m glad to have found it, to just put it out there and let people know,” he said. “But it’s still not the greatest feeling in the world.”
Beech leaf disease has now popped up in nine Ohio counties, two other states and Canada, and its spread shows no sign of slowing. The disease has already felled young saplings; mature trees, some hundreds of years old, appear to be on the brink of death. Scientists fear the beech could soon face a plague as serious as those that have devastated chestnut, elm, hemlock and ash trees. “It has all the signs of a significant, emerging pathogen,” said Constance Hausman, a biologist at Cleveland Metroparks.
Scientists are gearing up to fight back, but they face a major challenge: Nobody knows what beech leaf disease is. Searches for a virus, bacteria or fungus — all common tree pathogens — have come up empty. Researchers are facing an arboreal murder mystery.
By Bob Weber
A massive and uncontrollable buildup of mountain pine beetles in Jasper National Park is starting to explode into commercially valuable forests along its boundaries.
Foresters along the park’s edge have seen a tenfold increase in beetle infestation in just months, and some scientists wonder if Parks Canada could have done more to control the invasion a few years ago.
“They decided to consider the pine beetle a ‘native disturbance agent,”‘ said Allan Carroll, who has studied the beetles since the late 1990s and directs the University of British Columbia’s Forest Science program. “In other words, Jasper was not intending to do much about it.”
No end to pine beetle battle in Alberta, experts say
In an emailed statement, Parks Canada said it has had a beetle management plan for the park since 2015 that includes prescribed burns and tree removal.
Too little, too late, said Carroll.
“Just that hesitation intrinsic to producing a management plan precluded any effective outcomes.”
Insects, both beneficial and disruptive, have always been front-of-mind for the people growing our food. Of particular interest in today’s world are invasives: insects that are not native to a region and whose introduction (whether intentional or accidental) is likely to cause harm to our environment, our economy or human health. Or already has.
A 2016 report in Nature Communication estimates that the annual economic impact of invasive insects on goods and services in North America is at least $27.3 billion. And this, say the authors, is likely an underestimation because determining the economic impact of invasives can be particularly difficult. “Most cost estimates are disparate, regionally focused, cover variable periods and are not always grounded in verifiable data,” write the authors. Additionally, the spread and the impact of invasive insects is likely to increase in coming years due to climate change, rising human population densities and intensifying international trade. But, say the authors, there is a way to minimize the impact: increased surveillance, containment and public awareness. In other words: To protect our local farmers, food systems and economies, we – the general public – need to pay attention to the bugs around us.
By Peter Aleshire
Fire season looms.
Every high country community quivers on the cusp.
So the U.S. Forest Service will on Thursday hold a meeting on its plan to use thinning projects and controlled burns across a million acres of Rim Country to dramatically reduce both tree densities and wildfire risk.
One little problem: The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) the plan envisions has fallen years behind schedule and is struggling to make a dent on the hundreds of thousands of acres of projects already approved.
The Forest Service awarded the first 4FRI contract five years ago for an initial 300,000 acres out of a total of 2.6 million eventually targeted. The Forest Service shifted the contract from Pioneer Forest Products to Good Earth AZ after a year, with no projects completed. So far, Good Earth has completed thinning projects on about 8,500 acres out of the 60,000 called for in the original schedule. Good Earth has said it plans to thin 30,000 acres annually, but so far has had trouble lining up enough trucks and capacity at small-wood sawmills to come anywhere near that pace.