The Nature Conservancy has begun using a drone to aid its reforestation efforts in northeast Minnesota.
By Cody Nelson and Jiwon Choi
To understand the health of a forest, conservation workers typically hit the ground and survey the land acre by acre.
It can involve trudging through the woods with hiking boots or snowshoes, looking for gaps in the forest canopy that need restoring.
But this summer, the Nature Conservancy’s Minnesota branch found an easier way to survey the large swaths of forest that comprise some of the over 60,000 acres it manages in the state.
The conservancy began using a drone to aid its reforestation efforts in northeast Minnesota. It has helped in several ways from making highly detailed maps to providing flyover video in key areas.
“It’s almost like another staff member,” said Chris Dunham, the nonprofit’s forestry manager. “We’re a small, small forest team here and we can use every advantage we can get.”
While the forest may look quite thick from the bird’s-eye view, the vantage point can be misleading. The nonprofit has estimated hundreds of thousands of acres of North Shore forest is in need of some help.
One of the Nature Conservancy’s focuses in Minnesota is on restoring riparian gaps — or places along rivers and streams in the forest where trees have died or been cut down.
Restoring these gaps is good for preventing erosion into the river, sequestering more carbon in the forest and creating better wildlife habitat.
There’s still ground-truthing to do once the drone footage in hand, Dunham said, “but you can be way more efficient if you’ve already taken a cruise above the trees and know where you’re headed.”
By Lee Shearer
ATHENS, Ga. — Climate change gets the most attention nowadays when it comes to human-caused environmental destruction, but it’s only one of the ways humans are shredding ecological webs of life.
One that’s under-reported is the growing spread of foreign plants like privet, a nondescript Asian shrub a U.S. Forest Service scientist once compared to an atomic bomb in its ability to obliterate everything around it.
Used for more than a century as a landscaping plant — the Sanford Stadium hedge is one — seven species of privet have now made their way into more than 600,000 acres of Georgia forest and countless urban and rural yards.
Other plants, mainly from China and other Asian countries, have also reached millions of acres in Georgia in a kind of slow-motion life-and-death struggle playing out in various scenarios not just in Georgia but across the world.
They get here and spread in various ways. Many brought here for planting because they’re pretty. Privet and dozens of other invasive exotic plants are a big and under-rated factor in why scientists are seeing steep declines in insect numbers and bird numbers in Georgia and elsewhere, says Georgia Department of Natural Resources botanist and ecologist Mincy Moffett.
“Invasive exotics is about extinction,” he said.
“We’re losing the Southern forest,” said Athens-Clarke County Ecological Resource Manager Mike Wharton.
When Wharton says forest, he’s not just talking about trees, but all the life in a forest — the birds that nest in the trees, the rabbits and voles beneath, the bugs or greenery they eat, even the soil micorganisms and worms.
As privet grows up in thickets, nothing can grow beneath it, and even the soil acidity is changed.
Forest researchers have found that the changed soil is more hospitable for invasive species of worms whose appetites accelerate litter composition and make soil harder, increasing stormwater runoff, Wharton explained.
Humans have been moving plants and animals around thousands of years, but the pressure on natural systems today from invading plants — privet, Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy and many more — is unprecedented, said Karan Rawlins, invasive species coordinator at the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health.
“People have always mixed things up, but in modern times it has sped up, more than a natural system can adapt to,” she said.
No one expects to be able to roll back the invasion, but state land managers, among others, are working to protect and restore what they can. Many landscapes still remain relatively untouched by non-native invasion.
Locally, the State Botanical Garden has been rolling back the exotic plants infesting its forests, and a volunteer group called the Weed Warriors saw native plants return to Athens’ Memorial Park as they worked over years to eradicate the park’s heavy load of privet, ivy and other exotics.
As Athens-Clarke’s Wharton spoke this summer, he watched a small army of volunteers from Athens’ Pilgrims Pride poultry processing plant toil for days in July heat removing privet and other invasive plants from a stretch of the North Oconee River near downtown Athens, giving a head start of years on what Wharton hopes will be a much larger restoration along the river.
When native plants return to the area, re-emerging or seeded with a recipe created by State Botanical Garden of Georgia conservationist Linda Chafin, the stretch will be a seed bank for native plantings elsewhere as Athens-Clarke land managers reclaim more exotic-occupied territory, Wharton said.
“As we pull it back, we’re going to see how beautiful this area is,” Wharton said.
Forest ecologists like Rawlins also hope state lawmakers can be convinced of how serious a threat invasive exotic plants really are.
Georgia is one of just four states that don’t have a noxious weed law that could reduce the sale and use of foreign plants known to be invasion threats.
By Victoria Harker
The United States Forest Service took the first step to issue one of the largest RFPs in the history of the agency to attract industry to Arizona to clear out Arizona forests to reduce damage when wildfires erupt.
In the contract is a call for much-needed biomass industries to remove and burn the massive amount of debris here, said Jeremy Kruger, chief executive of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) for the Forest Service.
“We have a biomass bottleneck,” Kruger said. “Viable biomass utilization is currently the biggest obstacle to accelerating the pace of mechanical forest restoration treatments.”
With the longest contiguous pine forest in the world, northern Arizona is a prime location for reforestation industries as well as facilities that can burn woody forest debris – biomass – and transform it into energy for the electric grid.
Currently, there is only one biomass facility in the state, NovoBio in Snowflake.
Attracting industry has been the biggest challenge. A policy approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission last year also is designed as a shout out to attract biomass plants to the state.
Forest Service to spend $550 million over 20 years
Kruger said the first step of the RFP, a presolicitation notice, was issued July 10 to alert qualified vendors.
The Forest Service plans to spend $550 million over the next 20 years on reforestation. Business and industry will play a key role in this effort by harvesting, processing, and selling wood products.
The RFP calls for awarding contracts to companies to mechanically thin 605,000 to 818,000 acres of forests in Northern Arizona. The RFP will be available to both small and large businesses and seeks proposals that are “sustainable, innovative, feasible, and cost-effective to increase the pace of the scale of forest restoration.”
By Peter Coutu
Integral to Virginia’s history, the pine once dominated most of the region.
For decades, though, the longleaf has been struggling to survive in an environment no longer suited for it. The pine, which thrives under regular burn cycles, stopped getting the necessary fire treatment when earlier residents started extinguishing the blazes that would have killed off competition. And timber companies harvested the longleaf until the tree largely vanished.
At the turn of the century, fewer than 200 such mature conifers remained in Virginia.
In turn, the population of red-cockaded woodpeckers plummeted with the loss of that habitat. Now federally endangered, one could just about count the remaining birds in the state on two hands.
But a group of conservationists from multiple agencies are on a mission to save the state’s so-called “Founding Forest” and with it, the state’s most scarce bird.
By Lucy Sherriff
The native ʻōhiʻa is sacred to Hawaiians as a cultural touchstone and ecological underpinning for the state’s lush forests and abundant wildlife.
HONOLULU — A deadly fungus threatens one of Hawaii’s most beloved and important species, the ʻōhiʻa tree, and those believed responsible for introducing the threat to the tree in the first place are now being asked to help save it — tourists.
The native ʻōhiʻa is sacred to Hawaiians as a cultural touchstone and ecological underpinning for the state’s lush forests and abundant wildlife. The flowering evergreens that can tower to 85 feet comprise 80 percent of the state’s canopy, covering 1 million acres, and its nectar sustains birds and insects found nowhere else on Earth.
Now, public agencies and private citizens are trying to avoid biological and economic catastrophe by proclaiming war against a deadly fungal disease coined “rapid ʻōhiʻa death,” or ROD, that is swiftly destroying the trees. What’s more, invasive species like the miconia tree, native to North and South America and called the “green cancer” of Hawaii’s forests, are choking out the ʻōhiʻa.
The federal government has attempted to stop the fungus and tackle invasive species by imposing a quarantine on Hawaii Island and carrying out extensive tests to learn how the fungus spreads, but it has yet to find a solution. Hawaiian organizations, communities and scientists are now stepping in.
Gunstock Ranch, a horse riding stable and tourist destination on Oahu, is replanting native trees, although not the ʻōhi‘a yet. After conducting a survey on 80 acres of its land in 2016, and finding just two native species, owner Greg Smith established a Hawaiian “legacy forest,” where visitors can plant trees and monitor their growth online.
“Our hope is that as our guests plant and dedicate a tree they will form a new connection to the land and Hawaii and leave knowing that they made a difference,” Smith said.
By Andy Kubis
The relatively new technique counters what had been traditional practice. But, one forester said, “It’s more natural — the way it was supposed to be, the way it was before mining.”
Deep in the Moshannon State Forest in Elk County, there’s a sloped, barren patch of land surrounded by an otherwise healthy forest. It looks as if a tornado has torn through here — the earth has been churned up, with tangled roots and jumbled rocks.
In the late 1800s, this area was deep-mined. Later, it was strip-mined. When the coal companies left in the mid-1990s, the land was abandoned. Then about twelve years ago, the site was reclaimed. Trees were planted, but didn’t take, as often happens on reclaimed minelands.
“The technology back then was to just re-contour the land,” explains John Hecker, a forester for the state who manages this track of land. “But the bulldozers, as they ran over the land, they compacted the soil. Trees don’t do very well on compacted soil. This site is a good example of that.”
What few trees are here are extremely stunted and thin. But now this — and hundreds of acres of formerly mined land in Pennsylvania — are getting an ecological do-over. ‘Reclamation 2.0,’ you could call it.
That’s why the ground is ripped apart. A jumbo-sized bulldozer with a 3-foot blade came through here earlier in the year and criss crossed the area with deep furrows. As the dozer went through, it blended the materials together to make what looks like very healthy soil: a lot of shale, pre-mined and native soils and sandstone.
“Now the tree roots [can] grow down into that loose soil where it’s moist,” Hecker said. “Those trees will really grow well.”
This aggressive form of bulldozing is a relatively new technique; it’s only been used for the last 10 years or so. It’s called the Forestry Reclamation Approach.
By Steve Baragona
ELKINS, WEST VIRGINIA —
Mist rises from the ripped-up and muddy earth as moist soil meets chilly morning air. This field deep within in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest looks more like a Game of Thrones battleground than a woodlands restoration project.
This is how Chris Barton is bringing forests back to Appalachia’s old strip mines: with a bulldozer tearing up the soil with meter-long metal teeth.
“We’ve had a lot of people kind of look at us twice,” he laughed.
Barton is a forest scientist at the University of Kentucky. On these former mines, he’s found that before he can plant a forest, he has to ravage a field.
“The really interesting thing is, after we do it, there’s no question that that was the right thing to do,” he said.
More on that later. First, Barton’s work lies at a crossroads for Appalachia, and for much of the world.
Not rocket science
Coal mines have stripped away roughly 400,000 hectares of Appalachian forests.
Burning coal for energy is adding more and more planet-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. As the planet heats up, experts warn that simply cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t be enough to prevent potentially catastrophic levels of global warming. CO2 must also be removed from the atmosphere.
Currently, experimental machines that pull CO2 directly from the air are too expensive to be practical.
However, a new report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says effective carbon-removal technology already exists.
It’s not rocket science. It’s forests.
The report says planting trees and managing forests, along with carbon-absorbing farming and ranching practices, are among the most cost-effective strategies that are ready for large-scale use today.
Taking advantage of these natural systems could take care of more than a third of the greenhouse gas reductions needed to prevent devastating climate change, according to another recent study.
By Andy Newman
Though it appears destructive, fire in the New Jersey Pinelands is a force of renewal.
On April 22, a spring wildfire roared through Penn State Forest in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, sending 100-foot flames shooting from the crowns of the pitch pines. The fire consumed half a square mile in 40 minutes and could be seen from space. By the time the New Jersey Forest Fire Service got it under control, it had burned 843 acres, an area the size of Central Park.
A week later, even as ash still swirled through air heavy with the creosote scent of burned resin and a cedar log smoldered at the edge of a swamp, the forest was being reborn. Pine cones that open only under extreme heat had released their seeds. Though the trees themselves were charred, almost all survived the fire. Where chest-high blueberry and huckleberry had burned down to pointy stubs, tufts of grass were sprouting.
Destructive fires in the West dominated the news this summer, but for eons fire has been not just an inevitable feature of the landscape, but essential to the forest’s health and continuity. In the vast wilderness of the Pine Barrens, the forest regenerates so fast that scientists studying the physics of fire use it as a laboratory.
Eleven weeks after the fire in Penn State Forest, at the height of summer’s greening, new blueberry bushes were already shin high. A grass that flowers only after fire had put forth purple-brown seeds. And scattered all through the fire site, bursts of bright-green pitch-pine needles grew straight out of scorched trunks.
By Henry Fountain
The country lost most of its trees long ago. Despite years of replanting, it isn’t making much progress.
The country lost most of its trees more than a thousand years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered one-quarter of the countryside. Now Icelanders would like to get some of those forests back, to improve and stabilize the country’s harsh soils, help agriculture and fight climate change.
But restoring even a portion of Iceland’s once-vast forests is a slow and seemingly endless task. Despite the planting of three million or more trees in recent years, the amount of land that is covered in forest — estimated at about 1 percent at the turn of the 20th century, when reforestation was made a priority — has barely increased.
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.