Monday, October 5, 2009

The death of Niagara's woods

From the 05 October 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Older readers of this column will remember the once abundant American chestnut. This magnificent tree dominated the Eastern landscape with quick-growing specimens that quickly and routinely exceeded reach 100 feet in height. Once World War II ended the chestnut became a thing of the past. By then, more than 3 billion of the trees (25 percent of the Appalachian forest) had succumbed to a blight inadvertently brought to North America from Asia. Now, the tree is extremely rare, only a select few with hardy genes can be found in areas off the beaten path. Those chestnuts almost never reach 50 feet in height and are always short-lived.

Similarly, baby boomers and some of their very oldest offspring will remember how the impressive American elm used to dot the countryside and line city streets. It was a long-lived tree (it could healthily exceed 150 years of age) with thick trunks and wide canopies. Following the demise of the chestnut it, too, had an invasive agent attack it. Dutch Elm Disease, a fungal infection spread by an Asian beetle, ravaged the elm population over the second half of the twentieth century. It didn’t fully wipe out the elms as it did with the chestnuts but it left behind a significantly-smaller population of elms that could reach only a fraction of the age and size that they once did. For all intents and purposes, the elm is basically dead as we knew it.

A lot of folks look back with fondness on chestnuts and elms. Whether someone was a man of the earth who farmed or hunted alongside these once-great trees or was a child who spent many a summer hour climbing or swinging from one of them, they gave us many great memories and also some great economic benefit: The chestnut was one of the best hardwoods for furniture and home construction and the wood of the elm had fantastic strength.

The devastation of our woodlots and forests at the hands of foreign invaders is almost never-ending. It seems that once one species of tree sees its demise another begins to face its greatest threat. Now is no different. Two types of trees which are very abundant on the Niagara Frontier – ashes and beeches – will disappear very soon.

As it stands now, the ash remains unmolested in our area except for the sudden appearance of some beetles in the southwest corner of our state earlier this year. But, that’s not the case in the upper-Midwest. There, 40 million trees have already died at the jaws of the emerald ash borer, another Asian pest that first appeared in the US in 2002. These beetles bore through inner bark of ashes, essentially girdling and ultimately killing the trees. Nearly 8 billion ash trees are at risk of being exterminated. Not only will this have a detrimental impact on our environment, but it will also harm our economy: $25 billion of ash is harvested annually in the United States. There is no known way to control the borer. Its eastward movement can only be slowed down by firewood and timber quarantines (as we’ve seen in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties). It’s pretty much guaranteed that the beetles will demolish our forests. It’s that unstoppable of a pest.

One pestilence that’s well under way is that faced by our beeches. Everyone is familiar with these trees, they of the smooth grey/silver bark (a perfect target for carvings of initials and love), the spiky nuts, and the dead leaves that stay on the tree all winter long. They have fallen victim to beech bark disease, a two-stage ailment where a small insect known as a scale infiltrates the bark and is then followed by a deadly fungus. The bark cracks and falls off and then the malnourished tree topples over. This disease has really put a stranglehold on the area since the turn of the century. Take a look at any woodlot or town park in Niagara or Orleans County. If they are anything like our family farm in Gasport every beech tree is dead or showing symptoms of infection. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago they were healthy and vibrant.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to save the ashes and beeches. They will go the way of the chestnuts and elms, whether it’s now or 5 years down the road. In the meantime, get out in the woods and appreciate their beauty while you can. Take some pictures or harvest the timber before it’s too late to do either. The trees are dying and they will become memories of the past, further changing the look, economic viability and natural balance of the Niagara Frontier.


Kris H said...

As an avid reader of your column, I thought that you would try to link the death of the trees to the death of North American manufacturing. The old trees are the US legacy companies and the Asian diseases are the Asian markets

Unknown said...


Re: Chestnut Trees

Travel down East Ave. to 8455 at the bottom of the hill. Look across the street. There are (I hope) several large chestnut trees. I grew up at 8455 & those trees supplied plenty of chestnuts. The house used to belong to teacher, Mary Mack.

Robin Reese