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Report from Lucy's Woods.

This article is the first in a series of reports author Charles E. Little will be sending us in the course of his research for his current book project, The Dying of the Trees, to be published by Viking Press next year. A previous article in AMERICAN FORESTS, "Forests of the Mind (May/June 1991), was also drawn from the research for this book, which deals with the environmental causes and consequences of forest decline and the loss of trees in the U.S. and abroad.

Little, a respected writer on resources and the environment, was formerly head of natural-resources policy research for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress and later founded the American Land Forum to deal with urgent resource policy issues. In 1986, he turned to writing full-time and since then has published many articles and reviews as well as four books, most recently Greenways for America (Johns Hopkins, 1990) and Hope for the Land (Rutgers, 1992). He lives and works in Kensington, Maryland.


This is a "holler," properly speaking--a steep, branching system of coves running to a creek that is a tributary to the Coal River, which itself runs northward through this compressed region of wooded steeps and deeply folded valleys of the Appalachian plateau.

The Coal River Valley lies west of Beckley, West Virginia, a smallish city, yet with an interstate and motels and cardboard hamburgers and all manner of whatnots of automotive America-on-the-move. But once you get into the valley, served by Route 3, a twisty two-lane, you are in a different world. The mountains rise abruptly from the wedged defiles, separating the hollows where the dwellings are clustered.

Once you see this country, you realize that the hollows, so decisively walled off from one another by the mountains, are geopolitical entities, not just neighborhoods. And that thought provides some of the reasons this region suffers not only from poverty but also from political powerlessness. The people are physically divided and therefore economically conquerable. Despite the astonishing natural beauty of the landscape, it is surprisingly easy to be sociological in West Virginia, to relate the gloom of poverty to the looming mountains.

But my mission is not sociological; it is ecological. Therefore I have climbed on the back of Joe Aliff's three-wheeler ORV, which he is impatiently revving after having carefully packed a dark-bearded cheek with a substantial wad of Red Man. "Are you set?" Aliff yells. And without waiting for an answer, he opens the throttle and up we ride through a high pasture and into the late-fall woods along a rough fire road he had built himself, switching back and forth along the slope to make the grade.

And thus did I find myself on a low ridge overlooking Rock Creek Hollow, in the company of a leading citizen and lifelong resident. He is hunkered down, Joe Aliff, hacking at the swollen base of a red oak tree with a Bowie knife, and I am practically in tears. The base is bulbous with extra cambium in the tree's mortal attempt to make up for its rotted roots, which no longer function.

"He's dead," says Joe. "He just don,t know it." To Aliff, these trees have individuality. They are like friends met at the post office. He stands, pointing with his knife tip to a nearby tree. "Here's a white oak dead." And another, prone on the downslope nearby. "He went down this year." The tree still holds its leaves. "See that hickory over there, laying on the ground?" The knife tip swings to another quarter. "Once they hit the ground, they go away fast because they're rotten inside. Dead on the inside, even though they still have leaves." The knife tip moves. "See that red oak over there? He'll pull water another year or two, then he'll be gone. They either snap off in the middle or just fall over of their own weight. They just turn over, like an old tooth, like a mushroom."

As Joe Aliff goes through his litany of death, his own sadness comes into me. His forest is dying. "The last few years it has really started hitting the red oak," says Joe. "I first saw it in the locust on the dry ridges, about 20 years ago. Then I started watching it in the hickory. In the last five years the hickory and the red oak are going away really quick. It's picking up pace.

"There stands a dead hickory; there's another. Every time you walk out, you find another one. Why, I could take you to places where you can't keep a trail open for the three-wheeler. You got to take a chainsaw to keep cutting it out. Makes me feel real bad. My family don't even want to discuss it. They don't even want to see this. That's how bad it's going down."

We are done here. The engine of the ORV kicks over, sputters, roars. I climb back aboard the carrying rack, facing rearward, and we jounce down the fire road and into the pasture, the woods receding behind me until at length, in the distant view, they look like woods again, instead of death.

Nobody knows much about tree death in this forest region. In fact, nobody knows much about this forest region, period. And that is a pity. I have come to think of it as "Lucy's woods," after the remarkable botanist and forest ecologist E. (for Emma) Lucy Braun, who studied it for all of her life, and named it, too, in 1916 when she was a young professor at the University of Cincinnati. The "Mixed Mesophytic," she called it, for it is the richest, most varied deciduous forest on the continent if not the whole world. Indeed, there's only one other forest like it--in southeast Asia.

As the oldest deciduous forest region in North America--its progenitor dates to the Cretaceous, some 60 million years ago--the mixed mesophytic has never been glaciated, never inundated by rising seas, never part of the great plains, which was open ocean when this forest was developing. It is the mother of all eastern deciduous forests, larger than all of New England, taking in southwestern Pennsylvania, southeastern Ohio, small bits of Maryland and Virginia, most of West Virginia, a hunk of Kentucky, and slices of Tennessee and Alabama. And because of its long evolutionary run, it is the most varied, botanically speaking, of any temperate-zone forest anywhere

"Most northern forests," Dr. Braun wrote in her 1950 classic The Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America, "such as spruce-fir or beech-maple, have few dominants." But, she explains, where the conditions for forest development are optimum--the rain abundant, the weather warm--the forest is characterized by a mix of dominant trees: tuliptrees, beech, white oak, black oak, four different basswoods, sugar maple, buckeye, hemlock, among others. Taken together, the canopy can be made up of a dozen or more species, and with understory trees the total can mount to 40 or 50 species in a given area. This is a tree lover's paradise.

As Orie L. Loucks, a noted forest ecologist, told me before my trip to West Virginia, "It is the treasure trove of broad-leaved diversity of North America."

Loucks and I discussed these matters in a quiet corner of the lobby in a small hotel in Foggy Bottom. He comes to Washington, DC, often, does Orie Loucks, for he is a leading acid-rain researcher, a major participant in, as well as outspoken critic of, the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (which he fears is so politically tainted that its final assessment is "unlikely to be viewed as credible in the scientific community.")

Like Joe Aliff, Loucks is bearded and quiet-spoken, and has an equally passionate commitment to "Lucy's woods," which Loucks, virtually alone among his scientific peers, believes should be studied assiduously. He himself has had the dream of doing so since graduate-school days in the mid-1950s .

Loucks accounts for the lack of scientific interest in the mixed mesophytic with the question, "How many people do you know who have a summer home in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia?" The point is that this place is unlike the Adirondacks, which have attracted the wealthy for over a century, or Vermont, where the rich and famous summer and then retire, or even the eastern slopes of the Appalachians, where the Biltmore estate was built near Asheville, North Carolina, and where, farther north, the horsecountry elite chase after terrified foxes in the Virginia hunt country. Where the money and media are, says Loucks, is where the forest research gets done. Where it isn't, the funding is harder to come by.

And so Orie Loucks, as yet unfunded and consequently without sitespecific research findings to rely on, is puzzled about why the trees are dying in the mixed mesophytic. But he has some theories, the primary one being that the trees are dying from acid rain (originating from coal-fired industrial plants, mainly) and ozone (originating from high-compression engines, among other sources). And he is surprised by it.

"Until last spring," said Loucks, "I was saying that there were no air-pollution effects on the north slopes of the mountains of this region or on the flats. I believed in the paradigm that the rich soils have tremendous stocks of calcium to buffer the acid, and were therefore not going to be affected. But then I went to the Coal River Valley and found the forest was falling down all around me on the very same rich soils. It was very troubling." Loucks peered at me to see if I was with him so far.

"Anyway," he continued, "out of that experience I was sensitized to two processes that I was aware of but hadn't really thought through. The first has to do with ozone. We were accepting the fact that an oxidant interacting with the leaves was probably decreasing growth, but not necessarily having a profound effect on forests. But if you decrease the total photosynthesis of a plant, you will produce major effects on the root system."

Loucks explained that the foliage sent the first "share" of carbohydrates to the roots so that the tree would be sure to maintain its needs for water and nutrients. "But if you decrease the available carbohydrates by 10 or 15 or 20 percent, this translates into the decrease in roots of 10 or 15 or 20 percent. You've created a feedback.

Thus a kind of vicious circle is developed. The roots are made smaller by the oxidant damage, leading to a decrease in nutrient and water uptake, which permits even greater impacts from ozone the next year on the weakened tree until, finally, "the whole system accelerates to create a completely stressed tree."

Loucks drew a breath, still peering at me, apparently wondering how good a student I might be. I realized that I was in the presence of a very gifted teacher, as well as scientist, but not one to mollycoddle the intellectually frail.

"The second effect," resumed Professor Loucks, "has to do with the enrichment of nitrogen. We're accustomed to adding nitrogen to corn, but corn happens to be a plant that will open its stomata [leaf and stem pores] and take up more carbon to create a balance. So the more nitrogen you give it, the more carbon it'll take up. But most species in the forest won't grow any faster, no matter what you give 'em. Now, our emissions have tripled the nitrogen that trees get. And since they don't take up any more carbon, the whole system has an altered carbon-nitrogen ratio in the plant tissue. That means that all the secondary metabolites, the materials that the plants produce to resist disease and insects, are altered.

"The Europeans have been working on this, and though they don't know the mechanism, they have identified the tolerances that trees have for nitrogen. Now, our trees here are receiving about three times the tolerance for nitrogen. This does not mean three times the optimal level, but three times the tolerance."

Loucks went on to explain that the altered carbon-nitrogen ratio permits penetration of the tree by pathogens, the fungi that create the rot, which could not penetrate previously. Thus, between the loss of roots from ozone and the penetration of pathogens from the carbon-nitrogen imbalance induced by oxides of nitrogen, the trees have been falling over or snapping off in the Coal River Valley, and elsewhere in the mixed mesophytic, at a rate that could in no way be considered natural.

There are, of course, some who choose to argue with the palpable evidence of tree death such as I witnessed on the low ridge behind Joe Aliff's place in Rock Creek Hollow. Indeed, for reasons that seem to me to be more psychological than ecological, an argument is now raging in the Coal River Valley about just what is happening, like the denial phase when a mortal disease is diagnosed. It all started because a great reporter, John Flynn, one of the earliest to break the acid-rain/ forest story, came home again.

Flynn grew up in this country, for some of the time right here in Rock Creek Hollow. A year ago he was eased out of a top job as a science writer at the Detroit Free Press by people who seemed to him to be more concerned about the state of the automobile industry than the health of trees and people. So Flynn came back to his beloved country after a long absence, only to find it a victim of the very crisis he had been reporting since the early 1980's.

I spoke with Flynn (also bearded; in fact, everyone, including me, who is involved with the mixed mesophytic seems to be given to facial hair except, of course, Lucy Braun) at Sibyl's restaurant and rooming house in Naoma, just a bit down Route 3 from Rock Creek Hollow.

"Right after I got back," John Flynn told me, "I was walking along the road at nine o'clock at night. It was warm and perfectly still. Then a tree fell, bang! Then one dropped right behind it. Bang! I jumped about five feet in the air when I heard this. I've seen trees completely clothed--fully foliaged trees--lying on the forest floor, having fallen when there had been no wind, no rain. A basswood, a red oak. They just fell down."

It was then that Flynn decided to write the story of "the falling forest," which appeared as a special section of the Beckley Register-Herald on Sunday, October 6, 1991, and again on October 9. It is a well-reported and responsible account of what has been happening in the mixed mesophytic in the Coal River Valley. Copies have been distributed far beyond West Virginia to scientists and officials concerned with the effect of air pollution on eastern forests.

But it was not long before the denial began. A month after the articles were published, some West Virginia members of the Society of American Foresters met with a staff writer from the paper to complain about Flynn's report. "The dissenting foresters," wrote Drena Decker in the November 3 Register-Herald, "were shocked by the suggestion that the Appalachian forest is in jeopardy, an idea they term as 'sensationalism.' On the contrary, the group maintains the mixed mesophytic forest referred to in the stories is in 'robust' health, and the state's forests are flourishing as never before."

Flynn dismisses such outbursts, as does Orie Loucks. Flynn's friendship with Loucks goes back 10 years to when Flynn first started writing on acid rain. "John calls me about every two weeks," Orie told me, "just to keep in touch." Loucks knows the stories are accurate. They are well-researched, filled with quotes, and have caught the attention of the World Resources Institute (among others), a well-heeled Washington, DC, environmental think tank that hopes to encourage further research on the mixed mesophytic forest.

Meanwhile, John Flynn, Joe Aliff, and I are standing around in Aliff's farmyard in Rock Creek Hollow. I have just come down off the ridge with Joe and am still a bit choked up. "Anybody Joe takes up there, or anyplace they want to go," says Flynn, "comes back convinced we have a serious problem here." I can believe it.

"You pick out the mountain," says Aliff. "I'll take you there, and you'll see. I don't need to say nothin'. You just need to look."

Aliff presents me with one of his natural-history textbooks. He has many, and is known locally as a serious and accomplished naturalist. He opens the book to the flyleaf, which he uses as a kind of guest register for all the people he has carted up the mountain on the back of his three-wheeler. I add my name and a comment.

I wish to God, I am thinking, that William Reilly of the EPA or Vice President Dan Quayle or Lee Iacocca or anybody else who needs convincing would come down here and take a ride on the back end of Joe Aliff's ORV, just ride through these precious woods--Lucy's woods--and see for themselves.

We shake hands. Flynn and Aliff tell me to come back, in that cordial southern-mountain way. But I don't know if I can. I don't know when I've spent such a wrenching day just interviewing people. I am sick at heart.
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Title Annotation:air pollution in the Appalachian Region's forests
Author:Little, Charles E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Previous Article:Gypsy on the move.
Next Article:The secret harvest.

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