Printer Friendly

Report on our stressed-out forests.

The toll of the droughtiest decade on record is measured in narrow growth rings, half a billion seedlings lost in '88 alone, wilderness wildfires, shade-tree mortality. And the outlook isn't good.

In april 1987, American Forests magazine published an article about the effects of the great drought of 1986 in the southern states. Millions of seedlings were lost, and many thousands of acres burned. That was bad enough. But as the old joke goes: "Cheer up - things could be worse. So I cheered up, and sure enough, things got worse."

Five of this century's warmest years have occurred in the 1980s. Some think the specter of global warming is upon us, and that unprecedented heat and drying are a fact of life for us from here on. Certainly, the year just past was unprecedentedly hot and dry nationally, not just in the Southeast. Barge traffic was impeded by record low water on the Mississippi, bays and estuatries were saltier than normal, wildlife (especially waterfowl) reproduction was low, weather patterns changed, and wildfires ran rampant. The Great Plains suffered its fourth worst year ever for wind erosion of the dry soils.

Each of us feels the effect of drought in different ways. Thanks to lower agricultural production in the Midwest, grain prices are up, and even sunflower seed for the bird feeder costs more than last year. Halloween pumpkins were generally smaller. Some of us had wells go dry. Homeowners in areas where water was rationed sometimes had to watch helplessly as their specimen trees or shrubs withered and died. Getting crops from our gardens was especially challenging. Urban crime rates rose in night after night of sweltering temperatures.

And, our trees and forests took a beating.


Not only were nine lives lost in fighting forest fires, but over five million acres burned. Never before have we had such in-depth television and overall news coverage of fires as they happened. Many of us sat enthralled while weary firefighters told of their hopes in the face of overwhelming odds. There were more than 73,000 separate fires. America's firefighters, the best in the world, prevented all but 299 (in 22 states) from becoming major conflagrations. Thirty-nine states sent fire crews to the West, and some 41,000 firefighters in all saw action.

Of all the fires, the Yellowstone conflagrations caught our national attention, and political fallout from those fires continues. (See the January/February 1989 issue of American Forests for complete details.) The "let-burn" policy in Wilderness and National Park areas has been called into question, and it appears likely the application of that policy will be modified by the firefighting agencies, perhaps at the insistence of Congress, so that the "light hand on the land" will likely get a bit heavier.

Damages were great. Timber and homes worth billions of dolalrs were destroyed. Wildlife habitat, the home of myriad birds and animals, was destroyed, as was the protection offered on millions of acres of valuable watershed. Scenery was obliterated, and once-scenic vistas in some places now reveal views that bring to mind Dante's inferno. Total suppression costs will probably exceed $600 million.

On the positive side, not all fire effects are bad. In the long run, browse eaters like deer and elk will prosper in the burned areas, as those areas green up with new growth. A few years from now, hunters, wildlife watchers, and other should have excellent seasons.

The burned areas are not all moonscapes but offer a mosaic of unburned, lightly burned, moderately scorched, and severely charred patches. Management should try to maintain the mosaic, for such a forest is likely to be healthier and more fireproof.




Two years ago, in 1987, over three million acres were planted with nearly two billion seedlings, making it a record year for forest plantings. But estimates indicate that approximately 30 percent of those seedlings did not survive the drought. The story for 1988 is similar, as an estimated 40 percent or more of the seedlings wilted away in dry weather. Some tree farmers lost all seedlings planted over the last two years. Not only is this a loss in dollars spent on seedlings and the time expended to plant them - it is a growth setback that will affect future harvest levels. That lost growth may not look like much now, but it translates to fewer cubic feet of desired products in the future. Replanting in future years will likely not make up for the deficit. And although a satisfactory number of seedlings survived over many acres of plantations, some 300,000 or more acres (almost 470 square miles) will require replanting, based on a sampling of State Forester estimates compiled by the American Forestry Association in Washington, DC.

Natural regeneration suffered, too. Seeds falling on hot, dry soils cannot effectively germinate, take hold, and become healthy forest. Add to that the fact that many trees were unable to set a good crop of seed, and 1988 has to be called a disastrous year for tree reproduction.

In trees that survived, the record of the 1988 drought is forever locked away in the form of a narrow growth ring. In general, 1988's tree rings are hald or less than half the size of most previous rings. This means a loss of some 10 billion cubic feet of wood in 1988. The United States is proud, and rightfully so, that our annual growth exceeds the amount harvested, but in 1988 that general trend was probably reversed.

The dry years of the 1980s add up to several years of narrow rings and lost growth, which means a smaller percentage rate of growth for the decade. For tree owners, that's like taking a cut in interest rate on a savings account. One result is that investment counselors may not be as ready to recommend forest ownership now as they were 10 years ago. Forest owners may find it harder to borrow money using future tree crops as collateral.

The news of the extensive tree loss might be less disturbing if we were to think of the fire mortality as a natural thinning that will leave more room for the remaining, hardier trees to grow when the drought is over.



Concerned citizens and community leaders have been alarmed about the decline of urban and community trees for some time now, and the drought has heightened that concern as more trees have begun to exhibit signs of drought-related stress. The death of a tree in a forest is sad, but when that tree is a focal point on a beautiful landscaped lawn, it is a calamity for the homeowner. From coast to coast, millions of trees succumbed in 1988, and the drought conributed, directly or indirectly, to many of these deaths.

Urban trees have a tough life to begin with. Fumes, scant growing space, limited water, soil compaction, and attacks by kids, dogs, and cars are not part of a tree's natural environment. Many urban trees do not get the care they need and are stressed as a part of their "abnormal" existence. On top of all these factors, drought and excess heat last year were enough to do many urban and community trees in. The job of replacing trees in and around where we live will required millions of taxpayer dollars plus the efforts of many us as volunteers and workers.

The loss of urban and community trees makes AFA's Global ReLeaf program more important than ever. Planting and maitaining vigorous urban trees are the most cost-effective ways known to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and help ameliorate the "greenhouse effect."



People who grow trees or shrubs for a living were forced to make unplanned expenditures to replace outplanted specimens that died and to water thirsty survivors. Christmas-tree growers and nurserymen alike removed many trees from the potential profit column, but a more insidiously damaging effect was the reduced growth of stems and limbs. Christmas trees did not get a year bigger in 1988, or for several years in the past either, on some growers' properties. Some larger trees and excessive needle shed, resulting in many near-marketable trees remaining in the plantations for an additional year or two.

The result is smaller trees and lower prices, or increased risk and delayed income. Either way, it spells lower profit due to drought.

The American Christmas Tree Association reports many growers lost most of their seedlings planted in 1987 and again in 1988. This will bring those growers a year not too far in the future when they do not have the product size they need to meet marketing plans.



Most of us value the wildlife produced in America's forests. Drought affects wildlife by modifying its habitat. Waterfowl are the most affected, as the drought was worsened the impacts of wetland loss, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Dr. Douglas B. Inkley also points out that in many areas, seed and mast crops are lower than normal or non-existent. Squirrels, deer, turkeys, and other mast feeders will be undernourished, and some will perish.

Thougth the vast fires generally do not kill wildlife directly, habitat is disturbed. Yellowstone Park's grizzly bears had to wander farther afield to properly fatten up for hibernation last year, but predators will prosper on weakened specimens of other wild creatures. Population dynamics will replace many species with different species, as burned forests revegetate with earlier stages of succession.

Streamflows, lake levels, and groundwater levels are lowered during drought, causing damage to recreation, fisheries, wildlife, and watershed resources. Impacts on trout habitat will result in fewer fish, and more money spent to restock streams and lakes and to improve fish habitat. Our riparian habitats, so important for wildlife, are shrinking, and fish and wildlife populations are adversely affected.

Range forage production in the drought areas was reduced to 50 to 80 percent of normanl, and early livestock removal from some ranges was necessary. Prolonged drought affects range just like long-term overgrazing, in that vegetation is set back several successional stages. Often these early stages are undesirable protectors of the soil and are low in range productivity. It may take decades to overcome this kind of insidious degradation of the resource brought on by drought. Meanwhile, cattle numbers will be reduced before the range recovers.

The Drought Relief Act of 1988 became law on August 11. The law will help stricken farmers as well as landowners who own no more than 1,000 acres of timberland if they have seedling losses that exceed 35 percent of normal mortality on lands planted in 1987 or 1988. Also, landowners who lose more than 10 percent of their tree plantations due to wildfire are eligible. Christman-free farms are included. Assistance will be in payments covering 65 percent of the reestablishment costs, or replacement tree seedlings. Assistance to an individual is capped at $25,000.

The drought of 1988, following and adding to the impact of earlier hot and dry years in the 1980s, has aroused the attention of Americans as nothing else has in a long time. We now wonder whether we may have to learn to live in new climatic zones, and whether desertification will eventually come to our gain belt and farmlands. As never before, we are cognizant of the narrow line that can exist between a year of plenty and the specter of famine. Will drought continue? And if it does, what's to become of our trees?

If excess drought and heat continue, the weather will have many serious effects on our trees and forests. Continued stress will make trees more susceptible to insect and disease attack. Tree health on poor sites will decline and the trees there will eventually die, or at least become less effective in providing the benefits for which trees are planted. Ornamentals won't be so ornamental. Leaf coloring and leaf fall will be earlier than normal. Poor seed years will be the rule rather than the exception. The fire threat will continue, even worsen. Our forests and trees will face a disaster. New species will replace former types as "warm weather" trees move to areas now occupied by cooler-site species.

But there's something we can all do. We can join AFA's Global ReLeaf effort to plant more trees to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. We can take good care of existing trees at home and help them survive. And we can fight for wise forest management that keeps trees and forests healthy and thus better able to withstand stress from drought - on public and private lands nationawide.

Is 1988 the harbinger of things to come? Is this just the first sign of major environmental upheavals on the horizon. Or is 1988 an aberration from which our forests will soon recover (though they will show the scars for some time)? Whatever you believe, 1988 left us with enough tree and forest damage to make it clear that we have a stewardship job to do - now more than ever. Our trees and forests need us!

Fire-Team Report

In late September, the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture appointed an interagency team to review the 1988 Yellowstone Area fire activities. The magnitude of the fires and the so-called "let-burn" policy of permitting some natural fires in a wilderness environmnt stirred vigorous debate and concern. The team's report, filed on December 15, found that: * The use of prescribed natural fires, fires allowed to burn under predetermined conditions, is a reasonable policy, but needs to be refined, strengthened, and reaffirmed. * Managing fire entails risks, but they can be reduced by careful planning and preparation, reduction of hazards around high-value developments, and creation of fire breaks. * The ecological effects of prescribed natural fire support resource objectives in Parks and Wilderness, but in some cases the social and economic effects may be unacceptable. Also, uses such as recreation may be affected, and outside areas may be impacted by smoke or stream sedimentation. * More information needs to be given out about prescribed natural burns, and the public needs to have stronger input. * Fire management should be improved by better training, and interagency coordination of terminology and budgets.

As this issue goes to press, the Forest Service has announced a review of all fire-management plans for prescribed wildfire to assure that they comply with standards. Also, review of Forest Service fire policies and practices continues, as do research efforts.

Howard Burnett is Special Projects Forester here at the American Forestry Association.
COPYRIGHT 1989 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Burnett, Howard
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1989
Previous Article:Act spurs controversy beyond New Hampshire.
Next Article:Saving Central America's disappearing conifers.

Related Articles
Trees and your health.
Private nonindustrial forests.
Wildfire watch.
100 years of American forests.
The forest products lab - giving its work away.
Roanoke rising.
Response to determining functional significance of subclavian artery stenosis using exercise thallium-201 stress imaging.
MS and stress.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters