WARNING to readers
The Dying of the Trees by Charles Little is an important book.
It is also an appalling book. And it is about the most difficult book I've
ever read - given how much I read, that's saying something. Normally, I
can polish off a book of this size in a day or three, but I stalled this
one out for weeks. This is not because it's a poorly written book. On the
contrary, it is a well researched, presented and written exposé.
Reading this took a form of dedication: a dedication to reality - a reality
that most folks would really rather not know about. And in their ignorance,
the reality marches on. The problem comes from what Little refers to in
the final chapter as: "environmental despair." But the reality
of the persistent decline of our systems around us means that we must either
confront these hard realities and do something about them in advance, or
stay in a self-centered denial until things unravel to the point of potential
So, for those brave souls who venture further to read the following review
and excerpts, be forewarned - you won't like it. But it is important. It
is real. And we better figure out how to do something.
- Carolyn Chase
The Dying of the Trees
by Peter Montague, reprinted from Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly,
"'We worry about that, you know. The environment. We wonder if
we should have children.' It occurred to me more forcefully than ever before,
that, put in these intimate terms, posterity is not some sort of abstract
notion any longer, trotted out by environmentalists... posterity was staring
me in the face right there on the front porch. What is worse is that I had
not told her all of it - not even half of it."
Charles Little, The Dying of the Trees
f you read newspapers or magazines looking for information
about forests, what do you find? You find stories about the destruction
of rain forests in South America and about the logging battle raging in
the Pacific Northwest over the spotted owl. Except for these two issues,
forest problems don't make the news. But forest problems are pervasive,
and are as important. To put it bluntly, trees are sick and dying everywhere
in the United States. At first blush, this seems like an extreme statement.
But a new book, The Dying of the Trees by Charles Little, will convince
you it is true.
This book gives a detailed picture of sick and dying
trees, from New England to Oregon and California, from Alaska to Florida,
across the upper Midwest, across the southern border states, and even into
the desert southwest where the giant saguaro cactus is in major decline.
It seems clear that the dying trees are one more sign of danger, one more
omen warning us that something is terribly wrong.
Why are the trees dying? The reasons are many and varied.
In New England, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana
and Kentucky it's a combination of acid rain and clear cuts. In California,
it's killer smog. In Arizona, New Mexico and elsewhere it's excessive ultraviolet
light filtering through the earth's damaged ozone shield. In other places,
it's pesticides, or toxic heavy metals released by burning coal and oil.
In Alaska and Florida, it's rising temperatures and rising sea levels from
global warming. In Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state, it's destructive
forestry practices (clear-cut logging, and fire suppression) that leave
forests weakened, unable to withstand extremes of weather or attacks by
insects or funguses.
In most places, in truth, it's probably various combinations
of all these factors. Scientists are playing catch-up now, conducting studies
that may explain the complicated causes of widespread tree death. But when
we postpone action until the scientists have described the problems completely,
we get the answers too late to do any good.
Answers come slowly. Hubert "Hub" Vogelmann,
a botanist at the University of Vermont, wanted to study an undisturbed
forest. So, in 1965 he made a thorough survey of Camel's Hump, a 4083-foot
peak in the Green Mountains. So far as he knew, he was describing a healthy
ecosystem. He measured the types and sizes of the trees, and various other
aspects of the ecosystem. He had no particular purpose in mind, other than
to gather knowledge about nature.
Periodically, he resurveyed Camel's Hump, and a pattern
began to emerge. The trees were dying. His survey in 1979, compared to the
baseline study of 1965, showed a 48 percent loss of red spruce; a 73 percent
loss of mountain maple; a 49 percent loss of striped maple; and a 35 percent
loss of sugar maple.
By examining tree rings, and by other studies, Hub Vogelmann
was able to show that the health of Camel's Hump had begun to decline in
the period from 1950 to 1960. Similar studies in the Black Forest of Germany,
and in southern Canada, revealed that the most likely cause was acid rain.
Acid rain occurs when coal and oil are burned, releasing
sulfur which combines with rain (or fog or snow) to make acid precipitation.
Acidity is measured in units called pH. Pure water has a pH of 7: it is
"neutral," neither acidic nor alkaline. Pure rainwater has a pH
of 5.6: slightly acidic because rain absorbs carbon dioxide from the air
to form a weak solution of carbonic acid ("soda water").
After World War II, the United States saw a massive
rise in use of coal and oil. The resulting smoke was obvious, and obviously
harmful. In Donora, Pennsylvania, (south of Pittsburgh) in 1948, half the
people in the town fell ill for 3 days because of coal smoke in the air.
Twenty people died. In London, England, in 1952, coal smoke killed 4,000
people during a pollution episode.
The official response in the 1950s was to build smoke
stacks hundreds of feet tall to dilute the pollution. Today, the Ohio River
valley is still dotted by enormous coal-burning power plants with stacks
as high as 1000 feet. These tall stacks allow the sulfurous pollution to
travel 1000 miles or more, where it forms acid rain across the Adirondack
mountains of New York, and across northern New England and southern Canada.
In Vermont, the rain has a pH of 3.8 to 4.0. The pH
scale is "logarithmic" so a change from normal (5.6) down to 4.6
means the rain has gotten ten times as acidic as normal; at 3.6 the rain
is 100 times as acidic as normal.
It wasn't until 1972 that Eugene Likens (then at Cornell
University) and F. Herbert Bormann at Yale discovered acid rain. But meanwhile,
acid rain had been falling on northern New York and New England and on southern
Canada for about 20 years.
What Hub Vogelmann has been able to show by studying
Camel's Hump for 30 years is that acid rain doesn't just affect the trees
- it affects the soil and thus the entire ecosystem. Soil contains a large
amount of aluminum, but it occurs in the form of aluminum silicates. In
that form, aluminum is not available to the roots of plants. But acid rain
dissolves the silicates, releasing the aluminum and making it available
to plants. When plants get aluminum into their roots and their vascular
system, the roots clog, which prevents the plant from taking up adequate
nutrients and water. The trees are weakened, and may then fall prey to extreme
cold, or to insects or pathogens that a healthy tree can withstand.
Acid rain not only releases aluminum into the soil.
It also releases other minerals - calcium, magnesium, phosphorus - which
are fertilizer for the tree. Acid rain releases these fertilizers to be
washed out of the soil, leaving the soil depleted of nutrients.
But that is not the end of the problem. The roots of
many trees create a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with an
orange-colored sponge-like fungus called mycorrhiza. The tree roots provide
sustenance to the mycorrhiza, and the mycorrhiza help the tree roots gather
water and nutrients from the soil. Acid rain kills mycorrhiza, thus further
reducing the ability of trees to absorb water and nutrients from the soil.
And that's not all. Acid rain kills off portions of
the detritus food chain. The detritus food chain consists of all the microscopic
creatures that "compost" leaves, twigs, pine needles, dead branches
and so forth, turning them back into soil. Because the detritus food chain
is damaged by acid rain, forest "litter" builds up on the floor
of the forest. The litter prevents new saplings from taking root - they
can't reach through the litter to make contact with the soil below.
This is not a complete description of problems caused
by acid rain, but it gives a sense of the complexity of ecosystems and how
they can become unbalanced by persistent and thoughtless human intrusions.
Turning a blind eye
Given the high rates of tree death and the widespread
nature of the problem - it is occurring to one degree or another in every
state in the union - one would think that the community of botanists, forest
ecosystem specialists, and U.S. Forest Service employees would be up in
arms, advocating change. But one would be disappointed.
Throughout the book, author Charles Little describes
studies and statements by the U.S. Forest Service downplaying the importance
of tree disease and death.
For example, in 1991 the Procter Maple Research Center
at University of Vermont pinpointed acid rain and other air pollution as
an important cause of decline of sugar maples in Vermont: "We think
we are looking at the early stages of an epidemic problem," the Center's
report said. The following year the U.S. Forest Service issued a report
saying that 90 percent of the sugar maples surveyed were healthy and the
overall numbers and volume of sugar maples were increasing.
People in the maple sugar business were stunned - their
own experience was telling them something that the U.S. Forest Service was
officially denying. It turned out the Forest Service had used a tricky way
of counting dead trees: only the standing dead were counted. Those trees
lying on the ground were not.
According to David Marvin, owner of a commercial "sugarbush"
(maple sugar farm) in Vermont: "I don't want to condemn our forest
scientists as a group, but I am very concerned that a great deal of forest
research is funded by the federal government, by chemical companies, and
forest industry companies - and it's very difficult for people who depend
on that funding to stick their necks out or to help influence policy that
might go counter to what the funders are interested in. Many scientists
I talk to will not publicly say anything about the connection between air
pollution and forest decline, but privately, to a person, they tell me,
yes, we've got a problem."
Forest-protection activists in the Pacific Northwest
have long considered the Forest Service a rogue agency, captured by the
forest products industry. Under the Reagan and Bush administrations, the
situation grew so extreme that when Jack Ward Thomas took over the leadership
of the Forest Service in 1992, he immediately issued six "messages"
to personnel throughout the agency. The first three messages were: (1) Obey
the law; (2) Tell the truth; (3) Implement ecosystem management. That such
orders had to be issued speaks volumes about the past performance of this
In 1993 there was evidence of new candor in the Forest
Service. A report issued that year said timber mortality [death], on a volume
basis, had increased 24 percent between 1986 and 1991, "in all regions,
on all ownerships, and for both hardwoods and softwoods." Hardwoods
were particularly affected, and particularly in the south, where the mortality
increase was 37 percent.
A new candor - and a continuing candor - among scientists
and foresters will be essential. But also we need a new recognition that
there are many causes of tree death, just as there are many causes of toxic
poisoning. To fix these problems, whether tree deaths or toxics, will require
us first and foremost to study and emulate nature, to learn to live within
natural limits, and to respect the right of non-human species to inhabit
For starters, we should cut waste, not trees. If we
don't take these lessons to heart, and soon, some trees will survive but
probably we will not.
 Charles E. Little, The Dying Of The Trees; The Pandemic
In America's Forests (New York: Viking/Penguin, 1995).
 Howard E. Hesketh, Understanding & Controlling Air Pollution
(Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ann Arbor Science Publishers, 1974), pgs. 48-49.
Cut waste, not trees
by Peter Montague, reprinted from Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly,
What with forests coming under combined sources of environmental pressure,
it's past time to do something about sustaining the ones that are left.
major source of forest destruction is the rising demand
for wood, particularly in the industrial world where wood is wasted on a
grand scale. Among industrialized nations, the most wasteful is the United
States (France, for example, has per-capita paper consumption that is 50
percent of ours.) The U.S. logging industry expects a 46 percent increase
in logging operations by the year 2040. If this comes true, U.S. logging
in 2040 will equal today's combined logging by the U.S., Canada and Sweden.
There are two major paths that wood products follow
when they leave the forest. One passes through sawmills, plywood mills,
veneer, or other wood panel mills, and then into the network of building
construction, shipping, manufacturing, and furniture industries. The other
path passes through pulp mills into the larger system of paper, paperboard,
and fiberboard production. Together, the two paths - generally building
materials and paper - account for more than 80 percent of industrial wood
use in the United States (the other 20 percent includes fuel wood, wood
chips, and raw logs for export).
Thus, a campaign to reduce wood consumption will focus
on getting wood out of buildings, and getting wood out of paper. Getting
wood out of buildings requires 2 basic steps:
(1) Reduce wood in building construction, substituting modern
materials (NOT steel or concrete, which create problems of their own) and
efficient construction techniques. Nearly 90 percent of all housing in the
U.S. is constructed of wood and the average new home in the U.S. uses 1600
cubic feet of wood products. Modern materials and construction techniques
can reduce the needed wood substantially.
(2) Building codes must be changed to allow construction using recycled
wood (from old barns, for example) and earth materials (rocks, sand, silt,
clay, and even straw bales). But the Uniform Building Code was adopted at
a time when wood supply was considered limitless. The code must be changed.
Old technology for new times
Two very promising - and time-tested - building materials
are adobe (in dry climates), and rammed earth (in any climate); 15 percent
of the population of France today lives in adobe or rammed earth buildings.
A relatively new construction material is baled straw, which can be used
in any climate. Initially developed at the University of Arizona (Tucson),
straw-bale buildings have now been built in many states and in Canada.
Again, a major obstacle is the building code. Straw-bale
homes are structurally strong, very energy-efficient, and fire-resistant.
Manuel A. Fernandez, the State Architect of New Mexico recently wrote, "ASTM
[American Society of Testing Materials, in Philadelphia] tests for fire
resistance have proven that a straw bale infill wall assembly is a far greater
fire resistive assembly than a wood frame wall assembly using the same finishes."
It turns out that straw bales contain enough air to provide excellent thermal
insulation, but not enough air to support a fast fire. (I have been in a
straw-bale house at Genesis Farm in Blairstown, N.J.; inside, it has the
snug feel of a well-made adobe house. From the outside, it has sharp, modern
lines and an eye-pleasing tan stucco finish. If you didn't know the walls
were baled straw, you wouldn't guess it.
Getting the wood out of paper is, if anything, easier
than getting the wood out of building construction. Today, quality paper
is made from rice and barley straw in China, from sugar cane waste (bagasse)
in Mexico and India, and from the kenaf plant in Australia. There are 300
mills around the world making paper without wood.
The most promising wood substitutes for making paper
are the kenaf plant, and straw - the leftover stalks from cereal grain production.
Paper recycling can only carry us so far because the paper fibers break
and become shorter when paper is recycled. To give recycled paper good qualities,
new fibers need to be mixed in. Those new fibers need not come from wood
- leftover stalks from farmer's fields will work nicely, and so will kenaf.
Thus the city, as supplier of recycled fiber, can coordinate with rural
producers of non-wood fibers, creating jobs and income for both. (The hemp
plant will produce high-quality paper as well. Kimberly-Clark, a U.S. Fortune
500 company, operates a paper mill in France producing hemp paper for Bibles
and cigarettes. But in the United States growing hemp is a serious federal
crime - even hemp with its narcotic characteristics bred out. This stymies
development of a hemp industry. Walt Disney sells clothing made from hemp,
but not from fiber grown in the United States)
Marvelously efficient is the use of agricultural residues
to make paper; it requires no new land brought into production. A small-scale
mill in British Columbia is making paper profitably from agricultural waste
today, and 3 more mills are planned. The small scale is an advantage because
it keeps capital needs low, making such mills suitable for community-scale
In sum, reducing wood use by 75 percent in 10 years
seems doable, and it could put the environmental community into a new posture:
cooperating across issues, and combining economic development with environmental
And there is one other big benefit: reducing the use
of wood to maximize social and environmental benefits will require us to
measure our efforts in new ways. In many different areas (forest advocacy,
pollution prevention, recycling/waste management, energy conservation, and
community development), we will need to measure our efforts against a long-term
vision of where the paper and wood industries should generally be headed.
We will need to set targets for them, not leaving economic and social decisions
exclusively in the hands of corporations any longer. Finally we must judge
ourselves by our willingness to demand a future that's more than a minor
variation of the status quo.
Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly is published by the Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403; Fax (410) 263-8944; Internet: erfrachel.clark.net. Subscribe via email: send E-mail to rachel-weekly-requestworld.std.com with the single word SUBSCRIBE in the message. It's free.