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 global crisis.
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

"'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

by Peter Montague, reprinted from Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly, with permission
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.[1]
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.[2]
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 federal agency.
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 the planet.
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.
[1] Charles E. Little, The Dying Of The Trees; The Pandemic In America's Forests (New York: Viking/Penguin, 1995).
[2] Howard E. Hesketh, Understanding & Controlling Air Pollution (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ann Arbor Science Publishers, 1974), pgs. 48-49.

Cut waste, not trees

What with forests coming under combined sources of environmental pressure, it's past time to do something about sustaining the ones that are left.

by Peter Montague, reprinted from Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly, with permission
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.

Forest path

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.[3]

(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.

Wood-less paper

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 economic development.
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 protection.
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.

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