Reply to letter: Dead and dying trees are a necessity of truly healthy forests

Thanks for your email Gail,

I looked at all the photos and read what you wrote… My sense of what you are sharing is that all the trees you are telling me about are in rural / developed landscapes. Problem is development such as roads, housing and ranching compacts / erodes soil, fragments forest canopy and creates loads of opportunities for insect predation and invasive species.

What makes this situation ten times worse is that humans think a healthy forest is a place absent of dead trees and rotten trunks. So again and again the very natural and necessary dead and rotten trees are removed because they are seen as bad and unhealthy, which in turn creates more extreme imbalances.

See, the rotten wood and dead trees are essential to soil health, as well as essential habitat for bug predators like birds, bats and rodents. Every time we “clean-up” a forest we further disrupt the natural ecologic checks and balances and what little of our declining forest that remains continues to decay. All the while the healthy soil required for abundant tree seedling growth does not exist so the forest of the future can’t even start growing.

Also tree growth is cyclical and some years trees don’t grow so well, especially due to new pressures like climate / temperature change and acid rain…

Most important for you to know is that the trees want you to be involved in learning the land you live on, knowing it’s history, nurturing and restoring it’s ecological functions in non-destructive ways!

Stay in touch ok!

Long live the trees, Deane

From: Gail
Sent: Sunday, December 28, 2008 4:49 PM
Subject: NJ trees

Dear Deane,

I came across your excellent website after searching for information about possible causes for the tree decline that I am lately finding ubiquitous around my home in western rural New Jersey. In recent months I have been as far north as Cape Cod through NY, CT and RI, as well as around Pennsylvania. The conditions in those states appear to be equally appalling.

I began noticing that the deciduous trees were losing leaves by the end of last summer, or they were scorched, or brown. Soon thereafter the coniferous trees began bursting with cones and more recently have begun a wholesale shedding of their needles. Some are already completely bare, most are visibly thinning, and only a few appear intact.

I am not a scientist, just a life-long nature lover and avid gardener, and I find this threat to trees profoundly disturbing.

At first I attributed it to an overall warming and drying due to climate change, particularly because this past summer and 2007 were exceedingly dry. And of course we get very little snow anymore. When the leaves fell off this fall (some stayed quite a while, as if petrified in place) I began to notice that this revealed seriously damaged limbs and trunks. It appears the trees are rotting from the inside out. Also now that it is possible to see deeper inside the woods, it is clear many have toppled over and those that remain are becoming smothered by a pale green lichen that is spreading by the day.

Lately I have begun to wonder if perhaps acid rain has created the conditions leading to this rapidly accelerating damage by changing the composition of the soil. Absent any improvement in pollution, it would appear that we are poised for a mass extinction of trees and ultimately, all the species dependent upon them.

In hindsight I believe, having lived on the same small farm for over 25 years, that the loss of trees has been going on for perhaps decade and I simply did not recognize it as more than isolated incidents as opposed to a trend. However there is no question in my mind that it was a trend which is suddenly much, much worse. Because young, old, and inbetween trees, and those of virtually every species are affected equally, it seems there must be some universal cause rather than any one pest, disease, opportunistic invasive, or deer damage to saplings to blame.I fear it is too late to save trees now living. But, whether it is due to climate change or acid rain from pollution or some combination, I thought it might be important for the public and policy makers to understand what is at stake. Even I have always thought “the loss of biodiversity” to be a tragedy involving rare monkeys and frogs from exotic places like Madagascar. Partly that’s because so much conservation effort is concentrated on these obscure hotspots.

When Americans realize that losing our trees will, in addition to impoverishing the landscape, result in wildfires, extended power outages, crushed buildings and vehicles, and enormous economic losses, perhaps the cost of remedying climate change will seem less onerous.

I am curious as to whether you know of any recent tree inventory around the Eastern Seaboard. I hope some scientists will undertake to reveal the true scope of the problem so that people will wake up before we humans are next on the list of endangered species.

There is a row of these trees about a half-mile long in which every single one is splitting and revealing a rotted center.

Same row, note the lichen on the top.

A common sight.

This dead tree is huge. You can see a little of the white house behind it, to the left, which is an enormous mansion 3 stories high

a bunch of trees, I think maples, have had their trunks turn black in the past few weeks

This is our native cedar. It looked okay until just recently when it, too, started thinning and browning, and producing scads of cones.

Those are dead needles on the interior working their way out to the tips.

More advanced thinning.

The leaves of this sycamore and many others had turned completely brown in August

This lichen has always been around but now I can see it spreading by the day. I don’t know if it plays a role in hastening or causing tree death, or is a result of it., but I do know that not one tree on my 7 acres that had this many lived for more than a year or two

Black trunk. I don’t know what it is, some sort of fungus perhaps

Lichen encrusted ash on the way to the grim reaper

Rotting limbs

Completely bare young pine trees.

Falling down! What I can’t show you are the many many trees that have already been removed. In the neighboring town, Far Hills, they just removed 3 huge pin oaks that had to be well over 150 years old. Out of the maybe 20 that were there when I moved here 25 years ago, about 5 or 6 are left. It would be interesting to find out if townships keep records of tree removal to compare over the years.

Posted via email from Deane’s posterous

Comments (3)

HannahMarch 9th, 2009 at 2:12 pm

It’s always sad when trees die, but Deane is right. Even something as long-lived as a majestic oak has to die sometime. My boyfriend and I own a house that was built in 1946, and it has a redbud tree that is older than the whole neighborhood in the backyard. The redbud leans over to the south, giving it the look of a giant bonsai tree, but the base of the trunk is rotting away–sometimes we wonder how it stands up.

We will be very sad to see this ancient tree fall, as it will sooner or later. My boyfriend entertained the thought of hiring a tree doctor to prolong its life, but I advocated letting the tree die a natural death in its own time. We’ll leave it in the backyard to become a home for birds and plant a new, baby redbud near its place.

Jordan%9MarkMarch 24th, 2009 at 11:39 pm

I love your site! I gave it 5 stars, keep up the great work. I am a Chinese bonsai enthusiast.

MartiApril 3rd, 2009 at 11:12 am

The same problem is painfully obvious in West Virginia and is not normal. I have lived in the same wooded area for 40 years. I found this site while searching for help and info on the exact conditions you are describing. The local DNR officer was not interested or helpful at all when contacted here, but maybe in your area would be a source of info. Please respond here with any further info you recieve. I need help too. I cannot imagine further loss in my area. Thanks!

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