Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ancient Trees, Young Trees, the Forest Abides

Kathleen Sayce, August 22, 2016

Last Saturday I walked in the ancient red cedar grove on Long Island. I first saw this grove in the 1970s while timber cruising on the island for the refuge. Forty-one years later, these trees are as magnificent as they were then. Their habitat is as complex and multilayered. This stand is a climax forest, and it richly expresses the diversity of a climax forest in a coastal temperate rainforest biome.  

What has changed most is the forest around the cedar grove. 

This stand along the trail from the beach at Smokey Hollow was too dense with young western hemlock to see into 40 years ago. Today, you can see sky among the canopies, and there are mosses and ferns on the ground, with young shrubs starting to grow in some spots. 

In the 1970s, most of the island had been logged and was regrowing as naturally sprouted western hemlock trees in dense 'dog hair' stands. These were young, many less than forty years old, and they lined the roads like green walls. No sunlight reached the forest floor. One could not see into the stands from the roads. I cored a few of those hemlocks four decades ago, and their growth rings were tiny, a few millimeters per year or less. 

Forty-one years later, natural loss has thinned the hemlock stands by more than seventy-five percent, leaving behind more widely spaced living trees that are three times as tall with trunks correspondingly bigger. Ferns and shrubs are scattered on the ground. Mosses now carpet the ground. Another two hundred years, and these young stands will be approaching solid middle age. Western hemlock trees live around four hundred years. 

As the stands of hemlock age, other trees will seed in, including Douglas-fir, red alder, Sitka spruce and, of course, western red cedar. When we walked these roads last weekend, it was easy to see more than one hundred feet into the forest all along the road.

The trail into the cedar grove has also opened up in the past 40 years. Sunlight reaches the forest floor. Ferns are lush. Some trees are more than 12 inches dbh (diameter at breast height, 4.5 ft from the ground) now. 

In the cedar grove, meanwhile, a few trees have died, one or two snags have fallen, and otherwise, the grove looks very much as it did then. There are abundant mosses on the ground, on logs and in the trees. There are layers of ferns and shrubs. Some of the shrubs are more than ten feet tall. There are young trees, many are hemlocks, with a few others. There are dozens of mature cedars, 850 to 900 years old. The oldest living trees are around 1200 years old. Study these trees, and you can see the signs of old nurse logs, where living trees now seem to be on their toes, hollows showing at the ground level where their supporting nurse logs have rotted away. Lightning scars are visible on many trees, signs of historic damage. 

Every tree species has a different feel as an elder, and when in groves. Here in the island cedar grove, the ancient trees are each distinctly different in shape, but all have multiple dead tops, showing the candelabra form that is distinctive to the coast.

More strikingly, these trees live close to the coast, a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, and this proximity shapes their form. They aren’t very tall, around 200 feet in height. Cedars can grow more than 300 feet tall. Winter storms, high winds and salt in the air kill the growing tips. Cedars respond by growing new tips, forming in time a crown of dead and living tops in the shape of a complex candelabra––candelabra cedars. The large trunks, often more than ten feet in diameter, rise in huge columns to these woody crowns. Shrubs, ferns and young trees sprout from pockets of soil and moisture, often one hundred or more feet in the air. 

A refuge manager here in the 70s, Joe Welch once told me that he was worried that there were so few young cedars in the stand. Dr. Jerry Franklin, a forest researcher who visited the grove soon after, told him not to worry. The cedars live such long lives that to them, the hemlocks are just passing through. Sitka spruces live eight hundred years or more, as do Douglas-fir, so the tree species  balance is not skewed to hemlocks over millennia. Cedars have been here for thousands of years, and will remain a major presence in this grove. 

Cedars may stand dead for many centuries before they fall to the ground, and then take more centuries to decompose. Living around one thousand years, the decomposition process also takes around one thousand years. There are logs in the grove that have been on the ground for hundreds of years, and still have bark firmly attached. 

A magnificent western hemlock snag, with pileated woodpecker holes, and polypore fungi fruits.

It is satisfying to know that natural forest processes are dominant here as they have been for at least four thousand, perhaps eight to ten thousand years. These aren’t sequoias or bristlecone pines, to individually live several thousand years, nor are they redwoods, which can resprout from the ground after fire, and live on after major wildfires, growing a new trunk and fresh canopy of leaves on old roots. 

During my own lifetime, I have watched logging trucks on the road, first with old growth, then with old second growth, and then, younger and younger trees. The average age of a conifer log on a logging truck now is less than thirty years. Knowing that this small grove, less than 300 acres, is preserved, intact, functional forest is also comforting. The cedar grove abides.  

1 comment:

  1. Kathleen : wonderful writing. Really enjoyed reading your description here.