Adapting to Climate Change: Does Nature Need a Helping Hand?

Posted by on Feb 11, 2015

A stand-improvement logging on our woodland in May, 2012. Photo: Alex Wilson

A stand-improvement logging on our woodland in May, 2012. Photo: Alex Wilson

When Jerelyn and I bought our mostly wooded 160-acre farm three-and-a-half years ago, we began the long-term process of bringing the farm back into production and improving the health of the woodland. I’ve written previously about the farm, where last year we produced, among other crops, 2,000 pounds of heirloom pumpkins for a local brewery, but we’ve also been focusing on the forest, which comprises roughly 90% of the property.

Our woodland had never been managed before we bought the place, though it had been logged periodically. It was overgrown with stunted trees growing too close together, and various invasive plants were gaining a foothold in the understory. Our forester, George Weir, developed a forest management plan (required to put a parcel into Vermont’s Current Use Program), and we carried out a stand-improvement timber and firewood harvest, ultimately removing nearly 100 truckloads of logs.

Our timberland is healthier, now, though the work is really just beginning—and one of those steps raises some interesting questions about the role we should be playing in adapting our woodlands to a changing climate.

Dealing with invasive species

Some of our initial work in the woodland is to remove invasive species. When I hike through the woods I keep an eye out for barberry, buckthorn, oriental bittersweet, and Japanese knotweed. Our knotweed problem is confined to a low area below our house, and I spent several weekends last year fighting that back—it will be a huge ongoing challenge! I’ve been cutting back oriental bittersweet whenever I see its sinewy vines strangling our trees, but the understory invasives, most noticeably barberry and honeysuckle, have so far mostly taken a back seat to other priorities on the property.

My efforts this year to deal with those understory invasives will be aided by an amazing tool I bought last year: the Canadian-made Extractigator. The rugged hand tool has grippers that clamp onto the stem of buckthorn or any woody plant, and a fulcrum provides leverage allowing you to easily pry it out of the ground, roots and all. Watch out invasives!

Assisted migration of forest ecosystems

A bigger, longer-term project at our place is more controversial. My plan, over time, is to plant tree species in our woodland that are better adapted to climates somewhat further south. The idea is that as the climate warms, species that have evolved for our current climate may have a hard time adapting to changing precipitation patterns, warmer winters that fail to kill pests, or other impacts of climate change. We (humans) may have an important role to play in planting tree species that will help our forests adapt a changing climate.

Many of our dominant trees species in New England are faring poorly already. American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is affected by beech bark disease, a condition caused a one-two punch of a scale insect and a fungal infestation; this is having a devastating impact on the beech trees on our property—see photos.

The larger American beech in this photo is afflicted with Beech Bark Disease; it had been marked for harvesting in 2012, but didn't get cut. Once the trees reach about 8" in diameter, they often become diseased. The species may eventually disappear from our woods. Photo: Alex Wilson

The larger American beech in this photo is afflicted with Beech Bark Disease; it had been marked for harvesting in 2012, but didn’t get cut. Once the trees reach about 8″ in diameter, they often become diseased. The species may eventually disappear from our woods. Photo: Alex Wilson

A close-up photo of another beech tree with the tell-tail white waxy deposits indicating presence of Beech Bark Disease. Photo: Alex Wilson

A close-up photo of another beech tree with the tell-tail tiny, white, waxy deposits indicating presence of Beech Bark Disease. Photo: Alex Wilson

White ash (Fraxinus americana) is dying off in our woodland due to ash yellows, a disease caused by a microorganism known as MLO (mycoplasmalike organism) that infects the living cells of the trees. As if this isn’t bad enough, another insect pest that strikes fear into the heart of foresters, the emerald ash borer, is spreading in the Northeast and expected to wipe out most ash trees within a decade or so.

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is facing attack from the hemlock woolly adelgid, a tiny aphid-like insect that feeds on stored starches in the twigs, weakening and often killing the trees. While the impact has been greater in southern New England, this insect pest was found a few years ago in our home town of Dummerston, Vermont.

Some suggest that even Vermont’s ubiquitous sugar maple (Acer saccharum) may become susceptible to a warming climate and die out over time.

There’s a very useful resource showing how ranges of tree species are expected to change over time, the Climate Change Tree Atlas, an online tool created by the Northern Research Station of the National Forest Service.

On the Climate Change Tree Atlas you can see, for example, that by the end of the century white oak (Quercus alba) will be a far more common tree in Vermont forests than it is today.

My plan is to plant more southern species, such as white oak, bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), and shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) on our property over the next few years. The hope is that as the climate changes, the increased biodiversity in our woodland will help that ecosystem adapt and remain healthy.

Without native (but more southern) species entering the ecosystem, there would be greater risk that invasive species, which are rapidly gaining a seed-bank foothold in the region, would take over the ecosystems.

This map from the Climate Change Tree Atlas, shows the current range of white oak. It's range barely gets into Vermont. Image: Northern Research Station of the National Forest Service

This map from the Climate Change Tree Atlas, shows the current range of white oak (click to enlarge). It’s range barely gets into Vermont. Image: Northern Research Station of the National Forest Service

This map shows the expected range of white oak assuming the Hadley CH3 climate model (one of several included in this online tool). Image: Northeast Research Station of the National Forest Service

This map shows the expected range of white oak at the end of the century, assuming the Hadley CH3 climate model (one of several included in this online tool); the species has a much higher “importance value.”. Image: Northeast Research Station of the National Forest Service

But is this “assisted migration” a good thing?

I’ve been polling various people, including my BAC students, about the wisdom of intervening with nature, and the response is definitely mixed. I’m mixed about it myself.

From past experience, we’ve seen all too often that human efforts to mess with Nature often backfire. Even when our intentions are good, we can do more harm than good. So there’s an inherent resistance to helping speed a migration of plant species that would normally take hundreds or even thousands of years.

Why not just leave Nature alone and let the more suitable species gain a foothold as the climate warms? Because, in my opinion, the warming that the Earth is experiencing is happening too rapidly for the very slow species range extensions (that would occur with more gradual changes in the climate) to keep up.

Since we’ve introduced so many invasive species into the seed bank of our land, I fear that those invasive species will be able to quickly colonize an ecosystem when the keystone species die off—as is happening in the West with whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) and some other conifers.

What do you think?

As a environmental biologist by training, I think a lot about our ecosystems. On our own farm I want to do the right thing for the land, and I think that includes not only working to get rid of invasive species but also introducing some more southern species that are not yet common in this area. Is that a good idea?

Resilient design extends beyond our buildings and communities to include our ecosystems. If we want more resilient ecosystems, do we (humans) need to intervene? I think so, but I’d love your thoughts. Post any opinions you have as comments below.

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed. To receive e-mail notices of new blogs, sign up at the top of the page.

9 Comments

  1. How to learn without experimentation?

    What options would work well for sharing ideas and experiences so as to broaden understandings about benefits and pitfalls?

  2. Resilient design in buildings is not yet a significant design driver; and responses to future conditions are experimental at best. While man has a long history of screwing up when they mess with nature, it is largely based on the short-sighted (read pragmatic) analysis that goes with it. Here, the question of planting new species, is primarily one of “if I make a mistake, does it screw up my farm or the whole region?” I think the risk is manageable. I’d go for it, however, cautiously.

    Brian G. Hart Architect MAIBC, FRAIC, MCIP, RPP, AIA, APA

  3. Im in awe of all the work. I wonder if these guys could offer any advice ?

    http://www.regrarians.org/about/darren-j-doherty-cv/

    and
    https://www.facebook.com/geoff.lawton.12

  4. I read with great interest and enthusiasm this post “Adapting to Climate Change: Does Nature Need a Helping Hand.” This is a topic of supreme interest and concern for me. Several profound thinkers have weighed in on this matter. To begin, we humans are part of nature and, as such, must keep that perspective, but also proceed with our “deepest” intelligence guiding us. I have read the works of Arne Naess, E.O. Wilson, and Rene Dubos, to name a few, and have been striving to synthesize my own perspectives and actions based on their sage words. I also appreciate the work of Janine Benyus on biomimicry (I like the word biomemetics better), but take a view that departs somewhat from hers. For one, I think biomemetics extends to a deeper study of our own nature and the lessons to be gleaned from our evolutionary history and relationship to the environment.

    Some years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Benyus after a talk she had given, and asked her about nature and its proportion of specialist versus generalist species. A lot of her work seems to focus on specialists playing mainly niche roles. I asked her what she felt humans should be: mainly specialists or generalists? She said she wanted to think about that question for a while. We humans, unlike a lot of nature, have the ability to be generalist-specialists with transdisciplinary capabilities, in which we can potentially engage outside our respective “fields” more than just at the boundaries. To that point, because “nature” is largely composed of specialist species that diminish or die off if the environment changes too much, we can and should play an intervening, but symbiotic, role. But that role requires keen wisdom and action. However, I certainly have more questions than answers on what our role should be in any given circumstance and the extent of what our actions should be.

    I am not “religious,” more “spiritual,” but Genesis 1:28 proclaims: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” I take the word “dominion” more to mean “stewardship.” I read Rene Dubos’s book The Wooing of Earth some years ago, and find his ideas most profound and appealing. He was an accomplished scientist (microbiology, for one) and weighty thinker. If you are not already aware of his ideas, I think you would find them of great merit. Here is a wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Dubos. In his book there is a chapter titled The Management of Earth, in which he lists and discusses the subtopics: improving on nature, does nature really know best, the human origin of many “natural” environments, the management of woodlands, and artificial environments from the industrial wilderness. In the chapter Humankind and the Earth he discusses preservation versus management of the wilderness, symbiosis of humankind and the Earth, and noblesse oblige. I urge everyone to read Dubos.

    I have attached links to two papers of mine that may be useful here. One, titled “We’re Not Dumb Enough to Survive as a Species, But Are We Smart Enough” was presented at http://isss.org/world/conferences/sonoma2006. Here is a link to the paper: http://journals.isss.org/index.php/proceedings50th/article/viewFile/293/84.
    Here is an excerpt from that paper with a notable quote from E.O Wilson:

    But regardless of how much knowledge and capability we gather, we could never be able to successfully take on the tasks required to build and maintain ecosystems. Only wild nature is capable of that. To quote E.O. Wilson:

    Each species occupies a precise niche, demanding a certain place, an exact
    microclimate, particular nutrients and temperature and humidity cycles with
    specific timing to trigger phases of the life cycle. Many, perhaps most, of the
    species are locked in symbiosis with other species; they cannot survive and
    reproduce unless arrayed with their partners in the correct, idiosyncratic
    configurations.
    Even if the biologists pulled off the taxonomic equivalent of the Manhattan
    Project, sorting and preserving cultures of all species, they could not put the
    community back together again. It would be like unscrambling an egg with a pair
    of spoons. The biology of the microorganisms needed to reanimate the soil would
    be mostly unknown. The pollinators of most of the flowers and the correct timing
    of their appearance could only be guessed. The “assembly rules,” the sequence in
    which species must be allowed to colonize in order to coexist indefinitely, would
    remain in the realm of theory.

    I do not cite Dubos in the paper, but his ideas cause me to deviate a bit from what Wilson says, but not entirely. I am still internally debating a Wilson-Dubos balance in my mind. Perhaps there is not a contradiction in the final analysis. Acting as stewards of an environment to rid foreign species would not seem to contradict Wilson.
    In nature, including human enterprises, there is a perpetual dynamic between change, adaptation, and resistance to it. All three roles are essential. Here is a link to a paper I coauthored with four collaborators titled “Coyotes, Jazz, and Creative Teams: Facing and Seeking Variance” that explores these roles and their dynamic: http://athena.ecs.csus.edu/~gordonvs/papers/CoyotesJazz.pdf. It was presented at http://www.osgk.ac.at/emcsr/10/. My four collaborators included: a cybernetics/systems expert, a computer scientist who works in AI, a world class jazz drummer, and an American poet. The paper may be of relevance to the discussion here, and provides a portrait of two of nature’s most adaptive creatures, humans and coyotes. The coyote is truly a “transdisciplinary” generalist of great range in “intelligence.” The distinction here is that while our human potential is also to be transdisciplinary and intelligent, we can, and have, really messed things up, too.

  5. Sounds great Alex. Makes sense to test new growth with the oaks and hickory instead of your natives, avoiding diseases and directing succession to adaptation, potentially adding value to the property (both ecosystem value as well as timber). Would you buy seeds and try to germinate and produce seedling in the farm or buy seedlings directly? Is there planting technology/commercial grade seedlings already for oaks and hickory? In terms of resilience it would be a bet right? Seems to me that a couple of very cold and long winters could bring young oaks and hickories down irreversibly. Awesome stuff, I like the “learn by doing” approach, congrats on the great work. Want to go visit soon!

    • Guille,

      I’m not sure about seed and/or seedling sources. I’ll check with our forester; maybe there’s a program to help landowners diversify their woodlands. There are white oaks and shagbark hickories that grow near-by on south-facing hillsides, so that seed isn’t far away; bur oak grows on the other side of Vermont in the Champlain Valley. I’d like to get stock from relatively close-by so that the genotype will be reasonably adapted to the climate.

      A challenge will be how to protect seedlings from deer, of which we have too many. (I’d like to re-introduce cougars or wolves, but that’s a bigger project!) I’ll have to research browse protection as well.

      How ’bout a tree-planting visit to Vermont this Spring?

      • Thanks Alex, sounds great.

  6. Weather in the region is tropical – there are only
    two seasons: the hot season from January to April, and the
    rainy season from May to December.

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  1. Proposing a Resilient America Service Corps | Resilient Design Institute - […] healthy, diverse forest ecosystems may require our interventions (see my recent article, Adapting to Climate Change: Does Nature Need…
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