Monday, January 28, 2013

Adirondack Climate Change: How About Oaks?

Johnny Appleseed, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1871Several weeks ago, it was reported in the Almanack that the Adirondacks might be a potential location for mountain lion reintroduction. Over the past few decades, various types of wildlife have been restored to their former numbers in the Park, and over the past several centuries, many non-native species of flora and fauna have become established, either accidentally or on purpose in our environment.

During this present century, there will undoubtedly be a massive influx of life forms occurring throughout the region in response to the changing climate. While the mountain lion elicits much interest and emotion, its return would not have the same ecological impact as the formation of scattered patches of red oaks, white oaks, basswood, shagbark hickory, sweet birch and other trees that typify woodlands to our south.

Let me emphatically state that I know little about trees and herbaceous plants and even less regarding forest communities outside the Adirondacks. I am aware, however, that the climate that has allowed a northern hardwood and taiga forest to dominate the land inside the Blue Line is shifting to one that seems more in line with areas to our south. Only 3 to 4 decades ago, most locations in the Central Adirondacks had a growing season that averaged from 90 to 100 days. This prevented vegetation that is adapted for an existence in a temperate region from expanding their range into our geographic region. In winter there were about as many days in which the temperature dipped below zero as those that remained about this mark. It was expected that there would be 3 to 4 consecutive days when the mercury never climbed above zero, and a handful of crystal clear nights when 30 below readings were recorded.

The cold snap that gripped the northeast last week produced a reminder of what winter weather was like for weeks on end a generation ago. Over the past several winters these prolonged bouts of bitter cold have either been absent, or have been limited in duration. This week marks the mid-point of winter, and we are just now experiencing our first sustained cold snap. Spring seems to be coming a few days earlier each year, and autumn has been arriving later and later. The growing season is now regarded to be over 120 days in most areas, which is typical of a northern temperate climate, rather than a sub-arctic zone.

Nearly all bugs produce a new generation every year, however trees require many years to mature to the stage at which they are capable of forming seeds. This allows insects and other invertebrates to respond quickly to changes in their surroundings, yet trees require a substantially greater amount of time to expand their range into new areas in which favorable growing conditions develop. Because the Adirondacks is becoming more a part of the temperate zone, it would seem to make sense that some help be provided in establishing trees that are better adapted to survive in the new environment.

I realize that temperature is not the only factor that is changing, as the intensity of the wind has also increased, as has the consistency of the amount of precipitation that falls during storms. The soils that occur in the Adirondacks are also different from the soils that characterize most areas covering the eastern half of the country, and this influences the type of vegetation that can flourish in the region. However, attempting to expand the numbers of oaks, hickories, basswood and other trees that predominate across the southern tier seems more sound than reintroducing mountain lions.

For those souls that wish to help the environment beyond recycling solid wastes, conserving water and other natural resources, and reducing their carbon footprint, burying acorns and hickory nuts and sowing the seeds from other trees that characterize the temperate ecological zone might be a great way to deal with climate change in the Adirondacks.

Johnny Appleseed is viewed in a positive light for his efforts to establish certain tree species across the country, and another wide scale tree planting effort may help alleviate some of the environmental pain as the Adirondacks transitions into a region that more accurately reflects a developing temperate climate.

Our wildlife community is already changing with the greatest number of new-comers occurring in our bug populations. A changing plant community is inevitable, and people can help in this process of bringing the Adirondacks into its future.

Illustration: John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1871.

Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

13 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Tom first of all you know quite a bit about trees and other plants. This is an interesting post. Since data tells us that we are playing a large part in these climate changes the question is should we do something like this to try and “fix” the damage? I tend to think that it is best to leave nature alone. But maybe a this type of change is a good thing to help along?

  2. M.P. Heller says:

    We have a lot of those species mentioned here in the Eastern Adirondacks already. Perhaps the Lake George/Lake Champlain valley plays a role in moderating temperatures a bit in these precincts. I have 3 kinds of oak around here, I have seen basswood stands outside of Warrensburg, Shagbark too.

    I am not sure how Johnnny Appleseed would be viewed today though. I think its quite possible at least some groups would be accusing him of being a purveyor of invasive species.

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      By any definition I’ve ever seen, it’s only an invasive species when it adversely affects a local habitat. So your comment – “I think its quite possible at least some groups would be accusing him of being a purveyor of invasive species” – do you have any evidence for that?

      I don’t think it’s fair, or accurate, to characterize the opinions of others without evidence. There are in fact plenty of invasive species that are not named by local groups working on that issue. I have a particular interest in ‘wild’ apples and invasive species. I’ve never heard apples mentioned as a problem, nor in my travels in search of ‘wild’ apples have I ever seen them as an invasive problem.

      Invasive species are a serious threat to anglers in particular and our tourist economy more generally. They are already costing us millions of dollars a year, and have widely destroyed our native fish populations and their habitat.

      Your claim that “some groups” – who you fail to name – would call apples invasive species, smacks of an ad hominem attack on the people working on this problem, and an attempt to belittle their efforts.

      I think they deserve more respect than that.

      • M.P. Heller says:

        Get ahold of yourself John. I said I “think” its “quite possible” that “some groups”. Not that its a fact, not that its everyone, and not that its groups that are doing good for the area. I think you need to take a moment and re-read what I wrote process it a little more, and realize you flew off the handle a bit in a fashion that reflects poorly on you.

        Talk about belittling and a lack of respect for others. You sir, should clearly take a little of your own medicine before you next take it upon yourself to climb up on your soapbox and presume to preach.

        • John Warren John Warren says:

          Perhaps you could tell us why you think its quite possible and which groups?

          Which groups are you suggesting would “quite possibly” declare apples invasive species?

          • M.P. Heller says:

            Its quite possible because non-native species are sometimes viewed as invasive if they have negative characteristics associated with them. Providing a non-native food source which is enjoyed by certain wildlife may have unintended impacts on their population, and subsequently as a result, on the populations of other species.

            No, I would not like to engage in finger pointing in public. I may indeed be one of the youngest people actively involved in Adirondack politics, but I am not in kindergarten, nor will I be baited into casting aspersions on any group in order to provide you with more material you can use to promulgate this obtuse line of questioning of yours.

            • John Warren John Warren says:

              You’re factually incorrect and confusing introduced species with invasive species. Invasive species are not merely non-native with “negative characteristics” (whatever that is, certainly a subjective measure).

              For example, the NYS Invasive Species Management Plan defines invasive species:

              “Many species of plants and animals currently in New York State (NYS) have been introduced, either intentionally or unintentionally, by human activity. Scientists estimate that approximately one-third of our plant species have been introduced
              from places outside of NYS. Most introduced species cause no significant harm to our economy, environment, or health. Many introduced species even provide important benefits to New Yorkers, such as food crops, livestock, pets, and landscaping and garden plants. A small fraction of introduced or exotic species, however, cause significant harm to our economy, environment, and health. These harmful species are deemed to be “invasive.” Invasive species (IS) represent a clear and present danger to the biotic health of ecosystems, human health and safety, and the overall ecological balance of organisms across the landscape of NYS.”

              I think you’re missing my point. People fighting invasives species are fighting actual INVASIVE species. Suggesting that people working on real threats would oppose a non-threat is simply hyperbole that makes me, and no doubt others, question your intent. Why on earth would someone suggest that groups would oppose planting apple trees? And which groups are you accusing of this nonsense?

              BTW, the first apple in S.A. Beach’s two volume The Apples of New York (1905) is the Adirondack. Neither that apple, nor any other traditionally grown Northern New York apple are invasive species.

              In fact, they’re all but extinct – the exact opposite of invasive.

          • I think he means more “non-native”, than invasive, in the case of Mr. Johnny Appleseed. Apples as planted Mr. Appleseed as being a non-native species. I’m not a biologist- but I think you can have non-native plants that are not considered invasive. (Are there any biologists out there?) I guess my point is not all plantings of non- natives get out of hand.

  3. This was a nice, thought provoking article. I wonder, though, is it legal to plant a nut on state land in the forest preserve? (Pun somewhat intended.) Also, I know that somewhere they are doing climatological modeling/mapping with species change on a national level-
    it might be possible to elicit support for something like this on a larger national/regional basis. But it does beg the question- is planting something from your pocket legal, ethical, moral, invasive? Or are we simply helping to create the forest of the future??

    Teresa The Cartographer

    • Heather Munn says:

      It seems to me that if what you’re planting is from a nearby region of the same continent, it’s not possible for it to be invasive. The awfulness of things like kudzu, Japanese beetles or (in Illinois where I live) Japanese bush honeysuckle is their lack of predators and competitors on this continent; because they evolved in total isolation from our ecosystem, nothing eats them, and they spread like crazy.

      Now, if on the other hand you take an oak from a hundred miles south and plant it in the Adirondacks, one of two things will happen: it will be warm enough for the oak, and it’ll grow and spread, or it won’t be warm enough, and it’ll die, or at least not reproduce very successfully. When you’re planting something like that, that’s not totally alien to the place, nature makes the decision. So yes, I think it ought to be legal and encouraged.

  4. Mark Lind says:

    Research done through Oregon State University documents the relationship of the absence of large predators on an areas vegetation. My personal experience gardening in suburban Western NY, that is over run by deer, shows that low growing plants are susceptible to overgrazing, impacting the the resulting vegetation that remains. NYDEC presentation on coyotes, which are present, says coyotes take mice and fawns for one or two weeks in the Spring, but otherwise have little impact on deer numbers. NY has been without true top predators for so long that accumulated local knowledge is out of sync with awareness of what beneficial role a top predator would play? Don’t like ticks? Reduce prey/carrier numbers!

  5. John Jongen says:

    If you believe the premise if Michael Pollen’s book ‘The Botany of Desire’ then man has been the unwitting dupe in propagating flora well beyond its traditional footprint for eons. In our modern world-traveler culture it would be impossible to legislate where a plant should grow, despite the sometimes deleterious consequences of species like kudzu vine in the south. So a little ‘intelligent’ management of our gardens and parks,like what Tom suggests, is probably not a bad development.

  6. SwilliAm says:

    In the 1970s in Saranac Lake I’ve seen planted street tree oaks and hickories that were doing quite well, despite annual minimum temperatures below -30. It is probably less climate than human land use activities that precluded their existence in the Adirondack interior. To the south and surrounding areas of the Adirondacks, Native Americans regular burned over the land that allowed oaks and hickories to thrive as opposed to other species that couldn’t survive the repeated burns. Ecology is important in understanding the species makeup of an area, but certainly the land use history ought not be neglected.