On Wilderness: Rethinking Climate Crisis
by David Crews
I first met Jon Leibowitz in the summer of 2018. I had discovered the Northeast Wilderness Trust, a nonprofit based in Montpelier, Vermont, that protects land throughout the northeast United States. They had a project in the works—the purchase and protection of the Eagle Mountain Wilderness Preserve in the northeast Adirondack Park of Upstate New York. Since my ties to this incredible part of the nation’s natural history had deepened in the years after hiking the Adirondack high peaks, I thought it might be inspiring to raise some money to support their efforts. In a time of overwhelming environmental angst, their mission seemed so simple: buy land, preserve it as wilderness.
Of course, that is their mission at the core. The small team of individuals that composes the Northeast Wilderness Trust and their board of directors, which includes scientists, educators, writers, editors, and wilderness advocates, would probably suggest this basic principle of preservation has a much larger reach for species and the land—preservation as part of an ecological conscience, a land ethic. Protecting forever-wild places means protecting nature for its own sake. And 35,250 preserved acres of mountain, stream, forest, marsh, and bog proves to be a fair amount of nature.
Almost twelve months after first connecting with Jon and the Trust, on May 24, 2019, the group invited me to join them on the shores of Lake Champlain in Essex, New York, so we might celebrate the successful purchase of the nearby Eagle Mountain Wilderness Preserve—almost 2,500 acres of northern hardwood and conifer forest that includes over three and a half miles of brooks and 155 acres of wetlands, and that remains a critical wildlife corridor between two blocks of protected public land—home to animals like the peregrine falcon, black bear, moose, dozens of wood warbler species, and brook trout.
On the 29th of April, 2019, the seventh session of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) began discussing conclusionary findings compiled by 145 expert authors from fifty countries over the previous three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors. The response: “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history—and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world.”
The IPBES report elucidates an extensive environmental risk uncovered through this study: the threat of extinction for over one million plant and animal species, many within decades. A globally connected world, findings show, comes with extensive changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, intensifying climate change, widespread pollution, and an influx of invasive alien species.
Plant and animal species now find themselves struggling to survive in a rapidly changing biosphere. Ecosystems exist with an inherent interdependency, and the convergence of living beings and the land often operates on a level of great nuance and micro-focus. The integrity of an overall ecosystem proves optimal when left undisturbed. (That seems like an obvious statement.) And yet, an overwhelming collection of research and data published in the science community shows that since the Industrial Revolution, humans have altered the environment in such drastic and widespread ways we are now seeing severe ramifications to ecosystems.
Jerry Franklin, of the College of Forest Resources at University of Washington-Seattle, points out, “Most efforts to preserve biological diversity have focused on species populations.” Franklin shares how the Endangered Species Act stands as a perfect example of these efforts and, of course, holds a proven record of success in a number of respects—black-footed ferret, gray wolf, American crocodile, California condor. Still, many scientists claim there exist simply too many species to account for, and the future of species protection must be rooted in a Gestalten vision for preservation—protection of the ecosystem itself.
Besides containing important habitat for plants and animals, healthy forests protect watersheds, produce clean drinking water, and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Jesse Ausubel and David Victor offer a view of the complex landscape associated with forest management: “Fortunately, the twentieth century witnessed the start of a ‘Great Restoration’ of the world’s forests. Efficient farmers and foresters are learning to spare forestland by growing more food and fiber in ever-smaller areas. Meanwhile, increased use of metals, plastics, and electricity has eased the need for timber. And recycling has cut the amount of virgin wood pulped into paper.” In the last half century here in the United States, Ausubel and Victor note, forest cover has increased. But what about old-growth forest?
Globally, the World Resources Institute refers to old-growth forest as “frontier forest.” These forests are relatively unmanaged and evolve mainly through natural events. The tree species are native and the forest landscape, which exhibits a natural heterogeneity in tree species, remains for the most part intact. In 1997 the Institute published “The Last Frontier Forests,” in which a group of contributing researchers found that almost half of Earth’s original forest cover was gone. Today, just one-fifth of the world’s original forest cover remains in large tracts of relatively undisturbed forest, and 39 percent of this remaining frontier forest is threatened by logging, agricultural clearing, and other human activity. Only 3 percent of the world’s frontier forest falls entirely within the temperate zone—regions characterized by moderate climate, including much of the US and Europe (frontier forests that are most endangered).
Proponents of land conservation and controlled logging offer a host of reasons as to why cutting down forests proves a beneficial environmental initiative. While ultimately there does not exist any one solution to the ecological issues of our age, managing forests does not always take into account the interdependency inherent in the system itself, nor accounts for a climate that has witnessed an unprecedented rise in temperature, a drastic decline in biodiversity, and an increase of natural disturbances. Managed forests tend to have undesirable consequences that can include a host of environmental concerns, such as soil erosion, the introduction of invasive or non-native species, the loss of carbon (including soil carbon), and an increased density of ungulates that can limit forest regeneration.
Those in support of managed forests often point to new-growth forests as an important preventative measure against climate change, since the percentage growth of a new tree measures high (in comparison to the tree’s relative size). Therefore, it must reappropriate the most carbon from the atmosphere. And perhaps this affirms one of many courses of forestry action humans might consider to revive the biosphere. The statistic most scientists look to with regards to climatic healing, however, is the absolute gain of a tree’s ability to sequester carbon over its lifetime. Nathan Stephenson and a team of researchers report that the mass of a tree is primarily carbon, so naturally carbon sequestration also increases with the size of the tree. And for tree species like the eastern white pine that can live a few hundred years, some even over four hundred, the absolute gain in carbon sequestration measures two, even three times as much, in the totality of a tree’s life in relation to its early years. Preservation discloses an obvious syllogism: the bigger the tree, the more needles; the more needles, the more carbon pulled from the atmosphere.
William R. Moomaw, Emeritus Professor at the Fletcher School for Tufts University, Susan A. Masino, Vernon Roosa Professor of Applied Science at Trinity College, and a team of ecologists have the most alarming statistics of the current life-state for old-growth forests. They note that less than 20 percent of the world’s forests remain intact. In the contiguous forty-eight states, that statistic is reduced to 6-7 percent, and in more developed areas like the eastern US and New England, intact forests are even more scarce—comprising only about 3 percent. Their research refers back to a study published by N.L. Harris et al., who found that of sites across 2.1 million kilometers of forest in the forty-eight conterminous states, during a period from 2006 to 2010, carbon had been lost from forests in several ways. Damage from insects, pathogens, fire, drought, and wind accounted for nearly 12 percent. Forest conversion roughly another 3 percent. It was the managed, harvested forest that lost nearly 85 percent of its carbon. Gone too, essential habitat often missing in younger, managed forests—the necessary, dense understory for salamanders and various species of lichen and moss or the many hollowed-out holes from woodpeckers in old, aged trees that provide nesting sites for screech owls, fishers, or opossums. Consider too site fidelity for globally threatened bird species—Bicknell’s thrush, spotted owl, dozens of wood warblers—gone.
THE RESEARCH FOREST
The 550-acre Howland Research Forest just outside Edinburg, Maine, remains an unknown developing old-growth woods to almost everyone outside a small circle of ecologists. The forest was protected as forever wild in 2007 by the Northeast Wilderness Trust and now serves an important role as one of the most closely studied patches of land in the United States.
The Howland site includes rare forest of hemlock, spruce, and white pine—some trees so vast and old they proved already middle-aged when Thoreau passed through on his way to Katahadin over one hundred and fifty years ago. The Howland Forest was established in 1987 as a research site, and for the last twenty years, ecologists at the U.S. Forest Service and University of Maine-Orono have been quietly churning out groundbreaking data on carbon storage and sequestration.
Site manager John Lee and the team at Howland hold one of the longest records of carbon intake/output, or flux, in the world. Howland scientists have been studying how the intact forest stores carbon. In recognition of this work, Leibowitz confirms the mission of the Wilderness Trust: “With roughly a quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions globally coming from agriculture, logging, and habitat destruction, wilderness recovery offers a powerful complement to efforts to reorient the energy economy toward renewables and implement regenerative agricultural and forestry practices. The latest science from Howland Forest confirms the miracles of technology alone cannot save us from the dual threat of climate chaos and extinction catastrophe. One of the most cost-effective and rapidly scalable solutions to both of these crises is startlingly low-tech: Conserve more wild forests.”
On a hilltop in the Maine woods, wind often blows. It echoes as it moves through the bee balm and basil, into grapevine before an open door, windows. Young hummingbirds chase one another around sunlit blooms and the nesting phoebe silently catches bugs. It’s August, and the living prepare for the dying. Morning into afternoon to evening feel like three seasons—putting on a shirt, taking off a sweater, the birch trees flickering. Will the monarchs come back, will the worm-eating warbler come back? Goats bleat in the clang of chimes.
Tomorrow, John Lee, with professor Shawn Fraver and Dave Hollinger of the U.S. Forest Service, will offer escort for a tour of the site at Howland about a half-hour drive from the Orono campus. I’m reading about these Maine woods—home to moose, black bear, bobcat, bald eagle. Imagine the site where a meteorological tower stands just above the tree line like a needle amidst a widening mass of evergreen. Consider how many trees remain and what comes with their loss. (I want to hear the forest breathe.)
“It’s all part of the carbon balance,” John Lee says. We are standing underneath the primary meteorological tower not even a stone’s throw away from a swamp of black spruce, sundew, Labrador tea. “There is a meter of peat moss underneath the cedar planks,” research associate Holly Hughes tells me, and the swamp itself dates back over nine thousand years. Below it, packed marine clay. Earlier, Hughes showed us how she measures respiration in the soil. The forest continually takes carbon in, but also releases it in various ways—root systems of trees, microbes decomposing—all of it proves part of the complex and nuanced equation that helps determine the carbon flux of the forest. Data Hughes gathers calculated alongside the atmospheric readings of eddy covariance coming from the towers—a series of five data points taken each second that measures the movement of carbon (up, down, horizontal) in the swirling air—assists scientists in building a larger understanding of the forest’s ability to sequester and store carbon. At the moment, our own breathing skews the carbon numbers streaming to the tablet.
Shawn Fraver refers to himself as a dendrochronologist, and his passion for wood decay and decomposition feels contagious. Fraver was born in Pennsylvania and attended Penn State, but completed his doctoral studies in the dynamics of old-growth forests at the University of Maine. After asking us to refrain from stepping on downed trees and limbs, some felled over a hundred years ago, he elaborates on the strange request: fallen tree branches and trunks of wood on the forest floor slowly decomposing under blankets of moss, he knows, still store carbon. “It should be considered wildlife,” he tells us.
Hiking deeper into the forest, Fraver stops at a red maple and begins to gently pet the lichen at arm’s reach. He tells us there are not many red maple trees in this forest, but they are still important. This species of lichen (common name, lungwort) only grows on the trunks of hardwood trees. We were entering a section of Howland where over three decades earlier a NASA researcher by the name of Kate Lejeune mapped tree species in a 30,000 square-meter plot. This research has also been supported over the years by graduate students Aaron Teets and Erin Fien. On the computer screen in Shawn’s office I remember the colored dots: red for red spruce, white for eastern white pine, blue for eastern hemlock.
First, Fraver takes us to the stump of a white pine where, back in the 1890s, it was hand-sawed to the ground. We all stare at the decomposing stump (maybe three feet in diameter) where spruce seedlings pop out, making it look like a kitschy sort of flower box. Fraver points to the decaying trunk immediately next to it. “Do you know why they left the trunk?” he asks. “See, they made a second cut here, a third one there—trunk was rotten.” Now it lies just a long bump in the forest floor fully covered in species of moss, lichen, fungi, and fern. A short and delicate walk from there takes us to a yellow birch Fraver cored back in 2015 with a couple of graduate students. He wound the increment borer, chest-height, to measure the tree’s age and found its life to be over 363 years old.
The older trees get, the more valuable they become, because there is ultimately more wood that can be harvested. But they hold a much more important value: they store incredible amounts of carbon. Fraver talks of soil respiration, carbon released in wood decay, and the carbon sequestered in some very old trees as living proof of the importance in preserving old-growth forests. From an environmental perspective they are vital; from a scientific perspective they are filled with possibility for research and study—now and for future generations. Howland holds the second longest data-flux record in the country behind the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts. But Fraver ends with something perhaps unexpected for a scientist: “The trees should be protected for their own sake.”
The Howland Forest, since 1996, has existed as part of the “AmeriFlux Project,” a Department of Energy program administered through the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that also maintains connection and support for a number of eddy covariance carbon flux sites. Funds from this project provide one hundred percent of the support for some of the researchers at Howland. And, though the ecosystem here proves vital to the scientific community, the land itself was once in jeopardy.
In 2004, Howland Forest was purchased by a timber investor as part of a larger land acquisition and scheduled to be logged the following year. Concerned about the fate of their research, scientists from the University of Maine and the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts with the U.S. Forest Service contacted the Northeast Wilderness Trust and, together, with the help and support of conservation partners, were able to raise the one million dollars necessary to purchase and protect the land.
Protection of whole ecosystems with regards to climate action proves cost effective and scalable. It proves a simple way to address the exponential curve of rising parts per million in the atmosphere. But it does something else: it preserves important habitat for species and biodiversity. It preserves and protects an ecosystem and the multitudinous elements that most of the time remain unseen to those not measuring, observing, or calculating. Holly Hughes points out that Howland sits on the border of boreal and temperate forest: the biosphere offers distinctive study at the ecotone.
Scientists at Howland study both the forest’s structure as well as function. As eco-physiologist Dave Hollinger points out, the forest may not be considered old-growth in some respects, though on site here there are some really, really old trees. And now that the Trust has preserved the Howland Forest as forever wild, it ages each and every generation. The forest itself contains mostly hemlock and red spruce—spruce, like pine trees, can easily live a few hundred years, and the oldest hemlock species recorded was 555 years old. But the function of the forest matters too. Wood decay and decomposition, soil respiration, photosynthesis—all are part of the delicate balance inherent to the ecosystem. “Carbon is in everything,” John Lee tells us, so it becomes important to study processes of photosynthesis, how the forest metabolizes, and the various unseen ways it might store and release carbon.
With so many important people, groups, and organizations maintaining connection, and giving the woods here the sustenance it needs to remain, the Howland Forest holds tremendous possibility in its already aging woods, in the valuable data emanating from the trees, in the forever-wild land that will be available for research for future generations. The chime of a wood thrush, faint and just a ways off from our group, is a vital reminder that the forest is alive, that the fauna and flora under the dark spruce and hemlock canopy are alive, that even the decaying trunk of pine that hosts moss and lichen and fungi and fern is alive.