Mary Peterson: Trees breathe life

On Arbor Day, reflect on majestic symbol of the tree


More than 1 million trees were planted on the first Arbor Day in 1872, bringing attention to their role as shade providers and windbreaks. Today, trees are gaining renewed attention for their role as critical filters of carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming and as protectors of our water supply.

Arbor Day, traditionally the last Friday in April, gives us a chance to reflect on the majestic symbol of the tree, as well as to better understand how trees do their job.

The same internal "plumbing" that pumps water through tree roots to leaves also helps leaves inhale carbon dioxide and exhale water vapor and oxygen. Trees absorb lots of carbon from the air as they grow and store it in their wood - carbon that otherwise would contribute to global warming. This is why forests are vital in dealing with the effects of burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

For the past 20 years, the Arbor Day Foundation has contributed to increasing trees on our national forests. With their support, more than 130,000 seedlings are being planted this year in the Rocky Mountain region. While a vital contribution, this is but a fraction of the 1.5 million trees the national forests are planting this spring in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska. On the Routt National Forest, we are planting more than 89,000 seedlings this season and collecting cones to build up seed lots for future planting in campgrounds, recreation areas and fire restoration areas.

As the mountain pine beetle epidemic increases exponentially here on the Medicine Bow National Forest in the next few years, we are estimating that about 90 percent of all lodgepole pine trees larger than 5 inches in diameter will be killed. Lodgepole pine regenerates naturally following disturbances such as insect/disease, fire and logging. Past monitoring following disturbances on this forest have shown a 95 percent or greater regeneration success rate. We constantly monitor natural reforestation and plant trees as necessary.

Through our Forest Legacy Program, we support the 70 percent of our nation's forests that are state and private, helping them temper climate change, too. Just last month, the U.S. Forest Service awarded $54 million in grants to help conserve forests threatened by conversion to urban uses.

The most common trees planted in Rocky Mountain national forests are ponderosa pine and Douglas fir at moderate elevations and lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce in the high country. Each year, many more trees are planted on our national forests than are cut, helping augment natural re-seeding, conserving the forests' role as nature's sponge and protecting the integrity of our water supplies.

A major goal of planting trees in the national forests is to diversify the makeup of the future forest. A varied mosaic of trees benefits wildlife habitats and helps fortify the forest from damage by forest fires. This diversity acts like a series of speed bumps to advancing fires, reducing risks that vast tracts will be severely burned, shed water like asphalt and lead to severe erosion and floods.

To plant new trees in our forest, native seeds are collected from geographic and elevation zones and taken to the Bessey Nursery in Halsey, Neb. Founded in 1902, this oldest tree nursery in the nation serves our entire region.

The seedlings typically are grown for one or two years, when they reach a height of 6 to 12 inches. They are returned to our forest in a frozen, dormant state to be planted in the same zone from which their seeds came, so that the young trees are best adapted to local climate and less prone to insects and disease. More than 80 percent of the seedlings we plant survive and continue growing.

Our formal appreciation for trees on Arbor Day began when Ulysses S. Grant was president, the Civil War had recently ended and Yellowstone was proclaimed as the nation's first national park. This was 25 years before conserving water by conserving trees was legislated into national forest policy.

Since that first Arbor Day in 1872, nurturing trees and forests has become an increasingly integral part of our national character. The U.S. has more trees than a hundred years ago - and we need them more than ever to absorb pollutants and breathe life-giving oxygen back into our air.

When you look at a tree, you can appreciate its role in filtering our air and tempering our climate. When you think of the Routt National Forest, you can grasp its function as a water tower that supplies local communities - and beyond - with clean and abundant water.

Mary Peterson is the forest supervisor of the Medicine Bow and Routt National Forests and lives in Laramie, Wyo.


BushPilot 8 years, 11 months ago

Good comments about Arbor Day but... it is important to note: Dead trees are NOT dead wood. Dead and dying trees play a vital role in forest ecosystems. True, some of the dead wood "might" burn, but most dead wood slowly decays over decades and, in some cases, centuries. While still standing (which may continue for many decades) dead trees possess root systems that still serve to stabilize soils, slowly release essential nutrients back into forest soils, provide food and shelter for birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. Snags also provide important perches for birds of prey. Standing dead trees serve, to a subtle degree, as windbreaks for nearby or intermingled live trees. Cumulative subtlety is one of nature's greatest wonders.

When dead trees finally fall they continue to stabilize soils. Especially following events like the U.S. West's current beetle outbreak, numerous fallen trees form a random mosaic of waterbars, a mish-mesh of woody debris that, yes, might become fuel for wildfires (should fire occur) but in the likely absence of fire this mish-mesh is natures scab, if you will, to help heal a damaged forest. Like straw strewn heavily over a newly seeded road bank or lawn, woody debris (on a much larger forest landscape scale) holds moisture, both in the wood and the ground. This natural layer of woody debris insulates soil from drying winds and sun rays, and protects the same soil from watershed destroying wind and water erosion.

Decaying logs and other woody debris is the stuff forests are made of; an essential incubator for organisms ranging from bacteria to fungi to insects and plants. There is no forest without first the re-emergence of these life forms from the decay on the forest floor.

Clearcutting and fuels treatments rob forests of nature's own self-fertilizing processes. Poor soils produce weak trees. As long as forests are groomed and vacuumed clean of essential woody debris the soils become less productive. Biomass extraction appears to be the next assault on forests natural regeneration processes.

Forests and the wildlife they support don't need man-age-ment. Thousands of years of global-scale survival support the no management argument. It's time we begin to listen to natural history instead of timber industry lobbyists. Only man perceives a need for man-age-ment. If timber extraction was not the one and only goal of one and only species, man, man would have little interest in man-AG-ing this planet's forests that have done quite well on their own and for millennia.


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