Life's A Birch
Article #146, July 2009
By Bill Cook
As the only forester in a group of Boundary Waters adventurers, the eyes turned to me. The north shore of Minnesota has long stretches of dead and dying birch stands. My short answer was simply; "old age". The whole story is a bit longer.
Paper birch is a short-lived species that requires lots of sunlight to grow and survive. The seeds are small and light. They need bare mineral soil exposed so that the germinating roots can penetrate to the nutrients.
In nature, wildfire provides the proper seed bed for birch regeneration. Around 75-80 years ago, fires blazed up and down the coast. Birch took advantage of this ecological opportunity and pioneered these freshly exposed sites. However, birch only live about 75-80 years. They've hit the end of their natural lifespan and are now dying by the thousands.
Fire, of course, could once again provide the conditions to regenerate the birch. However, fire has been excluded from this landscape. The urban rich have built second homes up and down the coastline, removing fire as a practical option, even if the weather and policy conditions prevailed.
Forest management could also provide the ecological conditions needed by birch. Minnesota foresters led the research efforts in birch regeneration strategies. However, that involves heavy harvesting and exposing the soil. It's too late for that in most places, now that most of the birches are just rotting stubs piercing the canopy of hazel brush. There's little left to harvest and produce seed. Too late.
Besides, the urban rich, along with the droves of Boundary Waters trekkers, would object to harvesting. It would be too unsightly. As if the dead forest isn't? I can hear the cries of the offended in my imagination soon followed by threats of litigation from an incensed Twin Cities lawyer. It's too much for a simple forester.
So, with the lack of both fire and forest management, most of the forest will be gone for decades. The dense hazel cover will prevent reasonable stocking for an indeterminate time into the future. There is no new forest at this time. Maybe my grandchildren might, once again, see a forest along this coast. For now, at least you get good views of Lake Superior from the highway.
We have these similar sorts of forest issues in Michigan. Most our birch have also succumbed to old age. Fortunately for us, other tree species have grown under and taken over these former birch sites. For us, the geriatric forest types are more along the lines of oak, aspen, and jack pine. Many of these stands suffer from benign neglect.
Some of these acres will regenerate naturally into some other forest type. Many of the acres, without the sort of disturbance programmed into the genetics of these forest types, will be lost to brush, savannah, and recreational housing. Perhaps, an insect or disease epidemic will take these old forests.
In forest ecology, there is no such thing as "no choice". Doing "nothing" has predictable ecological outcomes, not all of which are natural. Many of which are undesirable.
I explained all of this to my group of fellow canoeists. I saw their eyes begin to glaze over. One guy noted that the question didn't require a Wikipedia response, and then asked Bob to pass the granola bag. I guess they just weren't that interested. And, so it goes.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 906-786-1575.
by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005
J Road, Escanaba, MI 49829
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