There’s an old-growth forest on a steep, west-facing slope in Green Mountain National Forest where I conduct annual surveys of breeding bird populations. I’ve been visiting The Cape Research Natural Area twice a year since 1993, and despite the 3:00 am wake-up call—followed by the hour-long drive, and 40-minute hike culminating with a gnarly bushwhack up a steep, boulder-strewn slope covered with stinging nettles—I never seem to get tired of the place, thanks to the trees.
Although I go to study the birds, it’s the trees that make this such a special place to visit year after year. Huge, old-growth sugar maples, white ash, and yellow birch—many as big around as a compact car, some with burls the size of tractor tires.
I have come to “know” many of these trees, and look forward to seeing them, like old friends. There’s the 30-inch diameter sugar maple near Point 2 with rough, lichen-coated bark, and large buttressed roots. There’s the massive yellow birch that I sit upslope from when I survey Point 3 so I can admire its huge bulbous burl and keep an eye on the dark cavity that’s 10 feet off the ground, always hoping that I might catch a glimpse of whatever wildlife may be sheltered within. There’s the grand black cherry that I discovered more recently on my way out of the study area. It’s not up on the steep slope, but down on the flat, where it takes advantage of increased nutrients that wash down from above. The lone cherry is over two feet in diameter and nearly straight as an arrow for 60 feet before the first branch leaves the trunk. Although the tree’s economic value as a marketable sawlog must be substantial, to me it pales in comparison to its ecological significance as part of the natural area’s “big tree community.”
But the tree that holds the greatest significance for me is the huge white ash between Points 3 and 4. Even though I know that it’s there, I’m always a little taken aback by its sheer size and height—like a towering mast from a great sailing ship in a sea of knee-high jewelweed. Since learning about the threat posed by the Emerald Ash Borer however, I find myself lingering at the ash each time I pass by. A few years back, to get a better sense of its girth, I embraced the tree. My arms didn’t come close to reaching half-way around the trunk, which is covered in thick grey bark, deeply furrowed into vertical ridges, some an inch deep and twice that wide.
The ash reminds me that our forests are at a critical threshold. The combined threats of introduced pests, including the Emerald Ash Borer, Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, and Asian Longhorned Beetle, along with the effects of climate change, are bound to alter our forests as we know them. How will these changes—including the northward advance of southern tree species and the decline of ash and hemlock—affect wildlife populations? As hemlocks turn brown, will the Black-throated Green Warbler’s ubiquitous “zee, zee, zee, ZOO-zee” become less common? And what will become of the Canadian sphinx moth, whose caterpillars are wholly reliant on black ash trees as their host plant?
The Cape old-growth forest is a dynamic place—trees blow down in wind storms almost every year due to the steepness of the slope, while others die from insect outbreaks or fungal infections. One huge sugar maple near Point 1, which was apparently healthy when I started surveys in 1993, is now a standing, hollow snag. While I don’t mourn the loss of the sugar maple, I’m bound to feel differently if the great white ash succumbs to a non-native insect that we introduced but failed to eradicate.
—Steve Faccio, Conservation Biologist, Vermont Center for Ecostudies
About Ash Stories: Ash Stories is a collaboration between the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Urban & Community Forestry Program to celebrate Vermont’s ash trees and their role in our woods, wetlands, and towns. You can learn more about the project here.
Do you have an ash story to share? We’d love to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your story to be included in our collection. Questions? Contact Allaire Diamond, VLT ecologist.