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Forests growing back in U.S. face man-made tests

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010; A04

PINEY GROVE, VA. -- Here, in a forest of woodpecker-holed pine trees, is one of the rarest things in the American environment.

A second chance.

The United States can now hit "reset" on one of its greatest environmental mistakes: the destruction of the enormous woodland that once canopied the continent from Maine to east Texas. By the late 1800s, much of it -- including this tract of woods southeast of Richmond -- had been cut down for agriculture and timber.

Then, farms were abandoned. Old seeds sprouted. Unlike many other environmental mistakes, this one began to fix itself: The forest grew back, though burdened with too many deer, too little fire, and armies of invasive bugs.

Now, new forests like this one in Piney Grove are a test, a practical exam for American environmentalism 40 years into the Earth Day era.

In some places, scientists are trying to fix man-made flaws that could eventually destroy forest ecosystems. In others, the test is whether the government and private interests can save the forest from becoming suburbs and strip malls.

"We're at a once-in-forever moment," said Lawrence Selzer, president of the Conservation Fund. He said this generation has to remember that the woods serve as critical natural filters for air, water and greenhouse gases.

"Since Earth Day, we have begun to think of them more as wildlife and recreation sanctuaries," Selzer said. "We're beginning to recognize forests as something far more fundamental and profound, forests as part of the critical infrastructure of our country."

Between 1630 and the nadir of Eastern forests in the late 1800s, the East lost about 1,000 acres of forest a day. Seeking timber and cleared farmland, settlers cut Vermont maples, Maryland oaks, Georgia pines, erasing a kind of forest that residents can barely fathom now.

But then, people began abandoning rocky, stingy farmland for the West, or for coastal cities. Neglect was all nature needed: By 1997, the forest had reached 68 percent of its former range.

"All woods ain't woods," said Stephen W. Syphax, a National Park Service official. In this region, one of the few remaining virgin forests is Belt Woods, a state-owned, limited-access tract in Prince George's County. It includes trees 15 stories tall and 12 feet around, and underbrush thick with birds.

"People start whispering" in such places, Syphax said. "That's what I think of as church."

Here in Piney Grove, the new forest is about 110 years old now. Wind whooshes through eight-story loblolly pines, and there are black bears and bobcats and red-cockaded woodpeckers -- an endangered species with a call like a rubber ducky with a head cold.

The signs of human habitation already look ancient: the hole of an old church cellar, earthen walls in the woods. But the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit group that bought this forest in 1999, still sees a man-made problem here.

To fix this forest, they need to set it on fire.

"It's counterintuitive, isn't it?" said Brian van Eerden, a Nature Conservancy official. Around him, on one recent afternoon, employees and volunteers were using "drip torches" to dribble out flaming gasoline and diesel fuel onto the forest floor, setting thigh-high fires that turned the underbrush into char. "Black is good," van Eerden said.

The fires, officials said, are for the woodpeckers.

The birds evolved to live in forests swept by fires that burned out undergrowth, which blocks the birds' flight. Now, in an age when forest fires bring fire departments, the Nature Conservancy has to set them itself, or the birds' habitat might disappear.

"We'll always have to do fire" for this kind of habitat, said Sam Lindblom, a "fire manager" for the conservancy.

In other places, scientists face a different problem: not too few of an animal, but too many.

As the Eastern forest vanished, white-tailed deer declined with it: In 1927, hunters only killed five deer in Maryland. But, with the aid of state restocking programs, they came back. Last year, Maryland hunters killed 100,663.

Now, the deer eat almost everything, and almost nothing eats them. In a Smithsonian Institution-owned forest near Front Royal, Va., their grazing kills off most of the young trees before they can grow tall enough to escape.

Now, when the tall trees age and fall, there may be no next generation to shoot up in their place.

"Right now, the [deer] are hunted by people and Volvos," said William J. McShea, a wildlife ecologist at the Smithsonian Institution. Because of that, he said, "there's no future to that forest. It's like it's died, but it doesn't know it yet."

This problem has no easy fix. One idea is to reintroduce the cougars and wolves that kept deer populations in check before they were hunted out of existence in the East.

"Mountain lions, they do eat people every once in a while," said John Laundré of the Eastern Cougar Foundation. He says the risks would be outweighed by the ecological benefits. "Secondhand smoke kills more people than mountain lions," he said, "and yet we're willing to sit in a smoky bar."

So far, government officials are leery of that approach.

Invasive species are another threat -- bugs and blights and blistering diseases introduced to the Eastern woods by people. These already changed the face of the forests in the 20th century, killing off the chestnuts and elms that once dominated some areas.

Now, despite efforts to stop such bugs at the border, or to keep them from spreading to new forests, an "ash borer" drills D-shaped holes into ash trees. The Asian longhorned beetle burrows fatal tunnels in a tree's bark.

Already, scientists say, the Eastern forest is shrinking -- between 1997 and 2007, it was reduced by 1.4 million acres, an area larger than Delaware.

"Unlike corn and cotton," said Craig Hanson of the World Resources Institute, "houses and highways are permanent crops."

The erosion of the forest has come despite new government programs, launched in the decades after the first Earth Day in 1970, that used federal money to preserve privately owned woods. Some programs plant new trees on old farmland, another pays to buy the land itself, or pays for "conservation easements" to guarantee it remains a forest.

But tens of millions more dollars are needed in funding, especially to provide corridors of preserved land for plants and animals to migrate as they adapt to climate change, said Jad Daley of the Trust for Public Land. "All that momentum is about to start to turn back the other way."

Maryland provides a test case in the difficulty of saving the Eastern forest by any means.

In 1991, the state passed a law requiring developers that cut down forests to either plant new ones or pay a fee that the state would use for tree-planting. Despite these efforts, the state loses about 1,500 acres of forest a year. The problem: Maryland has difficulty finding enough free land for new forests.

"The good Lord's not making any more land, and a lot of the land out there is already spoken for," said Steven W. Koehn, director of the Maryland Forest Service.

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