A tree has fallen on your property. What should you do? From a conservationist’s standpoint, the best course of action is often to leave the wood where it lies. Ecosystem health depends upon the nutrients provided by decaying plant matter, and downed trees are a major boost for the bottom of the food chain. Their great storehouse of carbon sustains a host of mycorrhizal fungi, bacteria, and other microscopic life forms that break down the molecular structures of organic matter and convert them back into the building blocks of life. That is why dead trees make great nurseries for other plants, including replacement trees. Take a look at the Late fall oyster mushrooms pictured here – they fed beetles, deer, and my own family for weeks.
How long does it take for a dead tree to rot? Generally 70-150 years, depending upon the species, the size, and the climate. Hardwoods like maple and oak actually rot faster than softwoods like spruce and pine, and both degrade faster with moisture. It might be said that the true life of a tree is measured in living years (50-150 on average) plus 30 years as a standing snag, and another 70 years or so on the ground.
If this seems like a long time to wait, consider that in the meantime, the limbs from downed trees provide habitat to plants and animals that require cover on the forest floor, like wrens and chipmunks. Salamanders, toads, and many mammals make burrows under logs, or live inside. It may be possible to work these features into your landscaping scheme, or to obscure them with a native climbing vine like Virginia creeper.
Where it is unfeasible to leave downed wood on the ground, you might stick with a living lighter on the land approach and move it in large pieces to rot in a natural and out-of-the-way location. Smaller pieces will rot more quickly but require more time and energy to cut. Do not stack unless you seek to preserve the wood for burning or other use. Occasionally, treefall in wind storms is so catastrophic that the survival of nearby trees and understory is threatened. Pictured here is some of the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy upon the forest in Carolin’s Grove Preserve in Pound Ridge, NY in 2012.
When so many trees are lost from the canopy in such a short time, there is great potential for lasting ecological changes including species loss, soil loss, and decline in water quality. Our stewardship crew recognized that natural forest regeneration at this site was additionally threatened by excessive deer browse and the invasion of non-native species, and we decided to take action. We hired a trained crew to spend several days cutting and chipping dead spruce in the Preserve, with a special focus on removing dangerous hanging limbs. Then, we installed a series of fenced areas in the new clearing and planted those with an assortment of native tree and shrub saplings. This year, we plan to add more trees and pollinator plants. We are already seeing the signs of natural forest regeneration.
When a tree falls in the forest, or even in your yard, it pays to think long-term about what course to take. To learn how to select and plant native tree species on your property, attend our free workshop on May 7, 2016 (more information here) or volunteer with us on a tree-planting project in Pound Ridge this Spring!
How much do you love your land? Judging by real estate prices in our area, the residents of Pound Ridge and northern Westchester County value their lands highly. They love it for its scenery, for the tranquil feelings it inspires, for the privacy it offers, and for opportunities to feel connected to the larger web of life. Many of our residents feel a responsibility to steward their property in a way that preserves these cherished values for future generations. They may also feel obligated to protect irreplaceable ecosystem services that our lands together provide, such as water filtration, flood control, wildlife habitat, and air quality control. As a private and not-for-profit land trust, PRLC is committed to stewardship of the land we own (now totalling 360 acres) and to helping other area landowners live lighter on the land. We offer a series of eduational workshops and guided hikes in addition to the information contained in our website and in this blog.
Recent work on our preserves has been largely focused upon building resilience to change in our forests. Functioning natural communities are always in flux but are also generally quite stable when they are large and interconnected across a landscape. In the fragmented northeast, change is occurring at an acclerating rate, even faster than our climate. It may be time to take the gloves off, or put them on and get to work on addressing some of the most potent threats to our local ecosystem. These include an influx of invasive, non-native species and an overabundance of deer, along with cascading effects that limit forest regeneration, wildflower abundance, and overall plant, bird, and insect diversity.
PRLC’s land management strategy is to prioritize the values of a particular property and to outline both short- and long-term plans for protection. For properties within the Croton Reservoir watershed, we partner with the Watershed Agricultural Council Management Assistance Program for advice and technical support on promoting forest health. Several of our preserves now have management plans to guide stewardship over the next five to fifteen years. At the 70 acre Clark Preserve for instance, we have worked steadily to control Japanese barberry (an invasive shrub) within an area of potentially healthy forest. As a followup, volunteers fenced and planted a test strip with native shrubs and small trees that better support wildlife. Species planted include Purple-flowering raspberry, American hazelnut, Spicebush, Winterberry, Northern bayberry, Witchhazel, Black currant, and Northern bush honeysuckle. All of these are native to Pound Ridge and will grow in part-shade under a forest canopy. Indeed, many of them can still be found where deer can not reach them.
Similar work to establish and protect native forest understory was conducted at the Carolin’s Grove and Armstrong Preserves this year. At Carolin’s Grove, we enclosed three 100 foot perimeter circles with deer fencing to promote the growth of young, naturally occurring trees within a blowdown (an area of forest damaged by Superstorm Sandy). These small exclosures will foster the growth of “daughter” trees from the mothers that still stand, and will hopefully carry us into future generations. In the meantime, we have work to do on controlling the deer population outside of fenced areas.
At the Armstrong Preserve, we recieved a grant to support the installation of a 500 foot perimeter deer fence in an area of older-aged oak forest. Young oaks are a delicacy to deer and are rarely seen these days, while older oaks are top providers for a whole chain of forest creatures. The Armstrong deer exclosure is featured as an outdoor learning environment at the Armstrong Education Center and is sure to be a big draw for visitors desiring a rich forest experience. You are invited to tour this and other outdoor learning environments at Armstrong, including restoration areas in a woodland meadow and vernal pool, any day between dawn and dusk. For more information, please contact the PRLC Land Steward & Educator Krista Munger.
“Anyone who has a garden, park or orchard tree has an opportunity to ensure that it offers protection, brings beauty and bears fruit for future generations. In short, every one of us should aspire to be a forester.”
― Gabriel Hemery, The New Sylva: A Discourse of Forest and Orchard Trees for the Twenty-First Century