August 1, 2008

In Dead Forest, Life Takes Root


By Lon Wagner

The Virginian-Pilot

They look like something the environmental artist Christo might have done.

Elegant in their sheer starkness. Tall and narrow and white, and dead.

Hundreds of pine trees, their bark now gone, stand like nature's tombstones, demanding attention just before cars pass the toll booth on the north side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

What happened to the trees - are they diseased, or did pests kill them? - has become the top question for workers at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, said Sue Rice, refuge manager.

The answer is simple and the least interesting thing about the trees. They got swamped with saltwater five years ago, during Hurricane Isabel.

"They died because their feet were underwater for a long period of time," Rice said.

But what happened after the water subsided, which took months, and a decision by managers at the refuge, unveils lessons in the magic of an ecosystem. And shows the contrarian idea: Sometimes, death breeds more life than life itself.

The spring after Isabel, refuge staff watched to see if the pines would shoot out needles. Many trees on the coast got blasted with saltwater during the hurricane, dropped their needles that fall, then pushed out fresh growth in the spring.

But this 18 acres of loblolly pines did not. Rice stood on an access road amid the dead pines one morning this week and pointed out what happened. The pines had an obstacle to recovery that most swamped trees did not: Water got trapped between the embankment of U.S. 13 and the access road, and the pines stood in this makeshift pond for months.

So in July 2004, the summer after the hurricane, everyone involved weighed in: folks at the bridge-tunnel, whose land supported some of the trees; fire officials; and people with the refuge, including Steven Hubner, a forester with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hubner saw the possibility that a wildfire could strike the dead trees and require the closing of U.S. 13, and he laid out four options. Cut, pile and burn the trees. Or saw them down and mulch them on the spot. Or cut the dead trees in a 25-foot buffer on both sides of the access road and trees at risk of falling on U.S. 13.

Or, perhaps the riskiest option: Do nothing.

But doing something, almost anything, had other downsides. Any disturbance of the soil by tree-cutting and mulching equipment could open the door for phragmites, an invasive marsh grass that had already taken hold farther down the access road.

Cutting and mulching the trees where they stood would cover the entire understory with about 16 inches of mulch, likely a vegetation- and life-squelcher for years to come. The refuge's long-range conservation plan called for building the undergrowth on the forest floor - even burning about 35 acres of loblolly pines - not snuffing it out with mulch.

The folks at the refuge decided to go for it: and do nothing.

"We got exactly what was in our plan," Rice said, "without having to do any work."

Rice walked along the access road this week and talked about the biological bounty the dead trees have wrought. Pileated woodpeckers - the largest North American woodpecker, the one with the punk-rock- like red hairdo - have inundated the dead tree forest to eat bugs. Along with black-and-white warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets. A great blue heron sat on a nest it had built in one of the trees; an osprey couple made a nest in one by the road, joining two other pairs among the dead pines.

The understory, which could have been covered in mulch, has returned so thick that a person could not walk through it. Baccharis, a shrub that looks like wax myrtle, is plentiful and provides food for migrating birds in the fall. "Before," Rice said, "we wouldn't have gotten that."

Phragmites are nowhere to be seen. The southern pine beetle, among the region's most destructive insects, never invaded. Rice and the foresters figured that was because the hurricane essentially turned the pines into salt-treated wood, and once they were dead there was no food for the beetles.

Small loblolly pines, the native species for this sandy soil, have already sprouted and grown to 5 or 6 feet tall. In the near future, they'll grow as tall as the dead trees and shade out the forest floor.

In the meantime, Rice expects another hurricane will someday finish off the dead pines, a job that Isabel started five years ago.

"If we had a good blow," she said, "I'd say we'd lose every single one of them."

Lon Wagner, (757) 446-2341, [email protected]

Originally published by BY LON WAGNER.

(c) 2008 Virginian - Pilot. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.