Magazine article American Forests

Is There a Virgin Forest in Your Neighborhood?

Magazine article American Forests

Is There a Virgin Forest in Your Neighborhood?

Article excerpt

There may well be, according to this tree-ring researcher, but it probably won't be calendar material.

Some things in the natural world overwhelm you with power and grandeur. If you've stood on the Hurricane Deck beneath the Bridal Veil at Niagara Falls, if you've confronted the full-size African elephant near the front entrance of the Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, if you've leaned against the railing and gazed into the Grand Canyon, you know the truth of that statement.

The remaining old-growth forests of the eastern United States aren't that way. Not necessarily.

The tree didn't look like much. A gimpy, gnarly post oak, it clung to the edge of a rocky, southwest-facing bluff in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas, directly above an old rock shelter at which archaeologists have documented thousands of years of human occupation. Twisted, stunted, wind-tortured, the tree was maybe 15 inches in diameter, and if it was 20 feet tall I'd be surprised. Its snaggled, broken-ended branches erupted in unpredictable directions, like a mad scientist's hair.

"This is one of my favorite trees," said Dave Stahle (pronounced Stay-lee), gently resting a palm on the moss-covered bark. "He's 250 years old, exactly."

Stahle tends to refer to his trees as "he" instead of "it." He's pretty fond of them, even though he's a thoroughly professional scientist who refuses to let sentiment get in the way of his good judgment. A casual perusal of the book titles on his cluttered desk prove the point: Telecommunications Linking Worldwide Climate Anomalies. Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment.

IPCC, it turns out, stands for "Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change," a United Nations-affiliated group with big-time political clout. Pretty heavy reading material. Typical office fodder for a Ph.D. egghead.

But Dave Stahle isn't your typical Ph.D. egghead. True, he teaches undergraduate and graduate-level courses at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. True, he's the director of the Tree Ring Laboratory at UA. True, he refers to himself as a dendrochronologist or a paleoclimatologist, depending on his mood when you ask him. Translated into English, those jawbreaker words mean he's a guy who analyzes tree-ring growth to trace climatic changes and other disturbances back through time.

Stahle has teamed with fellow UA dendrochronologist Malcolm Cleaveland. Long story short, their work involves taking small, pencil-size plugs out of living and dead trees with a Swedish increment borer, a specialized tree-boring tool. Then they count backward in time as they tick off the annual growth rings one by one.

Using these techniques, Stahle and Cleaveland can tell with remarkable accuracy what the weather's been each year for the lifespan of a tree. By matching up older, dead trees from the same site, it's possible to construct an overlapping tree-ring chronology--often for more than a thousand years. The value of this exercise lies not only in learning weather patterns over hundreds of years past but also in determining how long current weather patterns might last.

The pair's primary thrust as dendrochronologists/paleoclimatologists (whew!) is interesting enough in its own right. For example, they've discovered that swings in spring/summer rainfall over Arkansas and the southern Great Plains are fairly cyclic but not uniform. Rather, drought years tend to cluster together. Ditto wet years. It's not uncommon to have back-to-back droughts or three or four dry years crammed into a five- or six-year period. Unusually wet years tend to cluster in similar fashion.

Because of their work, Stahle now believes there's a lot more old-growth than most of us believe. The current thinking in scientific circles is that little old-growth timber remains in the eastern United States. Stahle doesn't agree.

"I have made the rather outlandish claim that there are literally thousands of acres of old-growth forest on public and private land in the eastern U. …

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