Half of our 44 acres are filled with rows of strapping, teenage White Spruce and Red Pine planted by the previous owner. These trees grow naturally in Northern Wisconsin, but usually exist only by human intervention in the southern part of the state, where we live.
The Red Pines in our southeast corner had a close call when we bought the land. We almost cut them when they were spindly five-foot saplings to recreate prairie in that area because we thought they were not native, and we were eager to restore native habitat. Tough-barked oak species and deep-rooted prairie plants were all that could survive here till European pioneers put their foot down on prairie fires.
When we learned we would basically have to nuke that spot back to the Stone Age and replant in prairie, the scope of the project overwhelmed us, so we confined our prairie restoration to the acre and a half of land where prairie plants were already making a determined comeback despite the spruce planted on top of them.
Meanwhile, the White Spruce and Red Pines continued to shoot up into handsome, vital trees towering over our heads, and I had to look up to them. Also, we learned that amazingly, only a few miles away there is a truly rare ecosystem, the Ridgeway Pine Natural Area, where ancient pines cling to sandstone cliffs and rocky outcroppings in an area that managed to escape the fires that maintained this entire part of the state as prairie and savanna when Native Americans lived here.
A pine forest has persisted just a few miles from us since the last glacier receded. Click here to learn more. Unlike the vast northern pine forests, these protected relics combine plants and animals of Southern Wisconsin in a northern pine woods. That relic gave us hope that we could nurture a similar environment.
This spring, we attended a 9-seminar series at UW-Madison by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) called “Bracing for Impact: Climate Change Adaptation in Wisconsin.” You can watch the entire series online at the UW Biotech Auditorium website by clicking here.
The final seminar explored what climate change is going to mean to Wisconsin forests. (Their findings also apply to the entire Upper Midwest and many mid-latitude locations in both the U.S. and Europe.) The best estimate is a 5.2 to 7.2 °F increase in the next 100 years. That is more than our climate has changed since the last glacier! Dr. John Williams in the UW-Madison Department of Geography’s Center for Climatic Research has studied the response of plant communities in the past 20,000 years to climate change, and he said one of the big lessons from the geological record is that even small temperature changes can have large ecological effects. Spruce trees (to pick tree I care for) moved half way across the continent in response to about 3 degrees of warming.
Rapid climate change versus slow growing trees – guess who looses? Even in Northern Wisconsin many tree species are likely to be driven north into Canada and disappear from this state. The list includes Jack Pine, Balsam Fir, Paper Birch, Red Pine and White Spruce.
So how are we to manage our currently very happy teenage trees? It feels a little like watching a class of hopeful high school students graduate in a town where the supporting industry is about to shut down. For starters, we plan to harvest all the trees growing on our two south-facing slopes as soon as they are mature enough for pulp. Then we are going to try to keep the trees growing on the cooler, more protected northern slopes of our hilly land, and manage them as sustainable forest — if climate change permits.
Hopefully the amazing relic near by that has survived in the same spot for 10,000 years can withstand the changes that are coming. And hopefully our optimistic young evergreens will get the opportunity to grow up and shelter barred owls, pileated woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers and warblers, the way their aged neighbors do now.
My next post Friday will be about the ideas that can rise in a bowl of bread dough.