Monday, July 8, 2013

Robbins Redux

Bird-cherry Ermine moth caterpillars
Reporter Jim Robbins has written another lament for trees, this time for the UK Guardian - moaning about beetles and fungus and temperatures - without making clear that the worst threat to their survival is air pollution.  This is especially ironic because in it, he refers to David Milarch, and his program to propagate new trees from old champion stock.  As I wrote last December in "No One Knows Where This Will Lead", Mr. Milarch left his nursery in Michigan and went to California seeking trees that were more resistant to tropospheric ozone, because after two decades watching his stock die in the Midwest, he determined that air pollution was killing the trees.

I suppose it should be considered progress that air pollution at least received a mention in his reporting this time - however, Mr. Robbins, Mr. Milarch and the other folks referred to at the Future Trees Trust of Great Britain who are attempting to breed genetic strains of trees that will be resistant to climate change (ha!) are wasting their time if they don't understand that trees cannot survive at the current levels of background ozone.  They should be advocating an immediate and drastic reduction in the emission of precursors instead of blathering on about genetic diversity and resilience.  If they persist in blaming invasive species, and insects, disease and fungus for forest decline, all of which are merely opportunistic pathogens, then their efforts are doomed to fail.

Put it this way - peak oil is not going to save what's left of Earth's forests, if the discovery of "Trillions of dollars of Worth of Oil Found in Australian Outback" is any indication.  We have plenty of coal, gas and oil to burn until every last tree is stone dead.

Here's a comment I left over a year ago to one of his earlier stories:

Jim Robbins in the NY Times says of dying trees: “The common factor has been hotter, drier weather.” …What??? [Trees are dying EVERYWHERE even where there has been no drought.]
In “Why Trees Matter” he inveighs against the usual insects, and drought. Then, to emphasize how wonderful trees are, he wrote something that I see often – and never know whether it should make me laugh or cry:

“Trees are nature’s water filters, capable of cleaning up the most toxic wastes, including explosives, solvents and organic wastes, largely through a dense community of microbes around the tree’s roots that clean water in exchange for nutrients, a process known as phytoremediation. Tree leaves also filter air pollution. A 2008 study by researchers at Columbia University found that more trees in urban neighborhoods correlate with a lower incidence of asthma.”

This sort of sentiment is so nakedly anthropocentric it enrages me, frankly. If somebody knows enough to understand that trees are cleaning up our pollution, wouldn’t it cross their mind, just for a tiny second, to wonder what that does to the tree??

It’s killing them all!  See A Cascade of Consequences.

At a story Mr. Robbins wrote for YaleEnvironment360 in 2010, one prescient commenter said:

"For any appreciable number of MPB to be killed by cold weather, severely cold weather is required. Either hard freezed early or late in the year -- or sustained temperatures of 30 below! I'm sorry, but these type of temperature conditions have never been common in the mountain region where I have lived all my life."

Exactly!  It was established in the 1950's that bark beetles were killing conifers in the hills above Los Angeles because the air pollution had weakened them - and it never got cold very cold there either.

I brought to Mr. Robbins' attention the (you'd think) salient point that tree species other than pines that host bark beetles were dying out west too:

There is a very significant story here that remains largely untold. Ozone weakens trees and encourages insects, disease and fungus to finish them off. This is fact that has been demonstrated in peer-reviewed science, and yet the existential threat that is implicated seems to have made the subject taboo. 
I wrote to Craig Allen and he refused to even consider ozone as a factor, even though beetles and warming only explain some of the declines in the west - not Sudden Aspen Decline, or Sudden Oak Death, or the shrinking of the biomass in Sequoia forests. Not to mention that trees are dying at a monumentally accelerating rate up and down the east coast. 
Nothing would please me more at this point than for a reporter of your caliber to take on this challenging topic and put it front and center before the damage to annual foliage is so rampant as well that we have massive crop failures and famine.

Below is the excerpt about Mr. Milarch, but if you've got the time and haven't read that post, it has a lot more information from the EPA Science Advisory Report about the effects of ozone on vegetation:

report on National Public Radio, about a nurseryman who is trying to propagate old, hopefully more ozone tolerant trees, makes it all crystal clear when he is asked why:

"SIMON: Mr. Milarch, what brought you into this Archangel Ancient Tree Archive?"

"MILARCH: Well, we've been in the shade tree business in northern Michigan for several generations. And 20 years ago, our trees that we were growing for the cities and nurseries started to die and we didn't know why. Well, after a couple of years and a lot of research, we found out it was due in large part to the decline in air quality. So, we were trying to find an answer of trees that could be stronger, hardier, could take the increase in temperature as well as the increase in toxins in the air."

Almost exactly a year ago, in Anagnorisis, I quoted Milarch from an interview in which he tells of being spoken to by angels:

“The champions are in harm's way. The whole country should
be forested coast to coast with these giant trees, not with the puny, scraggly,
miserable mess we call our forests. We don't realize what we've lost.”

~ David Milarch, Founder and Pres., Champion Tree Project

Maybe Mr. Robbins and the foresters at the Futures Trees Trust believe in angels too, and that's why they don't feel obligated to warn people that the poisons we are spewing from cars, planes, trains, ships, factories and power plants are destroying the entire ecosystem.  Mr. Milarch says that he is breeding "super" trees from ancient specimens because they are survivors and have withstood the test of time, somehow forgetting that in those prior centuries when they were established, the air was clean.

Here's the article from the Guardian:

Trees: our life savers are dying

For centuries we've treated forests poorly. Yet we're only just learning how crucial trees are to our survival
Several years ago a few trees in my 15 acres of pine forest in Montana turned from green to a rusty brown, killed by swarms of bark beetles. Four years later virtually all of my centuries-old forest was dead. It wasn't just the beetles that did in my trees, but much warmer winters here in the Rocky mountains that no longer killed the bugs, allowing them to expand exponentially.
Since then, as a science journalist for the New York Times, I have written many stories about the dying of the trees – and the news is not good. Many forests across the length and breadth of the Rockies have died in the last decade. Most of the mature forests of British Columbia are gone, from a combination of climate and insects.
The bristlecone pines of the US – the most ancient trees in the world, with some more than 4,000 years old – will die in the coming years because of a combination of bark beetles and a fungal disease, enabled by a warmer climate. Tree-ring studies on the bristlecone show that the last 50 years are the warmest half century in the last 3,700 years.
All this is to say that the fungus killing ash trees in Britain is unlikely to be a one-off. Trees across the world are dying. It's not only the changes brought by a warmer world. We've treated the world's trees poorly for centuries, without regard to ecological principles. We've fragmented forests into tiny slivers, and selected out the best genetics again and again with no regard to the fitness of those that remain. Air pollution and soil abuse has taken a toll. And scientists admit trees and forests are poorly studied. "It's embarrassing how little we know," a leading redwood expert told me.
Yet the little that is known indicates trees are essential. They are the planet's heat shield, cooling temperatures beneath them by 10C and blocking cancer-causing ultraviolet rays. They are robust filters of our air and water, and soak up climate-warming carbon dioxide. Forests slow the runoff of rainfall. Many of the world's damaging floods are really caused by deforestation.
These functions are well known. But trees play many other critical roles that we know little about. Katsuhiko Matsunaga, a marine chemist at Hokkaido University in Japan, discovered that as the leaves from trees decompose, humic acid leaches into the ocean and helps fertilise plankton, critical food for many other forms of sea life. Japanese fisherman began an award-winning campaign called Forests Are the Lovers of the Sea, and planted trees along the coasts and rivers that rejuvenated fish and oyster stocks.
Also in Japan, researchers have long studied what they call "forest bathing". Hiking through the forest has been shown to reduce stress chemicals in the body and to increase NK or natural killer cells in the immune system, that fight tumours and viruses. Elsewhere researchers have demonstrated that anxiety, depression and even crime are lower in neighbourhoods with trees in the picture.
Hundreds of different kinds of chemicals are emitted by trees and forests, many beneficial. Taxane from the Pacific yew tree is a powerful anti-cancer drug. Many other tree compounds are proven to be antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral and even to prevent cancer. The active ingredient of aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, for example, comes from willows. Recommended by doctors to prevent a range of cancers, as well as heart attack and stroke, some believe this chemical in the wild has a medicinal impact on the health of all creatures as it is aerosolised into the air and water, and breathed in and drunk. Yet, it hasn't been researched.
Trees are greatly underused as an eco-technology – "working trees" – to make natural systems, as well as the world's cities and rural areas, more resilient. They are used here in the US to prevent soil erosion and shade crops. In a neat bit of alchemy, trees can be used to clean up the most toxic of wastes, including explosives, solvents and organic wastes, because of a dense community of microbes as thick as a finger around the tree's roots, a process known as phytoremediation.
The question is what to plant to withstand the challenges of a changing world to assure a world with trees. In the UK a group called Future Trees Trust is breeding more resilient trees. And a shade-tree farmer from the US named David Milarch, a co-founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, and whom I have written about, is making copies of some of the world's oldest and largest trees, from California redwoods to the oaks of Ireland – with proven survivor genetics – to be part of a future forest mix. "These are the supertrees," he says, "and they have stood the test of time."
Before I began this journey I felt planting trees was a feeble response to the planet's problems. No longer. As the proverb asks: "When is the best time to plant a tree?" Twenty years ago. "The second-best time?" Today.


  1. Exactly, Gail, you are again, quite right in stating and documenting that air pollution is killing our trees. Poisoned air is also killing scores of thousands of our fellow human beings. Toxic compounds kill the most vulnerable organisms amongst us, starting with trees and children. Our leaders, and our government are derelict on this most threatening issue of public safety. So be it if our botanists, foresters, and arborists show nothing but ignorance or cowardice in the face of such overwhelming evidence.
    Thanks for your boldness and honesty, and most of all thanks for caring.
    David Lange

  2. Thanks for nailing it yet again.

  3. You are going to get me to brush up on my organic structural chemistry, Gail.


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