An Interview with Ralph Baker
By Cameron Smith & Jacob Harwood
What does climate action look like? Nobody can say for sure, but action will, in some part, involve paying attention to the local aspects of carbon mitigation, environmental influence, and protection of our natural lands. Ralph Baker is one such individual who has a perspective on what next steps might be taken.
Baker has been working in environmental science for forty years and received his Ph.D. in soil sciences from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Before retirement, he worked as chairman and chief scientist at Terratherm, Inc. Baker now serves as Secretary of the Board of the Nashua River Watershed Association.
This interview with Baker focuses on the importance of New England forests and their ability to sequester carbon (the long-term removal or capturing of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). He emphasizes the fact that New England forests need to be preserved and left to flourish without any significant intervention. Additionally, he details some of the precautions necessary when we do interfere with our forests. This interview was inspired by a talk Baker gave for the CounterAct Climate Change Project, which can be found here.
So just to begin: I hope you got a chance to look at that New York Times article [New England Forests Are Sick, They Need More Tree Doctors] but in it, Margaret Halloway talks about pests and disease entering New England as a result of climate change. What effects do you think will be present based on these pests and diseases, specifically talking about trees’ ability to sequester carbon?
I think it’s accurate up to a point, but beyond that, it’s kind of sensationalized too. For example, we’re losing a lot of our white ash, mostly to the emerald ash borer, and there may not be many left around here in a few years; they’re dying pretty steadily. So that’s one prominent tree that I think falls into that category [i.e. trees that are susceptible to disease or [pest].
Another is the eastern hemlock: it’s getting really devastated by a scale insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid, and I think that most of these insects are exotic and brought in from Asia. The hemlock woolly adelgid is wreaking havoc with the eastern hemlock, but not so much right here where I live. Out at the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, where I took a workshop and I’ve been back there for a tour, they showed us a lot of hemlocks that were really getting hit pretty hard by it [hemlock woolly adelgid] and dying. But they say it's coming this way.
Harvard Forest —if you’re familiar with them— that’s one of the forest ecology research centers in the country that happens to be not far from here, and they’ve done a lot of long-term studies and they are pretty convinced that this is going to really change our forests because hemlock is really an important member of the forests. But beyond that, I’m not seeing anything of note.
Some of the other trees: red oak, pine, sugar and red maple all seem to be fine. American beech frequently has beech bark disease but doesn’t seem to kill the trees, and that’s been around as long as I can remember, at least in New England. White and black birch also seem fine.
I’ve heard about folks beginning to plant more southern species, which was mentioned in the article, but I think that’s sheer guesswork in terms of which species will prove successful, because even with climate change we’re still gonna have cold spells and lots of ice during our winters for decades and, in all probability, it’s hard to see trees like they mentioned — black gum, paw paw, and persimmon — I can’t see them doing well here at this time, they’d probably just die in the winter.
They [Halloway] mentioned arborists being busy, and I think they are. There’s a lot of work for utility companies, but I’m really skeptical about the whole take about this dire warning about forests’ health and the need for interventions that tend to promote their profession as foresters. A lot of the conventional wisdom when it comes to forests is that forests can’t do well without our intervention and that’s not how I see it. I mean, yes, there’s probably instances where that kind of thing would be important, but one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of places that have been logged — the equipment seems to introduce invasive species and they are hard to get rid of once they get into the forest. They [pests] are not [located] in intact or undisturbed forests by and large, but you start running that big equipment through and suddenly they show up: things like oriental bittersweet or Japanese knotweed, buckthorn — there’s a lot of them and they’re very successful. One thing about invasive species is they tend to do very well because they don’t have their natural predators or whatever it is that controls them from wherever they came from. So it’s tough. We may need foresters or arborists to go in and help us deal with that. But that’s a problem of their own making, you might say.
After reading the article I said, “Oh is there some existential dread in terms of the New England forests?”
Well, there is in terms of thirty, fifty years [from now] the climate may change enough that some of our well-established trees may not do well. But it’s hard to know how exactly to anticipate which ones are going to do well and which ones won’t, and I know there’s research going on on that. So you might say that that is part of an existential threat, but it’s not like you can turn around and see trees everywhere dying.
Now, is there a significant difference between trees left on their own to die, say from disease, a more natural death, versus logged trees in terms of how much carbon gets released after?
Oh yeah, for sure. If you’re logging and removing the stems and the branches, you’re removing a lot of the carbon from the forest, whereas if the tree just dies and stands there, a lot of that carbon will remain in the forests for ten, twenty, thirty years before it rots, and it will rot and go back into the soil as opposed to being removed. A lot of critters need those standing — they call them snags — or the down trees. You roll over a log that’s been rotting on the forest floor, and you’ll almost always find all kinds of centipedes and salamanders and all kinds of things — you may have experienced that yourself. That’s a natural part of the forest.
You hear misinformed people talk about the need to clean out the forest of dead trees. Out west after fires, really that’s a bad idea. Salvaged cuts tend to produce invasive species, and they remove a lot of the carbon. The forest actually replenishes itself much better if you leave it alone unless there’s something wrong with it. This will be a caveat. I will say that certain kinds of forests, like old plantations in the 30s, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Work Progress Administration, planted a lot of red pine around reservoirs for some reason. They thought that it would help, and a lot of those have become decrepit monocultures where there’s a lot of tall spindly trees that aren’t doing so well. Some people would think, “Well this is a mature forest, why would we want to remove it?” Because it’s not very healthy and it’s not really natural — it was planted. So that’s an exception.
In your talk with CounterAct, you cite MAforests.org, which documents the massive clearcutting of forests around New England watersheds.
I actually went on a tour of the Muddy Brook area out in Hardwick, next to the Quabbin. That was the subject of a lot of that documentation. It’s over 500 acres that they essentially clear-cut. They claimed that they didn’t clear-cut it because they left scattered, tall trees, but a lot of those trees are dying because they were really forest trees, and now there is way too much light and it’s too dry, so they are dying. And some of them are being blown over because they don’t have the support of any of their neighboring trees anymore, so some of them will get wind thrown.
I, and others who’ve studied that place, believe that the rationalization that the Division of Fish and Wildlife has given for that operation is very flimsy. They claim that they are restoring what’s called a pitch pine-scrub oak barrens, and in the 500 plus acres, there’s only about thirty to thirty-five acres where there is any evidence that there were formerly pitch pine and scrub oak. Those trees — you see them a lot out on the Cape and a few other places— they like really sandy, gravelly type soil, and what they’ve done out there in Hardwick is they used big equipment. They essentially removed a lot of the duff layer, the decomposing leaves that tend to accumulate on the ground’s surface in a healthy forest, such as it probably was before. There might be two, three, four, five inches of accumulated organic material which is decomposing and has a lot of microorganisms living in it: fungi and so forth. They purposefully removed it, so they are basically creating a barren where there wasn’t one. One of the pieces of evidence that was pointed out to me is that there is a lot of what is called ‘stump suckers,’ that means small branches that are coming up from stumps that were former trees — not necessarily trees that Fish and Wildlife cut, but trees that were there, and they’re American Chestnut.
Now if you know anything about American Chestnut, it was a really important species, but it got killed roughly a hundred years ago by a blight that came in from Europe. So now, although you can walk around and see small American Chestnuts, they tend to grow up to twenty, thirty feet tall, and right around the time when they’re going to produce chestnuts, they get blighted and die back. The fact that they were there in profusion, because you can see there are stump suckers coming up all over the place, tells us that it wasn’t a pitch pine-scrub oak barrens: it was a very different forest.
I think for that reason and others that they have basically created a habitat that did not exist there before and done it by essentially denuding and, really, degrading the ecology in that area — all in the name of biodiversity. I think it’s a very cynical and misinformed approach and it’s hard to — they’re not very transparent — they claim they’re doing wonderful things. And in fact, there was a speaker in CounterAct Climate Change last week or the week before, John Scanlon, from that division. I was on that call and listened to him. To the layman, it probably sounds all great, but I think a lot of what is being touted is actually not true and or exaggerated.
That’s a big portion of that watershed, even though there’s a huge area that drains into the Quabbin reservoir. And in an area like that, with strong rains or rains that come during snowmelt, there can be a lot of erosion. So sediment will be carried into the streams and I think the authors [Metira et al] spoke of Muddy Brook now being a “muddy brook” when it wasn’t. That kind of a thing is evidence that they have harmed the watershed. I’m sure that if you started collecting samples in those receiving streams, you’d find that there’s a lot more sediment. Sediment not only carries the soil away but also has negative impacts on the aquatic systems: both the streams and the reservoir itself. It can lead to algal blooms — that happens more with agricultural lands because it’s been fertilized — but the forest is losing its fertility into those streams now.
So from a watershed standpoint it’s really a very negative thing. The forest will heal, but it won’t be what it was for a long time because it takes a long time for that organic matter to accumulate. It could be hundreds of years before it is restored naturally back to what it was, but Fish and Wildlife won’t allow that to occur because in order to create a barrens, they will repeatedly cut it. So, it’s really indefensible in my opinion.
I know that they probably made a lot of money from the cut and I think that the economic driver was probably big. NEFF [New England Forestry Foundation].... [is] a private group that receives a lot of donations of land, and then I believe they can do with it whatever they want and, in this case, they clearly wanted to take advantage of the Fish and Wildlife’s offer to turn it into some big chunk of change. That’s sort of our take on it. But because they’re not very transparent, it’s hard to know. It’s hard to know how much Fish and Wildlife netted as revenue, or whether it was essentially a losing proposition for the state, which is true for a lot of the cutting that’s being done on state land on the Quabbin.
If you look at air photos of the Quabbin, you’ll see a checkerboard patchwork of clear-cuts which Fish and Wildlife, mainly, is doing — or the Department of Conservation and Recreation. And you know, the evidence is that they’re not really making much money. In fact, I think that the taxpayers are subsidizing that work. The main thing they’re doing is keeping themselves employed, and that’s a pretty flimsy reason to be carrying out that kind of work.
How does that make you feel that there seems to be this divide in terms of how people think we should approach these forests, and approach this big problem of climate change?
It’s a big problem. I think it’s shifting a little bit as people educate themselves, and as they learn more that there is an alternate view besides the conventional one that most foresters learned in school.
I learned a little bit of forestry when I was at Cornell in the 70s. The kinds of things that I was exposed to are pretty similar to what a lot of foresters that are still in practice were exposed to. And I say that partly because UMass Amherst has forestry professors who I’ve heard talk and, although they’ve shifted a little bit, for the most part I think it’s a very conventional view that tends to be popular bias. I think that we have to work hard to help people to understand that there are different ways of looking at forests. Landowners don’t have to only think of their forest in economic terms. Very few people [and] very few landowners, consider carbon sequestration as one of the ecosystem services that forests provide which has real value. It would be great if the state would pay people for that value — just like we pay farmers to plant certain crops. A lot of that is very ill-conceived to tell you the truth, but we could be paying people who own forest land to leave them alone so they would provide all those ecosystem services: clean water, clean air, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, recreation. All those values are intangibles that currently people don’t receive any value from unless they happen to personally value that themselves.
I think we need to turn that around, and Bill Moomaw [co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University] is trying to push for a Chapter 61C. There is already a Chapter 61A and B in Massachusetts, which pays people to keep forests as forests, but they also require they be managed forests. Well, how about a Chapter 61C — C for Carbon — where they would get paid to not manage their forest. That would take an act of the legislature, but there are folks working on that.
Cameron Smith is the managing editor for Twenty Second Century. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jacob Harwood is an editor for Twenty Second Century. He can be reached at email@example.com