What is going on with all of the White Birches?

Photo credit: Nancy Ritger (9-07)

It looks like a skeleton yard of bleached white bones across the forest. Are all of the white birches dying at once? Is it blight, past evidence of logging or the infamous Ice Storm of ’98?

Well like most things it is a combination of factors. In this case the factors all lead to the same result – a forest highlighting stands of dead white birch trees. First of all, as many readers know, the White Mountain forests have undergone both radical and subtle changes caused by human and natural events. One era that has had lingering effects on our forests is the logging boom of the turn of the century where most every log of marketable size was cut, limbed and railroaded out of here to fuel the industrial revolution. What was seen in its wake was an area, once left untouched for several decades, that was able to rebound to its previous glory, with some changes of course. The most significant changes were the species of trees that grew t

Photo credit: Nancy Ritger (9-07)

o dominate the forest landscape. From historical records we learn that the timber of value was red spruce. What grew in its place were a combination of white birch, maple, cherry and beech depending on elevation. These species are fast growing, short lived and relatively intolerant of shade making up what we call a successional forest. Eventually balsam fir and red spruce also grow up in the forest and begin to compete for sunlight with the faster growing species.

Okay, but why does it appear that all of the birches are dying at once?

Photo credit: Nancy Ritger (9-07)

White birch has a life span of 75-90 years, so the first successional trees after the logging boom are reaching their age limit. Older trees are also more susceptible to environmental stressors such as disease and disturbance. The Ice Storm of ’98 coated trees with an inch layer of ice. The sheer weight of the ice snapped thousand of branches off healthy trees allowing insects and disease a pathway to move in. Now ten years later we can see yet another factor in the white birch story.

So age, disease and damage are all to blame for what looks like a Halloween scene across the forest, but just as we see the skeletons of the white birches, if we look closer we will also see that younger trees are emerging, ready to take its place in the sun and continue the story of human and natural events.