A Sustained past and a sustainable future

My tree farm article for Virginia Forests Magazine.

The American Tree Farm System was founded a few years before Aldo Leopold published his “Land Ethic,” so central to modern conservation and influential to development of tree farming. Leopold wrote, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” Today we recognize this as a commitment to diversity and sustainability. What seems obvious now was hardly common when tree-farming ideas were developing back in the 1940s and 1950s.

I mention Aldo Leopold because his well-known work provides a convenient marker. Of course, there are many more. We depend on contributions by thousands of individuals. Our conservation ethic was build the old fashioned way, though hard work and practical experience on the land, putting theories into practice and putting practices into theories. We have so much more in terms of technologies, techniques and scientific research. We can manage our land better than they did, but we know that we can see farther because we stand on their shoulders. We never will reach a final destination. We are always becoming, never finished. Our challenges are different from those of the first tree farmers but no less difficult.

Among the challenges most urgent are climate change and invasive species. Tree farmers think in terms of decades and we base on plans on the assumption that conditions as our trees grow and mature will be broadly predicable based on current conditions. This assumption may be becoming less valid. We are can foresee changes that the growing forests themselves will create. Watching these changes unfold is one of the great joys of a naturalist. We know that the maturing trees will change the amount of water that runs into our streams. We plan for it. We understand the effects of canopy closure on wildlife and vegetation. We expect to see more turkeys and fewer quail, for example, as the trees grow. We plan for that too. We anticipate a succession of biological communities as the forest matures. All this we know from experience. But what if past performance does not predict future behavior. What about changing rain or temperature patterns or the impact of invasive species? What about a combination of things, where changing climate patterns turn a previously benign species into a threat? Let us specify that we need not even be talking here about global climate change. A new subdivision with its roads and activity may influence local conditions enough to change the dynamic on our land. Nature is always in a state of dynamic change, but humans have accelerated the rate of change, requiring more of us. We got ourselves into trouble and we have to get ourselves out of it.

Aldo Leopold wrote, “A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land.” We have responsibility to adapt to changes and anticipate them. Diversity and flexibility are among the best ways to “plan.” When uncertain, seek more options. Elsewhere in this magazine are articles about longleaf pine restoration in Virginia, examples of how we can diversify our forestry. We cannot be sure of conditions when these longleaf pines mature, but we can do all possible to do the sustainable thing today.

CO2 and forests

CO2 helps plants grow faster, but it is complex in that there are often other limiting factors. As you eliminate some, others become more prominent. A limiting factor for trees is often water or a shortage of one or more of the big three fertilizers: Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. Humans have added CO2 to the air, but also added Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium, so much that they are sometimes pollutants. It might be that we have lucked onto something good out of potentially bad if increased CO2 levels allow faster growth to suck up some of that excess NPK. This is unlikely to apply as much to tropical forests as temperate ones, however.

Throughout earth’s history, CO2 levels in the air have fluctuated but have generally been dropping until recently. I mean, we are talking geological time. The drop has been happening for the last 200 million years, when CO2 levels were 4-5 times as high as they are today. At this time, earth was universally warm and great forests of giant ferns grew all the way to the arctic. I have always been interested in such things, but there is probably no practical use for this knowledge.

Virginia whiskey and brandy

Chrissy and I went to visit the Chrissy & I went up to visit the Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Purcellville.   You can follow the link for details.  They make small batches of rye whiskey and brandy, all from locally sourced products. They try to make it a closed loop process.  For example, the leftover grain (after the whiskey is made) goes to local farmers, where it is fed to cattle and, according to the tour guide, the meat ends up at the “Market Burger” restaurant across the street. 

I am not a great connoisseur of whiskey, although I have learned that I like some more than others.  Generally I like bourbon better than rye.  Most of the decent bourbon brands are okay.  I am not sure I could really tell most of them apart.  Scotch can be good, but it depends much more on the brand.  I am not fond of brandy, but the Catoctin Creek folks make a brandy called “1757” (the year Loudoun became a county) that is very good.  But since I cannot tell very much by the taste, I like the stories.  I know that many of the stories are not true, but I like them still.  The story of the Catoctin distillery is one of a local business trying to make an ecologically friendly booze.  I like that.

The tour was interesting and short.  I have been on distillery tours before .  We went on the Kentucky Bourbon Tour a few years back.  But I learned something interesting.  the spirits come out in three groups: the head, the heart and the tail.   The head is too strong and that is the stuff that will kill or blind you.   The heart is the part they make into whiskey.  The tail is too weak to be used directly, but at the Catoctin Distillery they use it as the base for a gin they make.  After the tour we had the tasting.  As I said, the “1767” brandy was good.  My second favorite was Roundstone Rye 97.   It was a little too strong.  The 97 refers to the proof.

After the tasting, we went over to Market Burger across the street.  They were very good, old fashioned burgers.  We didn’t notice any of the whiskey flavor in meat that they might in theory have picked up from the whiskey grain feed.
Purcellville is a nice little town.  It is the start of the W&OD bike trail.