Saturday, December 12, 2020

Trees are nature's air & water filters, but a WI project could cut down thousands

People take the loss of a single yard or street tree really hard. I speak from experience; we have we lost on our City of Milwaukee lot two producing cherry trees in successive years.

Now consider that the WI DNR and its state oversight board are helping move forward for a substantial Walker donor his proposed, privately-owned upscale golf course in Sheboygan that by one estimate would take down at least 30,000 trees in a privately-owned nature preserve which borders Kohler Andrae State Park.

It is a proposal state resource management agencies have boosted by agreeing to hand over to the developers about five acres inside the park  so they can build an entrance, road, and pretty substantial maintenance facilities through a land swap blasted by the park's former chief superintendent.

This is all happening when we know forests in Wisconsin and elsewhere are under increasing stresses from the climate crisis which is the accelerating emergency a new task force at the aforementioned DNR just pledged in detail to combat.

But first, let's get the lay of the our troubled land:

As with the earlier destructive arrival of pests which wiped out the American chestnuts and Dutch elms, ash trees are now being decimated by the Emerald ash border in Wisconsin municipalities

Milwaukee Will Cut Down 900 of Its Ash Trees 

 - and in local and state parks leaving people unhappy and landscapes scarred.

In Big Foot Beach State Park, 25 miles west of Richard Bong Recreation Area, 300 ash trees have been felled, including some that were more than 200 years old, said park ranger Sarah Imp....“It was difficult for people to understand that the emerald ash borer has infested these trees because they didn’t look like there was anything wrong with them, so there was quite bit of heat,” Imp said.

And while aesthetics are important, there's a growing preservationist ethic because we know these vital trees stem flooding, filter water and clean the air.

100 for Humboldt: Group raises money to replace trees in Bay View park 
...100 healthy trees would remove 53 tons of carbon dioxide and 430 pounds of other air pollutants per year. They would also absorb about 139,000 gallons of rainwater per year. 

Everywhere you turn these days there's science-based, fact-filled and easily accessible writing like Richard Power's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Overstory," or a December 4th New York Times magazine story with fascinating revelations about the better-understood relationships among trees, wildlife, water, soil, humankind and the entire natural world that go beyond utilitarian air and water filtration: 

Trees appear to communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi. What are they sharing with one another?

And so I return again to the proposed grading and cutting proposed for the privately-owned 247-acre nature preserve adjoining Kohler Andrae State Park along Sheboygan County's Lake Michigan's shoreline dunes.
Because that's where the number of trees scheduled for removal during two years of projected construction - trees not beset by disease or pests or any natural event - has been estimated roughly at between 30,000-to-45,000, according to a November, 2018 document created by Roger Miller, a local engineer.

Letter explaining the Biological Aspects of the proposed golf course, by Roger Miller 

Based on a quick density count viewing into the edges of the upland forest area of Kohler Company’s 247 acre parcel in Section 14 along the Lake Michigan shoreline in the Town of Wilson, I estimate the number of trees of greater than 6” trunk diameter to be roughly in the range of 50,000 to 70,000. Kohler’s grading plan for the golf course included on DNR’s website shows that about 63% of that upland forest gets re-graded, which would necessarily remove about 30,000 to 45,000 trees, as a rough estimate, having trunks greater than 6” diameter....

There’s also another aspect that seldom gets recognized; bulldozing the rhizome (shallow soil-microbe— fungi-root zone) of the wooded uplands disrupts a complexly interacting environment that takes a long time to develop. This provides virtual “communication” via enzymes, carbohydrate, and mineral exchanges amongst all components of the living surface of the land that ultimately affects plants and tress as well as the mobile insect, animal, and bird components of an ecosystem. This forest is now about 150 years past it being last lumbered out, although I recall there are some specimen oaks and white pines that may be older. So this area has likely acquired much of the functionality of “old growth....”

So the primary adverse effects on the environment of upland deforestation is the loss of quantity and diversity of habitat. This includes the loss of upland ecologic functions critical for the ecologic function of the adjacent wetlands that are not being filled. The golf course plan shows massive grading and deforestation and replacement with fairways right along the edge of great lengths of wetland along the Black River. 

You can find the letter at a website belonging to Friends of the Black River Forest, here.

Miller is also the current chair of the Town of Wilson Plan Commission

All told, about half the site's tree cover would be removed, according to  information from the developer's environmental review statement (see Section 2.1) and in the DNR's final environmental impact statement (see p. 36) - 
Much of the 247-acre Kohler parcel currently includes forested habitat. The golf course design would remove approximately 100 to 120 acres of forested land cover. Forested land and specimen trees will remain as part of the design located predominantly between golf course features. Opening up blocks of forested land will result in greater potential for windthrow and wind damage to the remaining trees.

encourage people to read both documents in full, as they contain a great deal of additional information about the project, its multiple environmental and economic implications, the developer's pledged best practices, and more.

The nature preserve had been on the official Town of Wilson map, but the larger City of Sheboygan successfully annexed the site, and it is Sheboygan that will hold a hearing Tuesday on the developer's request for a conditional use permit that would allow construction to begin if pending lawsuits were eventually settled in the developer's favor. 
Now you might say that the owners of the nature preserve can do with their forest as they see fit.

But...these days we know a lot more about how forests operate, so it's not quite that simple, as pioneering scientist Suzanne Simard explained in the NY Times piece:
By analyzing the DNA in root tips and tracing the movement of molecules through underground conduits, Simard has discovered that fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species. 
Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones can pass from tree to tree through these subterranean circuits. Resources tend to flow from the oldest and biggest trees to the youngest and smallest. Chemical alarm signals generated by one tree prepare nearby trees for danger. Seedlings severed from the forest’s underground lifelines are much more likely to die than their networked counterparts. 
And if a tree is on the brink of death, it sometimes bequeaths a substantial share of its carbon to its neighbors.

The forest in the nature preserve-cum-golf course-complex is surely connected underground to the trees in the adjoining state park, just like the proposed project site's ground and surface waters are linked to the Black Forest River which bisects the site and to Lake Michigan - and, yes, in ways we are now able to understand and study to people.

These issues will not be decided at Tuesday's City of Sheboygan's plan commission meeting.

They may not even come up.

But we'd be foolish as a state and a culture if we - and "we" includes our taxpayer-funded state administration which has pledged to bring science back into policy-making - ignored new-and-improved information at the very time that awareness of the climate crisis demands far broader vision and bolder agendas.


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