Forest Decline

It is easy – and delightful – to walk through Seward’s oldgrowth forest and see its beauty.: towering firs, barred owls calling, sunlight through the leaves.

But on closer study, we see that this beauty has gaps. Sword fern and Western Hemlock are dying and dead throughout Seward’s forest. Western cedars are failing. Extensive areas of the lush forest floor are now standing bare and empty.

Though recent episodes of drought and heat no doubt play a role in this, they alone do not account for what we see. In several years of citizen and pro bono academic research we have identified some possible proximal agents of fern and hemlock disease. Such volunteer work has reached its natural limit. Funding for proper grant-funded, peer-reviewed research is now needed.

FoSP has set aside $10k to make a short film to tell the story of the forest and the accelerating dangers. We propose study focused on, but not limited to Seward, which can become a useful laboratory for regional forest decline. With specific mechanistic understanding of these plant pathologies, we may find ways to slow and possibly reverse these declines, to guide restoration planting, to strategically support the plant and animal communities of Seward’s rare oldgrowth forest.

Hemlocks are subject to a few different fungal diseases, and some disease and die-off is normal. Since 2010, however, the rate of disease and death has been dramatic, and if current trends continue we can expect all the hemlocks to disappear from the forest.

Sword ferns are a different story. Informal surveys suggest extreme longevity for individual plants: “one thousand years is not out of the question”. They are robust and resilient against drought and disease. But since 2013, many sword ferns at Seward have died. Areas once covered by a sea of waist-high ferns are now barren, with only 10% survival. Areas with mixed understory decline with about 50% fern survival. An ecological hole is left on the forest floor, with – after five years – essentially noc natural regeneration.

Western Red edar dieback is now taking hold at Seward, perhaps primarily in trees of 10-50 years. While sword fern and hemlock die-off are unusually dramatic at Seward, cedar decline appears to an unexceptional instance of a regional phenomenon – though is no less worrying for being so.

A narrative account of our research proposal is found here. It includes story, photos, videos and data from our 6-week summer 2021 hemlock study with three student interns. A more traditional research proposal will be ready soon. A full account of the sword fern work in blog form is here. Dr. Joey Hulbert’s work on red cedar research is tracked here.