Friday, September 7, 2012

Life of a Maple Part 5: Maple Incline and Decline

Healthy sugar maple forest.
It is very likely that prior to European settlement that deciduous forests of eastern North America were actually more disturbed than they are today.  This presettlement disturbance however was much different from the disturbance we see in our forests today.  Today, we see grazing, logging, invasive species, and widespread agriculture as the major forms of disturbance.  During presettlement days fire was the most common type of disturbance of the forest.  Just like the modern disturbances, it is very likely that fire was also human caused in a vast majority of cases.  Given the wet nature of eastern deciduous forests, it is extremely unlikely that fire could have been anything other than human caused.  While today's disturbances are typically an after though to land use, Native Americans purposely used fire to manipulate the landscape, increasing its productivity, and health. 

Fire however, strongly works against the maple tree.  Remembering back to previous installments of this series on maple trees, you might remember that maples prefer very stable, undisturbed habitats.  Anytime fire comes around one of these habitats where maples have become established, the maples are killed off.  As a result, prior to European settlement of the eastern deciduous forest oaks, a fire adapted species were far more abundant, and maples, a fire intolerant species were far less abundant.  By some estimates in some locations there may be up to three times more maples today than there was in the 1800's.  The increase of maples over the last century is a result of fire suppression by European settlers.  It was only on the best soils, in the most ideal habitats where fire didn't touch that maples were found in the 1800's and prior. 
Sugar Maples in fall.
As fire was suppressed and forests began to stabilize, maples began to expand there range.  Maples increased, invaded, and replaced forests that historically had been filled with oaks.  Oak forests typically are far drier and have poorer soil than ideal maple forests.  Oak forests were naturally more prone to fire and therefore easily survived.  But without fire maples moved in. 

Maples moving into areas of less than ideal soil wasn't the best thing for the forest.  Being maples are extremely picky about their environment, living in these less than ideal soils made them especially sensitive to drought.  Oaks are adapted to drought but maples are not.  Maples ideally overcome drought simply by living in the best soils in the forest.  But in less than ideal soils, the maples were damaged during drought.  The damage did not end with drought though.  Drought damage made the tree more susceptible to other problems such as fungal infections and insect damage which often end up killing the tree.  So the incline of maples was a direct result of fire suppression allowing maples to move into marginal habitats.  Maple decline is a result of maples living in these marginal habitats.
Forest where many of the maple trees are dying due to "maple decline".