September has been a month of change. In the span of a short couple of weeks, the landscape has completely changed color. Snow has beginning to creep down the mountain slopes. The tundra has transformed red from the dwarf birch and the boreal forest has become spotted with brilliant yellow from the aspen. Having gone to school in Vermont (aka where leaf peeping is a sport), fall foliage is a pretty big deal to me and I must say Alaska did not disappoint.
Besides helping out the recreation crew, working on my plant collection, and continuing to inventory forest resources out at Tanacross, I also had the opportunity of attending the Cook Inlet Chapter of the Society of American Forester’s Aspen Workshop. It was three-days jam-packed with learning all about the spectacular species that I have worked with so much in the past three months here. Though I pass by these trees on a daily basis, I honestly hadn’t scratched the surface of how important this species is ecologically.
My main “Take Aways” from the workshop:
- Alaska is still truly the last frontier when it comes to studying plant diseases! There is still so much to learn!
The USFS Plant Pathologist Lori Winton led us in a field exploration of the aspen running canker, a fungus which has infected 70% of aspen in sampled stands and is basically a death sentence for the tree. Even experts are baffled by this fungus because no reliable fruiting bodies could be found to make a positive identification. The spread of this fungus is advancing quite quickly across the interior. On one of our many field trips, we got to observe the canker in action. After scraping back the thin bark of some of the young trees, you can actually see the line between dead and live tissue where the canker has infected.
2. Just because there is no large scale timber industry does not mean that forestry is a thing of the past.
Yes, most of the mills are inactive and one of the most profitable wood products is firewood. However, after learning from state foresters, researchers, and silviculturalists, forestry projects are alive and well here! Some areas of state land are currently being managed to increase aspen response which can promote wildlife species that depend on early successional growth like ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse. We got to visit some treatment sites where crazy equipment like roller-choppers were used to increase aspen regeneration and promote grouse and moose habitat. Another vastly undervalued use for aspen is its potential for biomass energy. The local Tok School has a wood boiler that they use as both a heat and power source. Though currently only spruce is generally used, there is a potential that aspen could also be used in the right mixture to help heat the school.
3. Cooperation Counts! Land managers and scientists are a huge asset to one another.
One final take-away message I learned from the workshop was just how incredibly valuable interdisciplinary communication can be. From the get-go, Dr. Paul C. Rogers, an aspen connoisseur and creator of the Western Aspen Alliance (WAA) stressed the importance of managers and scientists working together in a close relationship. The purpose of the WAA is to produce sound scientific publications that can keep land managers up to date so they can transfer this knowledge to action in the field. The compartmentalization of disciplines from forestry, wildlife, ecology, entomology, pathology, etc. is in the past! I believe the most valuable science is applied and the most valuable land management is guided by science! It’s a win-win! It was amazing to see the discourse out in the field among the group of professionals from a whole suite of different disciplines. You can really tell that workshops like this one really help get their gears turning and allow for future partnerships down the road.
After the workshop, it was great to go back to work and actually take what we were learning and apply it to our inventory project. We started noticing canker right off the bat in the aspen we were coring and also saw a bunch of grouse busy at work in the aspen stands we are working in. What a month September has been in the 49th state!
Until next time,
CLM Intern, Glennallen, AK Field Office