Aspen, aspen, and more aspen!


A room with a view. The red tundra in the Denali National Park backcountry.


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:

  1. 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.

The running canker itself! Note the cut in the distinct line between the dead cambium (tissue) where the canker has infected versus the yellowish green living tissue.

Lucky 13. My fellow CLM intern Rob Tepperburg discovered the sunken in sign of the canker on this young aspen!

USFS Plant Pathologist Lori Winton and CLM Intern Jacob DeKraai examine an inoculated aspen for signs of the mysterious running canker!

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.

A massive roller-chopper! This piece of machinery is pulled behind a dozer and often filled with antifreeze to increase weight. The blades chop and break apart larger stems and can cut into the ground to help scarify the soil and roots.Long story short: Since aspen is a clonal species, if you cut the mature trees in a stand and cut into their vast root network, younger stems will sprout from the response in the growth hormone auxin.

A disc-trencher- another site preparation tool to help scarify and break up the soil and roots to increase the response of aspen regeneration.


Bear markings on an aspen. Bears are said to mark their territory by cutting into trees. Aspen’s thin bark makes them an especially good choice for showing other bears who’s part of the woods they’ve just entered.

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.


A sea of yellow! A successful influx of young aspen coming in after last year’s roller-chopping treatment, part of the state’s grouse project.


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!

Running canker in a core of an aspen?

Until next time,

Katlyn Williard

CLM Intern, Glennallen, AK Field Office


The aurora borealis!!! Spotted in Tok, AK


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