SUNY-ESF and Nature Conservancy partner to ensure forest is ‘climate-resilient’

Courtesy of Mat Levine

The Tug Hill Plateau will be the site of the project that aims to increase ecological resistance to climate change.

SUNY-ESF has partnered with the central and western New York chapter of the Nature Conservancy to begin restoring one of the largest and most deteriorated forests in the state.

The Tug Hill Plateau, a unified forest spanning 150,000 acres about 70 miles north of Syracuse, will be the site of the project that aims to increase ecological resistance to climate change.

A grant of $166,925 from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation will fund approximately two years of the project to ensure the forest on the plateau is “climate-resilient.”

Gregg Sargis, a Nature Conservancy official who is the project’s leader, said the conservancy has also agreed to match that amount of funding for the project.

Dylan Parry, an environmental science professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said there are multiple factors that can make forests especially susceptible to the effects of climate change.

“We know from forests in west and north America that climate is interacting with insect populations and has created these massive outbreaks of bark beetles that run from California to British Columbia and are killing billions of trees,” Parry said.

Tug Hill faces a similar invasive species problem with the prevalence of beech bark disease, which occurs when beech scale insects attack the bark of American beech trees, Sargis said.

Other environmental threats to Tug Hill listed on the Nature Conservancy’s website include the decline of high quality trees in the area due to heavily selective logging practices, acid rain, climate change and drastic alterations to land use.

Human mismanagement of such forests, Parry said, has also been known to expedite the fragility of a forest’s ecosystems.

“We’ve created these vast, even-aged monocultures in some places and really set them up for this massive mortality,” he added.

Losing the Tug Hill Plateau to the destruction of climate change is hardly an option, because it serves as a critical link between the Adirondacks to the north and the Appalachian and Alleghany mountains to the south, he said. By focusing on Tug Hill, the Nature Conservancy and SUNY-ESF both hope that the positive effects will naturally also spread to those regions.

Gregory McGee, an assistant professor of environmental and forest biology at SUNY-ESF, is heading ecological monitoring for the project, which constitutes a large part of the college’s contributions to the project. McGee was unavailable for comment on this story.

Parry said there are lessons to be learned from fraught environmental conditions elsewhere in the United States, which could in the future occur in the local region.

“California’s drought, this very rapid climate change that the western mountainous regions are undergoing, may be applicable to some of the things that we’ll see here in the future,” he said.

After initially purchasing 45,000 acres of land in the Tug Hill region, the conservancy started to implement sustainability practices as early as 2002. That venture was supported and well received by local residents, according to the Conservancy’s website.

Sargis said after acquiring the full 150,000 acres of land there last fall, the Nature Conservancy and SUNY-ESF are now continuing to expand their mission to foster the Tug Hill Plateau’s biodiversity. The partnership is also strengthening the plateau’s climate-change resilience and creating a set of best practices for property owners who live in the area to help take care of the ecosystem, he said.

“Past land management uses and invasive species have left (Tug Hill) vulnerable to various things, whether or not they’re climate change impacts or wind storms, ice storms or insect damage,” Sargis said. “What we’re trying to do is create a much more resilient forest there that would better respond to these things.”


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