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Understanding GMOs and forestry

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 12:40pm

By Amy Grotta, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension – Columbia, Washington & Yamhill Counties

A sculpture of DNA among the trees. Photo credit: Aras Bilgen, Flickr Creative Commons

This week, the closest contest of last November’s election – the GMO labeling initiative – was finally put to rest after a recount.  The measure ultimately failed by a tiny margin, but it did a lot to put GMO’s into the public spotlight. Of course, the ballot measure had to do with food labeling, not trees, but it got me thinking that it might be worth looking at how GMOs relate to forestry.

What is a GMO?

In case you were not following along during election season, let’s start with a definition. A GMO is an organism whose genes have been directly altered by humans, in a laboratory, through genetic engineering within individual cells. GMO methods can be used to modify an organism’s own DNA or to insert DNA from another organism. The modified cells then are regenerated into whole organisms. Reasons for doing this might be to improve crop productivity, disease resistance, the nutritional yield of food plants, or resistance to herbicides to facilitate weed control. From the technology itself to the ways that GMO might be used in society, it quickly becomes obvious why GMOs can be very controversial.

What is not a GMO?

So, on to forestry and trees. Planting season is upon us, and if your seedlings are coming from one of the small woodlands seedling sales, or from a large commercial forest nursery, and you are planting Douglas-fir, then chances are your seedlings are advertised as “genetically improved”. Some people mistakenly think that this means that they are GMO trees, but this is not the case. For decades, we have employed traditional breeding techniques in forestry to produce seedlings that perform well. On the most basic level, this means that parent trees with desirable traits, such as drought tolerance, height growth, frost resistance, etc. are identified. Seeds or cuttings from these trees are collected and grown in a controlled area such as a seed orchard. More seed is collected from these trees, so that the desired traits can be passed on to the next generation. The “genetically improved” seedlings you plant are a product of this process, not of genetic engineering.


How might genetic engineering apply to forestry?

Chestnuts accumulated on a Portland sidewalk. Photo credit: Mike Kuniavsky, Creative Commons

The story of the American chestnut tree is a good example. The American chestnut once was a major component of forests in the eastern United States. It was a valuable timber tree and an important food source for both people and animals. But, a fungal disease, the chestnut blight, introduced in the late 19th century virtually wiped it out. Only a few hundred trees survived. (American chestnut, while not native to Oregon, was brought over and planted by pioneers. The blight is not prevalent in Oregon, so chestnuts do well here.) Many people are working to try to restore the chestnut to its native range. Besides traditional breeding for blight resistance, some researchers are experimenting with genetic engineering. They have inserted a gene from wheat that conveys resistance to blight into American chestnut trees. The researchers are also testing many other genes, mostly derived from the blight resistant Chinese chestnut.


GMO research at Oregon State

At OSU, forestry professor Steve Strauss is recognized as a leader in genetic engineering research. He does a lot of his work on poplars and eucalypts, which have potential for bioenergy feedstocks, pulp and solid wood. But, before GMO plants like these could be utilized commercially, regulatory agencies and the public will subject them to a lot of scrutiny. For example, we need to be sure that there are no unintended consequences, such as unplanned spread of the modified genes to other non-GMO plants in the environment, or on a farm. So Dr. Strauss and his cooperators do a lot of laboratory and contained field studies on the safety and risks associated with genetically engineered trees, with the focus on methods for preventing their spread until they are more fully understood.


Despite the failure of the GMO labeling initiative this year, we certainly have not seen the end of the debate around this issue. So, it’s worth understanding what genetic engineering is and is not, and what the potential benefits and risks of this technology might be. For those who want to read further, I’ll refer you to this website:

I think the bottom line (and here I probably ought to invoke a disclaimer*) is that genetic modification may eventually be a management tool, like herbicides, chainsaws, and other tools in your forestry “toolbox”. GMOs are inherently neither good nor bad. The more important questions for forest managers and for society are how, when, and for what purposes they are employed.

Of course, there was another big initiative on the ballot last November. And like GMO’s, the production of marijuana certainly has its intersections with forest ecology and management, as anyone in southern Oregon might tell you. But that’s a topic for another day…

*Disclaimer: the opinions expressed on this blog are of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the position of Oregon State University as an institution.

The post Understanding GMOs and forestry appeared first on TreeTopics.

Categories: OSU Extension Blogs

November Ice Storm hits Coast Range

Tue, 12/02/2014 - 11:39am
West of Philomath. Image: Liz Cole

By Brad Withrow-Robinson, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension, Benton, Linn and Polk Counties

While most residents of the Willamette Valley and Cascades foothills experienced unseasonably cold temperature in mid November, residents and landowners in the central Coast Range endured a serious ice storm. This was not a region-wide storm, but sure packed a punch in certain areas, with some people saying the damage caused may be as bad as or worse than that caused by the infamous Columbus Day Storm. I have not heard of any additional damage from a freezing rain event on December 1.

The main area affected is centered around Blodgett and Burnt Woods, stretching north through Kings Valley into Polk County and south to the flanks of Marys Peak. The McDonald Forest was shut down for nearly a week due to falling ice, limbs and whole trees, closing roads throughout the research forest and creating hazards to workers and recreationists. Crews and equipment are working to reopen forest roads throughout the area.

Image: Liz Cole

Ice ½ to ¾ inch thick brought down branches, broke out tops and uprooted whole trees in rural residential as well as forested areas. Although damage was irregular and uneven, stands of all types and age classes were affected. An aerial survey by the Oregon Department of Forestry indicated that roughly 6,600 acres of significant damage (less the 10% of trees damaged to over 30% of trees damaged), although I have seen some stands where over half the trees were damaged.   Damage seemed worse in draws dominated by hardwoods. Here is a map of the storm damage distribution.

Of course, we have been here before, at least to some degree. Wind and snow storms come through from time to time knocking things down and making a mess. This creates hazards for people and ruins or reduces the value of damaged trees and stands, and may cause forest health issues such as rot or beetle outbreaks down the road. Downed wood can serve as a nursery for beetles if abundant and large enough which may then lead to damage to healthy trees, and broken tops and other wounds may lead to heart rots. The ODF has just released a good discussion of possible effects on forest health following the November 2014 storm, including some guidelines on actions.

Near Burnt Woods

But right now, many people will focus their efforts on cleanup. The Oregon Department of Forestry also developed a webpage a couple years back about dealing with storm damage  that is aimed mostly at residential situations, but it may be worth a look. It includes links to other articles such as “tree first aid after a storm”

Be sure to be extra vigilant whenever you are doing anything in the woods after a storm since it can create an abundance of hazards including loose tops or branches hung up overhead, kick back-inducing tangles of branches, or spring-loaded limbs and trunks on the ground. If cleaning up, please review saw safety, wear all recommended safety gear and use all caution. Caution should include prudent assessment of the situation and of your own skills and ability. And as we say in the advice business, “be sure to seek professional help” when needed. Although I doubt Ann Landers was ever referring to loggers, it is nonetheless sound advice.

Image: Liz Cole

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Categories: OSU Extension Blogs

New class of mid-Valley Master Woodland Managers graduating

Sun, 11/30/2014 - 11:00pm

By Brad Withrow-Robinson, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension, Benton, Linn & Polk Counties

Please help welcome a new class of Master Woodland Managers. The Master Woodland Manager Class of 2014, which  has 17 members from communities throughout Benton, Linn and Polk Counties, graduated in November, joining several dozen volunteers from earlier trainings, ready to put their forestland management expertise to work as volunteers in their communities along with the OSU Extension Service.


Mid Valley MWM Class of 2014

Master Woodland Managers are qualified local family woodland owners who receive specialized training from OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension to improve their abilities as land managers and as community leaders. The purpose of the Master Woodland Manager program is to provide a core of trained volunteers that help OSU Forestry and Natural Resources Extension serve local communities and be a resource to help inform other woodland owners on ways to take care of their land.

The Master Woodland Manager training is about 80 hours of classroom and field instruction spread over most of a year. A broad variety of topics are covered, including forest management planning, woodland ecology, resource inventory methods, thinning stands, road maintenance, insect and disease management, fire risk prevention, sustainable forestry practices and more. In return, the trainees agree to give the OSU Extension a similar amount of time in volunteer service in helping other small woodland owners.

Master Woodland Manager volunteer activities may include hosting tours and workshops on woodland management practices (including planting, harvesting or habitat development), taking leadership positions in local landowner and conservation organizations, contributing to newsletters, and developing educational materials and youth programming.

Among the most popular and important services of Master Woodland Manager volunteers are site visits to local properties. A visit with a Master Woodland Manager can help you see your property in a new way. Their experience can help you recognize what you have on your property, identify opportunities you have overlooked, or limits you may not have seen, develop goals and strategies to address needs and point you to additional local sources of assistance.

Want another perspective on your property? Schedule a visit with a Benton, Linn, or Polk County Master Woodland Manager by calling the Benton County OSU Extension office at (541) 766-6750, or email me with at

The mid Valley Master Woodland Managers of 2014:

Marc Baldwin – Corvallis

William Bowling – Albany

Wylda Cafferata – Dexter

Mary  Chamness – West Salem

Bonnie Marshall -Sublimity

Ed Merzenich – Brownsville

Jim Merzenich- Salem

Bruce  Morris- Alsea

Elizabeth Mottner – Monroe

Tyler Mottner – Monroe

Doug Newell – Corvallis

Sherri  Newell – Corvallis

Janice Thompson – Corvallis

Christy Tye – Lebanon

Jennifer Weikel – Monmouth

Timbre White – Scio

Roger  Workman – Albany

The post New class of mid-Valley Master Woodland Managers graduating appeared first on TreeTopics.

Categories: OSU Extension Blogs