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Understanding GMOs and forestry

TreeTopics - 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, flickr.com 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: http://agbiotech.oregonstate.edu/

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 many people 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.

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Categories: TreeTopics

November Ice Storm hits Coast Range

TreeTopics - 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.

Ouch.
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: TreeTopics

New class of mid-Valley Master Woodland Managers graduating

TreeTopics - 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 brad.w-r@oregonstate.edu.

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

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Categories: TreeTopics

It depends

TreeTopics - Fri, 11/07/2014 - 1:04pm

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

Remember those Magic 8 balls where you would ask a question, shake the ball, and get an answer? I wish life were that simple.

Extension agents get a lot of questions. Some say we are notorious for always answering with “well, it depends.” As an Extension agent I’m as guilty as anyone of using “it depends”, and not because I want to dodge your question. Usually there is more than one answer; more information is needed; and ultimately, you are the one who will be able to answer your own question after more a more thorough evaluation. Here is a sampling of inquiries I’ve received by phone, email, or Ask an Expert over the past few weeks, to illustrate this.

 

“Do you have advice for the most effective strategies for killing blackberries? We want to use only as much herbicide as is really needed.”

a wall of blackberries

It depends!

How large an area needs to be treated? Is it a site prep situation, or are the trees already planted? Is there desirable vegetation intermixed with the blackberries, and if so, how much?

I hope I didn’t frustrate the askers by giving them a whole lot of questions in exchange for the single one asked. But each situation is different and the “best” strategy will depend on these and other factors. Knowing how herbicides work is critical to successful integrated pest management, which is really what the question is about.

 

“I have a few acres of pasture and I’m thinking of planting some trees and putting it in forest deferral. Is this a good idea?”

It depends!

Are the soils suitable for growing trees, and if so what kinds? Have you thought about how you will get the site ready for planting? Do you have the ability to control competing vegetation on the site for several years after planting? Are you willing to commit time and money to this effort for the next five years? Will you be able to pay back taxes should the plantation fail and forest deferral be removed?

This person got 5 questions back for the price of one. I’m not in a position to tell her whether it’s a good idea, but I can help her evaluate the answers to some of my questions.

 

“We have some big trees on our property. Should we cut them now to make sure they don’t overgrow the market?”

big logs coming into a mill

It depends!

Despite common assumptions, some mills buy big logs. Have you checked to see whether your trees are really too big? What are your overall income goals for your property? Are you thinking of removing just the biggest trees, or doing a clearcut? Which course of action, including no action, would leave the stand in better or worse condition over the long run?

 

I believe that there are no stupid questions. But don’t be surprised if the answer is “it depends”.

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Categories: TreeTopics

Woodland management in the Blue Mountains

TreeTopics - Mon, 09/29/2014 - 7:47am

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

Our tour hosts (left) with local Extension forestry agent Paul Oester

Last week I traveled to sunny Eastern Oregon for the OSU Extension Forestry team’s annual planning meeting. To kick things off, our group spent an afternoon with Tom and Cindy Beechinor, who are active forest landowners, Master Woodland Managers, and dedicated Extension supporters in the Blue Mountains above the town of Milton-Freewater. We toured the family’s 640-acre property and learned much about how they care for their land and some of the challenges they face. Some observations:

  • The Beechinors envy those of us here in northwest Oregon for the high productivity of our forest soils. On their site, 18-24 inch annual leader growth is “good”.
  • They also envy our access to markets. They mentioned Douglas-fir prices in the $300/MBF range. That’s about half of what it is on the west side! Log hauling costs are also a challenge, as the nearest mill is about 100 miles away.

    High elevation mixed conifer forest

  • On their land, situated about 4500 feet in elevation, grand fir is the most common species, followed by Engelmann spruce, although this is partly a result of early logging practices which removed the higher-value Douglas-fir and western larch. Today, through selective logging and replanting the Beechinors are attempting to convert the forest to a more diverse tree mix.
  • Anyone in our neck of the woods who has attempted to plant western redcedar in an area where deer and elk live can relate to the Beechinors’ situation with trying to grow western larch. They have planted thousands of seedlings, but most have not made it due to elk rubbing.
  • Speaking of elk, our hike through the woods was punctuated by the sounds of elk bugling all around us. For those of you who have not experienced this before, it is really something!
  • Maintaining the land’s value for elk and other wildlife is an important management objective, although this comes with a big challenge: wolves. So far, they have not experienced any livestock predation, but the Walla Walla wolf pack is known to come on to their land and they have seen evidence of elk kills. They have a good relationship with fish & wildlife officials, who can alert them as soon as a radio-collared wolf is tracked on their property. That way, they can move their cattle if needed. One challenge they’ve come across is that they no longer can use dogs to manage their livestock, because their cows are now so skittish from wolves that they don’t respond to domesticated dogs either.

All in all, it was an enlightening tour and a great introduction to this part of the state. There are opportunities for woodland owners to visit tree farms in other regions too, such as through OSWA’s annual meeting. I encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities to travel and learn about the diversity of issues, and commonalities, faced by small woodland owners across Oregon.

It’s 30 minutes to pavement through this country to the Beechinors’ property.

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Categories: TreeTopics

Mist netting photo journal

TreeTopics - Mon, 09/22/2014 - 4:30pm
Mist nets are set up in the pre-dawn light where birds move around during normal feeding activities

 

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

I often try to write stories that make a connection between the birds you find in a place and the habitat conditions there. Because habitat is something we can create or alter by our forest practices, this illustrates an opportunity for interested landowners to manage their properties to improve woodland habitat conditions for particular birds. While we focus on birds, it is an illustration that applies to all woodland fauna. Animals tend to be quite responsive to habitat conditions.

Birds are fun, abundant and easy to observe by watching and listening, which makes them a good group of animals for landowners to key in on. In fact, lots of what we know about birds, and how they use different places (migratory arrivals and departure, where the feed and nest) has been gained through careful observation.

But capturing and banding birds is another important tool available to researchers that lets them add another layer of information. By capturing birds, we can learn about their general condition (weight, fat reserves) gender and age distribution, that gives insight on things such as general health or their readiness for breeding or migration. And when lucky enough to recapture a banded bird, we learn valuable details about how they have moved and fared in the time between captures.

I recently caught up with a team of scientists and volunteers out in the pre-dawn light to band birds on a private woodland in Benton County. Dr. Joan Hagar, US Geological Survey Wildlife Biologist, led the team that also included scientists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and OSU Extension. Here is a brief photo journal of the morning.

 

Disentangling captured birds is delicate work even for skilled handlers Tools of the bird-bander’s trade: a scale, ruler, pliers, and a bunch of bands

 

Captured birds rest peacefully in cloth bags awaiting banding and data collection Determining a birds and gender takes careful work. You can’t just check their driver’s license! Measured and wearing a new bracelet, this Swainson’s thrush is ready to go!

 

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