Thursday, November 29, 2007

For the Love of Trees

A number of articles in the past few days about the purposeful and sometimes not-so-purposeful changes we are making to our lovely local flora. The first article, from the Seattle Times - Nov. 27: "Trees giving bizarre clues to climate change" talks about trees as an early warning system to climate change by providing indicators in the form of increased cone production. The article mostly talked with childlike glee about the Wind River Canopy Crane (pictured below) which allows researchers to hoist themselves high into canopies to conduct scientific experiments.

There are specific plants that have been seen to bloom earlier in the spring, due to climate changes. These changes are harder to detect in trees, but scientists are finding new signs. In addition to increased cone production, bud production is a possible sign of impacts climate change may have, causing potential earlier budding due to higher temperatures earlier in the season. Global warming also will potentially increase fires and insect infestations. Research has also shown that older forest sequester huge amounts of carbon, and that removal would cause a imbalance in the carbon impact that would take years to correct. Yeah for old-growth. Also mentioned is a plan for a National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) which would provide much needed additional data for a variety of ecological systems.

This follows nicely with other recent reports about widespread climate change and the adjustment of USDA Hardiness zones, and the Impacts to Local ecosystems. I'm personally looking forward to Portland area getting to USDA hardiness zone 8 or 9, which could bring in some additional plants to a palette that is frankly getting a little stale...

On a more direct note, the first of two in the Oregonian, from Nov. 28, entitled: "Experts aiming to build a better biofuel tree" addresses a favorite plant topic - genetic engineering... North Carolina State University researchers are developing trees with reduced amounts of lignin, which although useful in providing structural stability to trees, is detrimential in turning cellulose into into biofuels. While energy sources from plants are admirable, making the leap from crops to trees is another matter. Also, robbing trees of the very structural fabric of which they depend seems cruel, on the likes of the 'Boneless Chicken Farm' from the Far Side cartoon:

Aside from the functional aspects, it strikes to the heart of our association with trees as a more mythical and special type of plant. From the article:

"The general public is not going to look at trees at this point as a row crop," said Susan McCord, executive director of the Institute of Forest Biotechnology in Raleigh, N.C. "The same is true of foresters. The people who go into that work, they love trees. They view them very differently than a row of corn."

The second, somewhat more noble article, "Scientists grow new lease on life for majestic trees" features selective cloning of old-growth redwood trees in California in efforts to restore forests throughout the world. By using techniques that are common to plant propagation for centuries, the trees are virtually identical to the original... creating, in the words of one of William Libby, "...reliability and control you don't have with seedlings." The nonprofit called the Champion Tree Project International is working to clone significant trees around the world - including Methuselah (pictured below), a bristlecone pine thought to be the oldest tree in the world at a ripe 4,700 years.

Both of these articles outline approaches to manipulation of trees to suit our needs, whether they be veiled in a search for alternative fuel sources, or protection and perpetuation of natural treasures. While both sides evoke an understandable ethical dilemma, there is a very sharp distinction between the two. Cloning, which is a widely used technique to reproduce plants, is a far cry from manipulating the innate genetic structure of plants. On one hand, to clone a plant to save and restore it is noble. On the other, it is a slippery slope between protection for good reasons, and creation of some freakish plant zoo of significant trees - especially when it gives us the ability to replace things we should be saving - giving us more creedence to continue to harm the environment because we can replace what is damaged in the process.

On the flip side, genetic engineering to alter the very structure of a plant for our own rampant energy consumption needs, by ridding it of its natural protection against damage and pests, is crossing a line. Is it because of the difference of a 'crop' vs. a tree being that of an annual vs. a perennial - something less sacrificial? Plant modification is significant with cultivated varieties, but there is no strong stance from the landscape industry on the perils/merits of genetic engineering. Do we turn the other cheek when it grows plants that are hardy, bloom longer, with brightly colored blossoms? Or do we stop due to a distaste for the entire idea of genetic modification due mostly to it's unknown consequences?

Or, if a limp, lignin-free tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?

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