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New York's forests in need of healthier regeneration

Imagine a New York autumn with almost no red or orange -- just brown, brown, brown. Experts say that could be the scene 50 years from now if people don’t start paying more attention to what’s going on with the shrubs, bushes and saplings in the forest. 

Sarah Stackhouse and her husband Charles live in the forested hillsides of Yates County. It’s beautiful up here among the trees, and to an untrained eye, the forest looks perfectly healthy -- an ideal place to look for wildlife. It doesn’t take long before Stackhouse stops and points.

"There’re several deer out in the field here," she said.

Charles Stackhouse says 100 years ago, this encounter would have been just short of miraculous.

"When these trees grew, deer were so scarce that it was almost a front page newspaper article if someone spotted a deer out of the Adirondacks," he said.

No more. The Stackhouses, who are hunters, killed 12 deer on their property last year.

"At the end of deer season, about four or five days later, we counted 24 deer out in our front yard here. I mean we were thinking, 'gee you know did we take to many or not,' and it was pretty obvious there were still plenty out there," said Sarah.

So what, exactly, do all these deer have to do with fall foliage?

"The problem is the current trees we have are about 100 years old," said Stackhouse.

And he’s not just talking about his own property -- this is true all over the state. That’s because it was about a century ago that farmers started abandoning much of New York’s less productive land, allowing it to revert back to forest.

"And we know that the natural life of a tree is 100 to 200 years. It’s either going to be taken by a logger, or it’s going to get disease or it’s going to blow down," he said. "So in somewhere around 50 years, these trees are going to be gone. And the question is what’s going to replace them?"

So here’s where the deer come in. It turns out the seedlings deer like to munch in the winter are the same species humans like to gaze upon in the fall. They’re also the ones most valuable as timber, and most beneficial to wildlife -- trees like sugar maple, ash, oak and cherry.  

"See all these little seedlings here? They’re all forked cause they’ve been grazed; the tips have been grazed off by the deer," said Sarah Stackhouse.

The species deer leave untouched are of the lower grade and not-so-pretty variety -- American beech in particular.

But deer aren’t the only issue. There are also invasive species to contend with: buckthorn, honeysuckle and multiflora rose, all of which can crowd out other native species.

A survey of foresters by Cornell’s Cooperative Extension in 2010 suggested that 70 percent of the state’s woodlands are not regenerating in a healthy and diverse way.

The good news is that there are known methods of dealing with deer and invasives. The trick is in overcoming what people like the study’s co-author Gary Goff call “the Big Green Lie.”

"The 'Big Green Lie' pertains to the fact that as people drive down the highways of New York state, there’s a lot of greenery out there. So if you’re not too concerned over the species, you say ‘oh there’s a lot of trees out there’ and everything must be fine," said Goff.

And the antidote to that misperception?

"I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone knows how to turn the tide, shall we say."

One group doing its darndest this year is the New York Forest Owners Association. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, NYFOA is launching the Restore New York Woodlands initiative. It will include editorials, public woods walks, and lobbying at Tuesday’s Forestry Awareness event in Albany. Organizer Jerry Michael says the goal is to bring public attention to the problem and its remedies.

"Because some of them are going to be controversial. Specifically, the deer population is going to have to be managed one way or another. Or we’re going to have to provide expensive fencing to keep them out of areas that we want to regenerate," said Michael.

Michael also says that sometimes the only practical way of controlling invasives is with herbicides -- another sensitive issue.

But it’s a conversation that has to happen, he says, if New Yorkers want to protect those picture perfect days of fall.

After taking a semester off from college to intern with Vermont Public Radio in 1999, Sidsel was hooked. She went on to work as a reporter and producer at WNYC in New York and WAMU in Washington, DC before moving to New Mexico in 2007. As KUNM’s Conservation Beat reporter, Sidsel covered news from around the state having to do with protection of our earth, air and water. She also kept up a blog, earth air waves, filled with all the bits that can’t be crammed into the local broadcast of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. When not interviewing inspiring people (or sheep), Sidsel could be found doing underdogs with her daughters at the park.