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Melody Chandler/MEDILL

Naturalist Laura Brown leads several tree identification and educational programs at Sagawau Environmental Center in Lemont. This bur oak is 600-700 years old.

World’s large old trees are dying

by Melody Chandler
Dec 11, 2012


Melody Chandler/Medill

Measuring is the gentlest way to estimate the age of a tree, said John McCabe, deputy director of resource management at FPDCC. Here, Laura Brown measures a bur oak in a forest preserve.


Melody Chandler/MEDILL

Insect infestations also can kill a tree, said naturalist Laura Brown, pointing outa tree that had to be cut down.

Naturalist Laura Brown, 38, wearing only a black water-resistant jacket and a cap, ignored the elements Sunday as she gave me a personal tour of the grounds near Sagawau Environmental Learning Center.

 The center is part of the forest preserve district. Standing next to a large imposing bur oak, Brown wrapped a measuring tape around the tree, listed off its measurements, and coolly told me it was anywhere from 600 to 700 years old. Brown spoke of the environmental importance large old trees, like this bur oak, hold.

But large old trees are endangered. A new study printed in the journal Science reports that large old trees around the world are dying off at increasing rates due to deforestation, fire, drought, insects and climate change, among many factors. The authors of the study compared the loss of the trees to that of animals, like elephants and tigers.

“Big old trees tend to disappear when human beings are around—we selectively remove such large organisms for our own use,” said Jerry Franklin, co-author of the study and a professor of ecosystem analysis at the University of Washington.

Some 95 percent of California’s famous coastal redwoods have been lost to deforestation, according to the study. And in Australia, grazing lands millions of acres in size now support less than 1.3 percent of the large old trees aged 50 to 100 years old, which used to cover their surface. 

And Illinois is no exception in terms of the loss of these ancient organisms.

Tree loss is rooted in a range of causes that include climate change, drought, wildfires, insect attack, growth competition with other trees and plants and disease, among other reasons, said McCabe. 

Jay Hayek, extension forestry specialist at the University of Illinois, said that urbanization also has a huge effect on tree loss in Illinois.

“This is very common in the suburbs of Chicago where everyone loves trees; they want to be so close to them that they wind-up clearing out trees in order to build their house near the forest. And that has a severe impact on the quality and integrity of the forest, and that’s something that a lot of people don’t think about.”

And it is an ecological loss people need to stop, Hayek said.

As I followed Brown down a trail, she was quick to point out a hawk that flew overhead and seconds later landed on a nearby tree branch.

Squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, hawks, owls and variety of other birds call these towering bark pillars home, Brown said.

And the loss of these trees would mean the loss of natural habitat for many forest creatures.

According to the study, large old trees provide nesting or shelter space to 30 percent of all vertebrate species, like squirrels, raccoons, and birds.

McCabe said that the trees also provide valuable canopy cover, which helps from a storm water management standpoint. In addition to the annual C02 and air quality benefits these trees provide.

“Even aesthetic and other miscellaneous benefits like just pulling up a picnic table under a tree, on a weekend to provide shade,” McCabe said.

When you factor all of the things these larger trees provide, you realize the important role they play in our forests, McCabe said.

Still, that is not to say that younger or middle age forests are not important also, Hayek added. They all offer habitat to different creatures.

“We need to have a good blend of young forests, middle age forests and the older more mature forests,” Hayek said.

Both agree, though, that forest preservation is critical.

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County is in the midst of setting up a champion tree program, expected to launch in 2013, registering the largest trees of different species for the forest preserve, said McCabe.

Meanwhile, Hayek is big tree coordinator for the Illinois Big Tree Register, a cooperative effort between the University of Illinois and the National Register of Big Trees sponsored by American Forests®.

The Illinois Big Tree Register, which started in 1962, asks participants to nominate the largest native trees of varying species in their state, Hayek said.

The nominators and property owners with the winning entry get a certificate. 

“It’s all about bragging rights. If you look on the register we have what I call ‘the big tree aficionados.’ You’ll notice that there are three to four people who’ve nominated over 50 percent of the trees on the list,” Hayek said.

Still, the program welcomes all tree lovers and is intended to build conservation awareness and enthusiasm for trees.

“Basically, it’s a contest. It’s a big tree awareness campaign. And what we try to do is promote enthusiasm for trees, forests, nature and conservation. And really try to encourage people to get outside, travel and enjoy the great outdoors. That’s really what our program is all about,” Hayek said.

Although there is no easy, quick fix remedy for the loss of large old trees, co-author of the study Jerry Franklin, recommended a more proactive approach to safeguarding the world’s oldest and largest trees.

“Countries need to adopt policies that recognize the importance of large old trees, protect existing large old trees, and implement management programs that will restore and maintain populations of such trees,” Franklin said.

Running my hand across the bark of Sagawau’s oldest oak tree, it’s hard not to disagree with logic of such a recommendation.