Trees play vital roles in the web of life
For many weeks following the heavy snowfalls of this past December, the snow was powdery and deep. Anywhere from a foot to 18 inches of fluffy snow sat in the woods, making travel difficult for most creatures, including people. But recent weather conditions have changed all of that.
After our surprising February showers and the not-so-surprising cold that followed, one is able to enjoy a stroll in the forests and fields without breaking through. Even deer, with their pointed hooves and spindly legs, are walking atop the snow as though they have snowshoes strapped on. It's also made for excellent cross-country skiing.
So, to take advantage of the excellent snow conditions, I've spent a good deal of time skiing and exploring the nearby forests and wetlands gliding effortlessly between trees and brush, across sedge meadows and alder swamps, over hardwood ridges, and into the dark shadows of conifers. And along the way I've noticed things.
I once came upon a tiny red pine seedling barely visible beneath the snow. Its visible green needles barely poking through the icy crust, which also suggested the promise of spring, contrasted beautifully with the white snow and gray-barked trees. Like a soft blanket, the snow provided protection for the seedling, possibly hiding it from browsing deer or hares, but also in keeping the young tree from becoming dehydrated from the harsh winter sun and wind.
As I stood examining the small red pine, I spent some time looking at the surrounding woodland. There were trees of various ages and sizes all around me. Some were red oaks, still laden with dried and curled brown leaves, and some were quaking aspens, a favorite tree of the ruffed grouse, deer and beaver. I also spotted what was probably the red pine that provided the seed for the seedling I stood above. I wondered how it was possible that from such a tiny seed grows a giant.
It seems absurd that all trees big and small have their beginnings from a seed that, through a miracle in its own right, germinates and takes root - the mighty oak from an acorn, the colossal cottonwood from wind-blown seeds and the stately red pine from a seed that falls to the ground from the tree's many cones.
When you think about it, it's amazing that trees get big at all. Competition from other plants, human disturbance, insects and disease, other animals, lightning, high winds, earthquakes, fire, floods and drought are just some of the many factors that trees have to endure in order to live long and fruitful lives.
But trees are survivors. After all, they have been doing it for millions of years. Their survival is also important for our own survival. If it weren't for trees, and other photosynthesizing plants, we would not have oxygen to breath. Plants that take in sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to make their own food, release oxygen and water as byproducts. Trees also provide homes for wildlife, add beauty to the landscape, and much more.
Trees also provide society with a renewable resource. Taken from an article by the American Tree Farm Program, here are some interesting facts about trees that illustrate their importance to humankind.
By the time a person has reached the age of 40, that person will already have used 40 trees that are at least 100 feet tall each. That's a tree a year for such products as books, newspapers, magazines, houses, furniture, paper towels, boxes, writing paper, and many, many other products.
Obviously, that's a lot of trees. And it probably sounds like demand should outpace supply. But because of the demand, America has become a tree-growing nation. Trees are grown like crops and, according to the article, more trees are growing in the United States today than there were at the turn of the 20th century.
Another interesting fact is that private landowners own most of America's forests - about 58 percent - while government holdings account for 28 percent and the forest industry just 14 percent of total ownership of wooded acres. Practicing good forest stewardship through cooperative management is, therefore, imperative.
Other notable facts include water transport in trees. A 60-year-old tree transports more than 600,000 gallons of water from the soil. Most of this water is released into the air in a process called transpiration. Of that water, only 350 gallons is actually used by the tree.
Regarding the oxygen we breathe, a 60 year-old tree will take around 8,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air and "exhale" about 6,000 pounds of oxygen. Therefore, as it is reasoned, having more trees on the landscape can alleviate the ill effects caused by emissions from industry.
Trees are vital components of the environment. Their roots hold together soils, resulting in less erosion. And though nutrients are used to grow and survive, nutrients are also returned to the soil in both life and death. Trees help protect and provide food and habitat for wildlife everywhere and are needed by humans for homes and forest products.
Indeed, trees, with all their beauty and diversity, are just one more reason to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.