Cedar fans seeking to increase its chances Volunteers plan plantings to boost tree population

October 13, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Seven stands of mature Atlantic white cedars are all that remain of the Ice Age-era trees on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The 990 trees are hardly enough to ensure that this population, which might have unique characteristics, will endure.

But conservationists in Anne Arundel County are starting an ambitious effort this month to give the trees a boost by growing thousands of Atlantic white cedars from the local trees. They are part of a loosely coordinated East Coast drive to preserve the tree and the dwindling wetland habitats that support it and a variety of rare plants.

The hardy evergreens, with a frosted appearance and small cones, reach a towering eight stories, live 400 years and are remarkably resistant to rot, disease and insects.

But they can't compete with people. Along the Atlantic seaboard, swamps have been drained for development and farming. Cedars were cut to make way for more profitable bog crops such as cranberries. More directly threatening, people discovered that lightweight cedar was ideal for shipbuilding, planking, shingles, casks, utility poles and channel markers. Ecologists suspect the Colonial-era shipbuilding industry in the Annapolis area stripped the Severn and nearby waterways of the trees.

Local environmentalists will harvest seeds for spring planting and root cuttings from the seven Western Shore stands of these trees -- all of them along the Severn and Magothy rivers -- that a July tree count found.

"There are very few of these trees. The gene pool is shrinking," said Keith Underwood, an Annapolis wetlands biologist and consultant leading the local drive.

Biologists suspect that the Anne Arundel trees, more than 50 miles from their nearest relatives on the Eastern Shore, might have become genetically adapted to their Western Shore habitat.

Many are thriving at the edge of slightly salty water where freshwater springs bathe their roots. That is unusual because it requires very little chloride, a component of salt, to kill most Atlantic white cedars, Underwood said.

"There is bio-diversity within the species," said wetlands ecologist Aimlee D. Laderman, a professor at Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in Connecticut and an expert on the species. "Saving one stand will not save the species."

Though the trees grow in various coastal freshwater wetlands in the eastern United States, the ones that grow in Maine will not grow in Florida and may not grow in Maryland, she said. Each remnant population of this 10,000-year-old species is adapted to its surroundings. Unlike other trees, this species will not relocate. Attempts to grow it in Hawaii and Russia failed.

"With only seven populations, it's certainly cause for concern. Some of the sites are approaching senescence, old age, and you can see where that is heading," said Philip H. Sheridan, director of Meadowview Biological Research Station in Woodford, Va. He is co-author of a paper that details the July tree census.

Underwood's plan is to have volunteers collect seeds from the Atlantic white cedars in Arlington Echo, the county school system's outdoor education center, where 40 mature specimens stand.

"We have educated people telling us that we could lose them. The association has taken the position of 'not on our watch.' We will do back-flips to try to help," said William Moulden, president of the Severn River Association, which is underwriting the initial effort.

The seeds will be planted at several sites and the growing seedlings farmed out to five schools. Samuel Ogle Elementary School in Bowie, Montgomery County, where Moulden teaches, has signed on, and several Anne Arundel County schools are looking into it. Navy property at Greenbury Point is a possible location, as are some privately owned lands.

Volunteers will study archives to find out where the heavily logged trees historically grew, in hopes that stands can be restored in those areas.

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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