Cedar's fans seek to boost its chances Volunteers hope to increase numbers of Atlantic white cedars

Tree's habitat shrinking

Hardy wood was used in ships, homebuilding. depleting forests

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 may 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. The ravages of fire and clear-cutting that destroy other trees often bring about a baby boom for cedars.

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, may 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 biodiversity 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 coastal freshwater wetlands in the eastern United States, the ones that grow in Maine will not grow in Florida and might not grow in Maryland, she said. Each remnant population of this 10,000-year-old species is adapted to its surroundings. And unlike other trees, this species will not relocate. Attempts to grow it in swampy areas of 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.

Even though seedlings have sprouted at some of the seven sites, their future is uncertain because they are a favorite food for deer and rabbits.

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.

William Moulden, president of the Severn River Association, which is underwriting the initial effort, said, "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."

The seeds will be planted at several sites, and the 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 the project. 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.

The Maryland Forest Service is offering nursery space in the town of Preston in Caroline County, said Kip Powers, Eastern Shore regional forester.

About five years ago, the Forest Service began growing Atlantic white cedars from North Carolina, where they are plentiful. Though they thrive in more than 50 locations by the Pocomoke and Wicomico rivers, their numbers and sizes vary.

This month, foresters will collect Eastern Shore seeds, shaking and raking treetops from bucket trucks to make the seed-filled cones fall for collection.

"The Forest Service is very interested in Atlantic white cedar. This month we will collect seed there to grow out in Preston," Powers said. "It is always better to collect seed from a local source. The chances of survival are better in the long run."

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