Maple trees could be in trouble in the Northeast U.S. in the coming decades. Federal climate models have predicted the region will lose most of its maples by next century. But producers don't seem worried: maple syrup prices are high, and with technology, the sap is flowing just fine.
Jason Blocher’s livelihood each year largely depends on the weather in February and March. He’s the third generation in his family to run Milroy Maple Farms in Somerset County, on Pennsylvania’s southern border, just a few miles from Maryland.
“You can’t outguess Mother Nature, and she controls everything in this business,” he says.
It takes warm days and cold nights to get sap flowing through a sugar maple.
They start drilling tap holes in the trees when daytime temperatures get in the 40s, and nights are still below freezing. When Blocher was a kid, they would tap in late February and early March. But he says that’s changed in the past ten years. Now, they usually tap earlier - as much as month earlier. And the timing is more erratic.
Like most producers, Blocher remembers the winter of 2012: there was a thick layer of snow in his maple forest, and then, right as syruping was starting, temperatures shot up into the 80s. It was the warmest March on record.
“So we went from fighting our way through three or four feet of snow, and anticipation of a very good season, because of that heavy snow pack, to one of our poorest seasons we have on record because we had such a drastic change in the weather from cold, deep snow to too warm and in a matter of two weeks to three weeks, it ruined our season.”
Milroy Farms wasn’t alone. Syrup production around the Northeast U.S. was down as much as 40 percent in 2012.
Erratic years like that aren’t a surprise to Dave Cleaves. He’s the climate change advisor at the U.S. Forest Service, which means he’s often the bearer of bad news.
“God, in this job I’m in, people hate to see me coming. They run like hell.”
About fifteen years ago, the Forest Service published what’s called the Climate Change Tree Atlas. And what it found didn’t look good for sugar maples in the Northeast.
“We will see it gradually disappear. Or become less prominent.”
Cleaves says southern Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland are on the southern edge of large scale maple syrup production. He says as the climate changes, they’re the first places that will have troubles with maple trees.
“Because there are other more aggressive and adaptive southern species that are always there ready to take off and regenerate.”
Milroy Farms owner Jason Blocher says his maple grove grows along Mt. Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania, which gives trees the colder temperatures they like, so he doesn’t get too worked up about climate change.
“Oh you hear about that all the time. And the global warming. But I think the sugar maple is a very hearty tree, and very adaptable. So I think under slight changes and so forth, it will adapt.”
And some of the top maple syrup researchers in Vermont and New York agree with him. Temperatures in the northeast already have risen an average of 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, and they say maple syrup production is going gangbusters.
Blocher is like most producers these days, he uses vacuum tubing to pull sap from the maple trees. This, coupled with other technologies, allows him to double production in half the time it took his parents.
Michael Farrell is a maple syrup expert at Cornell University, and runs a sugar bush in northern New York. In his book, The Sugarmaker’s Companion, he says newer forest models, which take factors other than climate into account, show that things don’t look as bad as the Forest Service predictions.
Farrell says his own Ph.D. research, looking at maple trees in the forest mix, backs that up.
“We’re not getting replaced by oaks and hickories up here in the Northeast, it’s very unlikely that that’s going to happen. And the foresters down in the Mid Atlantic and Midwest, where there’s a lot of oak and hickory, they’re concerned that they’re not getting the regeneration of oak and hickory, and a lot of them consider sugar and red maple invasive species down there.”
But that’s not what the Forest Service is seeing in the the long term, 85 years from now, in the time frame of a tree’s life. Dave Cleaves says maple producers and researchers may be experiencing good times now, trees aren’t falling over and dying. But forest service studies, that look at changes in the woodlands every few years don’t find many maple saplings in the Northeast.
“When the actually get down on the ground and count the seedlings by species, then they get an idea of what is the future forest likely to look like, because then we’re looking at the babies here.”
Cornell researcher Michael Farrell says the biggest danger to young sugar maples is deer, which can eat at the saplings. And syrup producers, like Jason Blocher, are more concerned about invasive insects, like the Asian Longhorned Beetle, than warming temperatures.
But the Forest Service’s Dave Cleaves says problems like these are intertwined with climate change.
“It’s not just the changing climate, itself, that impacts, it works through these stressors that are already there. Say it’s moisture stress on the forest if it gets too dry, or if it gets wetter and moister, and that’s more conducive to insect and disease proliferation, then it’s working through insect and disease.”
At Milroy Farms, Jason Blocher says there’s nothing he can do about global warming, so he doesn’t worry about it. But some forest researchers go so far as to call the maple tree a poster child for climate change in the Northeast because they say it’s a resilient tree, that might not make it, unless efforts to cut greenhouse gases take root.