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A TIME FOR FOREST OWNERS TO SEE THE TREES

It was snowing hard Saturday morning as I pulled out of the driveway and turned west on Alps Road. The weatherman on the radio had put it succinctly: "It's the first day of spring, but not the first spring day." It was not a day to work outdoors -- a foot of snow lay over a foot of mud -- but it was a good day to talk about being outdoors. That's why I was headed off to attend the first Forest Owners Workshop sponsored by the local chapter of the New York Forest Owners Association in conjunction with a number of other agencies.

It turned out to be more than an interesting day. I learned a lot and enjoyed visiting with many people who shared a common interest in woodland and nature.

Attorney David Colligan keynoted the morning, as 300 of us warmed up with a cup of coffee and a doughnut. Colligan, a forest owner himself, engaged the group with a lively discussion of concerns held by those who own woodland. Colligan touched on the finer points of land posting, including the importance of listing one's address on the signs.

Colligan is funny, and even the drier parts of his presentation were entertaining. He moved on to a subject that makes many landowners nervous -- liability.

A collective sigh of relief went through the room as Colligan explained a New York statute, coded 9-103, but commonly called "the RV statute." This, if I heard it right, protects landowners from liability arising from most injuries incurred by people using land for most recreational activities. If the landowner is paid by the recreationists, liability may exist, but otherwise it doesn't seem to.

During the question period that followed, woods owners were full of questions about what kinds of compensations and gifts could constitute payment. As always, the law is an interesting thing.

Then the group broke for concurrent sessions. I found a seat in a lecture about tree identification. This session focused on identification without tell-tale leaves. Can the difference between terminal bud and false terminal bud scars keep one interested for an hour before lunch? It couldn't when I was 15 in biology class, but it could 30-some years later when I owned a chunk of woodland and was listening to consulting forester Bruce Robinson, who had a funny line for every slide he showed us.

Robinson said he wondered for years about the reason God put pith in a tree. Now he figures it helps relieve the growing pressure of the swelling wood during growth periods. I understood Robinson's perplexity -- a lot of things in nature perplex me. For example, what pushed glaciers over mountains? Where does the power come from to drive capillary action? Water doesn't defy gravity for the fun of it, does it? So I was glad pith hath been figured out.

Lunch was hardy and abundant. The horseradish had authority, and the sauerkraut was zippy. It is hard, I've discovered, to find good sauerkraut away from one's own kitchen.

In the afternoon, I was lucky enough to squeeze into Herb Darling's session about saving the American chestnut. Herb, who is in the construction business, found a large chestnut in his woods and set out to try to preserve it, although it meant erecting 80 feet of scaffolding alongside the giant tree. To heal the fungal cankers that were killing the tree, Herb and his son slathered on mud packs. Soil contains anti-fungal agents that fight the chestnut blight. The Darlings hunted down other chestnut trees to obtain pollen (chestnuts cannot self-pollinate) and were later rewarded for their efforts with a crop of 700 nuts.

Darling kept us spellbound as he recounted the scientific race against the extinction of this wonderful tree, which was once the dominant forest species in the East. The best hope seems to be genetic engineering. Scientists are having success introducing anti-fungal genes within chestnut seed embryos. The American Chestnut Foundation hopes that we will have blight-resistant American chestnut trees by the year 2000, or at least by 2004, the century anniversary of the blight.

Herb Darling's chestnut tree died. He made rocking horses for his grandchildren from its fine lumber. Darling is an impassioned speaker, a man who can communicate his dedication for his cause. Listening to him made one realize that someday his grandchildren who now rock on chestnut horses will walk in a forest of American chestnut trees.

Darling showed an educational video he helped with, which tells the story of the chestnut blight and the heroic measures being taken restore the tree. Kids are encouraged to help plant American chestnuts now, so there will be a wide genetic base to be pollinated by the new resistant trees that are hoped to be forthcoming.

Forests have always been places of inspiration. Don't things seem to make more sense when one is sitting on a log surrounded by trees?. I drove back home though the storm, my head full of tree talk and thinking of that old saying: "You can't see the forest for the trees." Maybe that's not such a bad thing.

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