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The massacre of American beech trees in a Chautauqua forest

CHERRY CREEK – The American beech trees are on death row in Chautauqua County.

A lot of death rows, actually.

Their crime? The hostile takeover of a state forest.

Starting this fall, beech trees with trunks larger than 1 inch will be given lethal injections or external treatments with herbicides on about 83 acres of the 2,944-acre Boutwell Hill State Forest, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

DEC officials call the extreme measure necessary because the shade-tolerant, root-happy beech trees have gained an upper-branch on the more desirable black cherry, sugar maple and red maple trees.

“If it is untreated, the beech will continue to take over the stand,” said Lori Severino, a DEC spokeswoman.

After being treated with the herbicide, the trees will die in place.

The DEC estimates there are about 70 beech trees per acre ranging from seedlings to fully mature trees. Not all of the estimated 5,800 beech trees in the 83-acre area have trunks larger than an inch, so a precise count of how many will be targeted isn't known.

The American beech is a native tree to the region, but they’ve become “more of an interfering species,” DEC officials said.

That’s why the agency aims to reduce beech tree numbers.

Doing so should improve conditions for “desirable” species like the black cherry and maple trees to germinate and establish themselves.

Boutwell Hill State Forest. (T.J. Pignataro/Buffalo News)

The DEC’s forest management efforts seek to improve the forest’s health, diversity, growth rate and sustainability.

Failing to deal with the beech trees would hamper those efforts.

“The result would be a decrease in tree diversity and a reduction in future management options,” Severino said.

One of those options includes timber harvests. A timber harvest is planned sometime in the next three years in the stand where the targeted beech trees now grow.

The DEC wants the beech trees eliminated before that timber harvest. If the beech trees remain, the canopy and ground disturbance of the timber harvest could result in an even greater surge in beech tree root suckers.

Foresters aren’t alone in their distaste for the proliferation of beech trees. Deer don’t seem to like them much either.

“While deer do browse on (beech) some, they typically eat every other species first,” Severino said.

Deer prefer to eat oak, tulip, cucumber and red maple seedlings.

A young American beech tree's branches in Boutwell Hill State Forest near Cherry Creek. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

That – along with the beech tree’s ability to tolerate shade better than other species – adds to the beech tree’s competitive advantage in the forest.

What’s more, a bark disease afflicting beech trees in Boutwell Hill State Forest exacerbates the problem.

Fungi and insects attacking the bark of beech trees cause them to die slowly – over about 10 years.

As the beech tree dies, it sends up rapidly growing “thickets of root suckers” first, further increasing competition for space in the forest.

“The disease affects the beech trees above-ground but the roots are generally unaffected and root suckering will continue the genetics of the tree that is highly susceptible to the disease,” Severino said.

Severino said it’s common for the DEC to control invasive plants or vegetation that interfere with forest ecology.

She said many species, like black birch, musclewood and ironwood, can be controlled by more traditional methods like cutting them down. Other species like beech trees and striped maple often require chemical control with herbicides.

If it’s simply cut down, a beech tree often sends up a bunch of sprouts from its stump and roots.

A Cornell Cooperative Extension report found herbicide injection treatments move into root suckers attached to the dead beech tree and also kill them.

The DEC said the herbicide planned for the treatment will be glyphosate or triclopyr.

Although the herbicides can also kill other types of plants, damage is expected to be limited to the specifically targeted beech trees.

First, a machete or hatchet will be used to cut through the bark of the beech tree and into its sapwood. Then, the herbicide glyphosate will be put into that cut.

The triclopyr spray is applied over about 18 inches of the beech tree's bark starting at ground level.

Those treatments will lead to the deaths of the beech trees.

Chemical leaching into the soil or runoff into the groundwater is expected to be minimal.

DEC officials said soil microbes and microorganisms rapidly break down the herbicides.

They added that no treatments will be made in poorly-drained areas in order to avoid potential impacts to water.

Herbicide treatments have already been used by the DEC to manage other tree stands in the Boutwell Hill State Forest, which sits in the center of a geographic triangle between Cassadaga, Sinclairville and Cherry Creek.

They have also been done to manage Hill Higher State Forest and North Harmony State Forest, which are both located near Panama.

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