The (Very Slow) Race to Move Forests in Time to Save Them

St. Clair is something of an assisted migration evangelist, a firm believer that we need to move tree populations, and fast, if we want to keep apace. But due to bureaucratic logjams and a fervent commitment to planting native species, there’s very little assisted migration in the United States—unlike in Canada, where the practice has been adopted with more urgency in recent years. St. Clair and other Forest Service scientists are working to transform assisted migration from a mere research subject to a standard management strategy in our vast, imperiled public lands.

We finished our walk through St. Clair’s baby forest, making our way back to the cars along its outer edges. “The future is terrifying,” I told him. He understood what I meant, he said.

During the talks he gives about his research, he likes to show an image from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, in which the Red Queen charges forward with her crown and sturdy scepter, pulling frenzied Alice along in her wake. He had the slide printed out and handed it to me as we walked. “Now, here, you see,” the Red Queen says to Alice, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

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“So that’s what we gotta do,” he told me, pointing to the Red Queen. “We gotta run.”

While assisted migration is a relatively new concept, the movement of forests is as old as trees themselves. Since they first evolved, trees have been shifting north and south, east and west, up and down in elevation as the climate has changed. Forests outran the frost as ice ages set in, and as the ice began melting, they darted back the other way, traversing mountain ranges and unfurling themselves across continents—moving, sentiently, toward climatic conditions that suited their ability to grow and produce the trees of the future.

Of course, while forests move, individual trees can’t. “They are stuck where they are,” says Jessica Wright, a senior Forest Service scientist based in Davis, California, who studies conservation genetics. Trees must try to survive whatever environment they land in. And yet, Peter Wohlleben writes in The Hidden Life of Trees, while every tree has to stay put, “it can reproduce, and in that brief moment when the tree embryos are still packed into seeds, they are free.” The seed sets forth, as Zach St. George chronicles in The Journeys of Trees, carried by the wind or in the belly of a blue jay or stuffed in the cheek of a squirrel, toward its destiny. If it is among the luckiest, it will find a hospitable home and carry the forest forward. Because seeds will only take root in areas suited to their growth, forests tend to move in the direction of their future survival.

Unlike humans, most trees are long-life species, ranging from the yellow birch, which lives roughly 150 years, to the bristlecone pine, the oldest known of which is nearly 5,000 years old. Forests are the trees’ complex civilization, functioning not unlike human cities: a community of beings that talk to one another and organize and defend themselves and create offspring and bid farewell to their dead. In this way and many others, recent research has revealed, trees are spellbinding, rife for anthropomorphism. They tend to live in interdependent networks, like families, where, with the help of symbiotic fungi, scientists like Suzanne Simard have discovered, they care for their sick, feed one another, and, like a mutual aid society, share resources with those in need. Trees of the same species—and sometimes even those across species—tend to respect one another’s personal space, shifting their growth patterns so that everyone gets enough sunlight. Trees are also adept community organizers who know how to band together to crowd out competitor trees and guard against other threats. When a pest comes, trees can issue chemical warnings to one another so they can launch their defenses. Trees can also register pain. Scientists have found that their root networks, which work with the underworld organisms of fungal mycelia, seem to hold intergenerational knowledge, like a collective brain. Read enough about the mesmerizing science of trees and one begins to feel certain that, if humans behaved like a healthy forest, we’d be far better off—and that we wouldn’t be in our current climate mess in the first place.

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