Restoring Appalachian Forests
Robert Bruck, Ph.D.
Director of the Environment, North Carolina
reprinted from Remineralize the Earth #3 Summer 1992
In the 1970s, on remote peaks of distant mountains in the southern Applachians, many trees began to wither and die. Through the 80s, this death of trees spread rapidly to become a sylvan holocaust as mountaintops became bald with skeletons of dead and dying trees. By 1988 the "ring of death" on 6684 foot Mt. Mitchell (highest eastern peak) had descended to 5100 feet, was still dropping, and no authority could state what was killing so many millions of trees.
Joanna Campe: Give a summary of the state of U.S., forests, particularly forests and species most endangered, and what's causing the decline.
Robert Bruck: In North America we've seen over the past ten or fifteen years significant and serious decline of certain forest species. The ones we're most concerned about are high elevation red spruce and Fraser fir forests in the Appalachians. These forests comprise very unique mountaintop ecosystems on four, five and six thousand foot peaks. They're quite rare in that they're remnants from the last glaciation period: very beautiful, very unique. We've seen very rapid decline, dieback and death of these forests occur to a great extent in high elevations of the eastern Appalachians.
Second, we've seen a very rapid decline of sugar maples in the northeastern United States, both in sugar bushes and in natural stands. This caused great consternation, not only for the ecological and esthetic beauty of these trees, but just as much due to the economic value of sugaring to northeast states and eastern Canada.
Third, we see, particularly here in the southeast, growth loss and decline of commercial pines, such as Loblolly pine. Multi- billion dollar industries depend on these trees' healthy growth, mostly for fiber for paper production. We see as much as a 30 percent decline in growth rates since about 1960.
Now, when we get into the cause of these problems, there is a tremendous amount of equivocation and debate. One string that goes through the entire system seems to correlate very, very closely to problems we are seeing right now: air pollution. Now, air pollution can be divided into several categories. One is acidifying compounds we generally call acid rain: nitric and sulfuric acids caused by the fossil fuel combustion.
Second, we're very concerned about man-made ozone. This isn't the "good" ozone that's 20 miles up, but rather "bad" ozone created principally from auto exhausts. Nitrogen oxides and organic hydrocarbons combined with sunlight cause photo-chemical oxidation to produce ozone, which is very detrimental to trees, as well as people.
The reality is that, as this chronic stress increases throughout industrialized regions, the major concern is health of the soil. If air pollution itself, acting only on tree leaves or needles, were the problem, the answer would simply be to turn off air pollution and everything will be better.
Unfortunately, all air pollution—including heavy metals, coal burning and smelting metals—end up in the soil. This tends to acidify soil, put toxic chemicals in soil, and ultimately, literally, from an ecological standpoint—sterilize and retard the productivity of soil systems. Unfortunately, these systems take a great deal more time to recover than a simple leaf exposed to sulphur dioxide. Once you turn sulphur dioxide off, the leaf or tree will get better.
What we're most concerned about right now isn't necessarily acute or short term ramifications of air pollution, but rather chronic, long term implications of air pollution. This is where soil remineralization comes in.
JC: You were in Europe recently. How does the situation there compare with the state of U.S. forests?
RB: I was just showing the Governor of North Carolina pictures of that this morning. The reality is that the forests there are far, far worse than here. Literally hundreds of square miles of dead forests in southern Poland, southern Germany and northern Czechoslovakia. Damage done from the absolutely unmitigated burning of dirty coal— sometimes as much as 18 percent sulphur—it's unbelievable to see what happened there. Damage we see here, with the exception of high elevation forests, is pretty benign, compared with Eastern Europe.
On the other hand, we're looking at the corollary here. Our high elevation eastern forests make a very nice corollary because they look almost identical—millions of dead trees. Eastern Europe is far, far further down that road to destruction than we are. Hopefully, we'll never, ever approach what they've done. I think there's a very important lesson to be learned there.
JC: When did you become concerned about minerals and trace elements in regards to forest health, and where did it lead your research?
RB: Well, soil has always been at the forefront of this subject. My colleagues who are soil chemists and physicists have looked looked at these soils in our permanent plots, particularly in high elevation forests, and found almost without exception, they are very poorly buffered soils. This means they can't absorb acids very well, and are very susceptible to leaching of trace elements, particularly magnesium and calcium, which react with acids in the soil. And because of high organic matter contents, they're very susceptible to holding heavy metals, such as aluminum, lead, zinc, copper, cadmium, in soil matrices.
Therefore, the idea of soils being the problem was always at the forefront. As we became more interested not only in what the problem is, but what to do about it, forest fertilization or trace mineral fertilization, came to the forefront.
Our analyses found nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium weren't lacking in these soils. In fact, in many cases they were abundant. On the other hand, when we looked at many trace elements, particularly those susceptible to being bound or leached by acids, we found—as in Europe—quite a depletion. We learned our cue from Europeans— particularly West Germans— regarding application of trace minerals. In their case, they're applying dolomite/limestone on their forests. Frankly, from experimental fields I've seen in the Black Forest and other areas, they've had remarkable recoveries from air pollution effects by application of mineral slurries and/or dusts.
Years ago I became interested in doing this myself. Always had problems finding support for such studies. Nevertheless I became more and more in touch with and interested in remineralization and trace mineral fertilizers. That led to the preliminary experiments we have now at Mt. Mitchell and Grandfather Mtn. in North Carolina. Mt. Mitchell, highest peak in Eastern America, is severely damaged at this time.
JC: When did you come across the concepts of John Hamaker, and how does his concept of remineralization coincide with your own work?
RB: I was initially approached by Larry Ephron out in Berkeley, who I understand passed away about eight months ago. He contacted me—I didn't contact him—regarding Hamaker and others. I read the book and saw the video Stopping the Coming Ice Age, and discussed this with many people. Of course, there's a lot of truth to it.
This is the thing we always deal with: "Can you prove it?" Of course, it's very difficult to do. We can't go back 20,000 years in time to see what Earth was like back then. On the other hand, there's little doubt from purely a logical, chemical view that long-term depletion of soil systems ultimately leads to many problems in productivity, sustainability of forests and agriculture, and many others. This is where I initially became aware of the work that was going on.
I've done natural rock or granite dust trials in the greenhouse and had some minor effects on pine and spruce trees. I never really pursued it far, but ultimately I found out about Planters II, a substance from U.S. Soils in Colorado. In my opinion, it seems a fairly well-balanced mix—far more concentrated, of course, than a rock dust type slurry.
What I've learned is one of the biggest problems we face in forestry is the delivery system. In agriculture, you simply put whatever the material is in a fertilizer hopper, zip down your field and you've taken care of your problem.
When you deal with remote forests, very often it takes a tremendous amount of labor and/or aircraft to get materials in. When I saw rock dust and dolomite-limestone experiments going on in Europe, I realized that, by U.S. standards, actual labor and application were probably ten to 100 times more expensive than the substance itself.
JC: Yes, that's a major challenge to remineralization for forests. What about military transport planes? In the area where I live in western Massachusetts near Quabbin Dam, military transport planes from a local base often fly over doing exercises. Do you think we could apply it that way—perhaps in cooperation with government, or the military?
RB: The possibility is there. The military is the obvious benefactor of thousands of aircraft that could do these things. Personally, I'll be honest: I'm skeptical of working on these programs with the federal government because, for reasons I've never understood, many federal offices, including Forest Service, are reactive, rather than proactive about these situations. Not until they're utterly convinced through science and/or politics it's worth their while to get involved do they actually volunteer their services.
JC: So there needs to be tremendous urgency recognized to remineralize forests before the government would cooperate....
RB: There would have to be an urgency, and I think the only way we get to the point of expressing urgency is through science. That's my opinion—by actually having the data. Even if it's preliminary data, even if it's not extensive data, I think you've got to present the before and after—the treated and non-treated —to show a response is taking place and hard numbers to go with it. That's not something that's simply self-serving. I'm not trying to say that as a scientist, but as a pragmatic citizen, understanding you're not going to garner a lot of support until you have those numbers.
JC: Tell us about EarthDance Institute and how you came to participate in their remineralization project.
RB: The philosophy behind EarthDance is really something I agree with. They particularly want to involve children and teenagers with a proactive spirit when it comes to the environment. Mark Fields, their director, believes people—children, adults, whoever—become very depressed and tired with the constant negative news out about the environment.
I think there's a lot of truth behind that. You get almost overwhelmed; you almost end up where denial sets in and you don't care anymore. Yes, we must inform people what's going on, but we must also get them involved proactively fixing problems, instead of simply going out with a placard, picketing a lawn, jumping up and down yelling. Let's go actually do something to make the situation better.
So, the philosophy I agree with. I think it's great. Obviously, it can educate people while making them psychologically feel they're part of the cure.
As often happens, EarthDance came to me. I hadn't heard about them. In fact, they're a new group that organized itself out in Ashville, North Carolina, in our mountains. Apparently, they found out about my work in those mountains and contacted me about reforesting trees up in these devastated forests, and to remineralize the soils to see what response we could get. I became interested in this, and volunteered my advice and services.
Quite a number of months ago, in spring, we planted about five or six thousand trees on Grandfather Mountain and Mt. Mitchell, and remineralized half with Planters II and left the other half untreated. The purpose is to follow the growth, mortality and other physiological parameters of these trees, to actually see what goes on. From the scientific standpoint, although it's a small and preliminary experiment, it's nevertheless a good start, to see what happens.
JC: Sounds like a wonderful approach. What process did you use to select a source of dust? Why did you choose Planters II?
RB: I was given samples of many, many types of rock dust to use, and found all seemed like good stuff. However, rates recommended to get enough material into a forest ran from two to three tons per acre. With many of these mountains, you're dealing with thousands of acres of trees that need to be treated. Whereas with Planters II we used 175 pounds per acre for our experiment, due to the unique sedimentary nature of that rock, if I can call it that. It's really sediment, rather than rock. I don't know if you're familiar with Planters II, but as a pellet, it's a very desirable way to distribute material, even by hand.
JC: It's very safe to apply?
RB: Completely non-toxic. In fact, a homeopathic physician in Ashville feeds it to cancer patients. Apparently it has a purifying nature. I actually put a few pellets in my mouth and it doesn't taste bad. It's very safe, has no heavy metals, no caustic substances, and comes as a small pellet. By virtue of that fact, you can drop a handful on an area or spread it across an area—it doesn't blow away, doesn't stick all over you. Hence, the lower weight that can be used combined with how it's formulated made it very desirable.
I'll be honest—with EarthDance, if I had to apply regular rock dust two to three tons per acre, I don't have the slightest idea how we would have done that. We thought about fertilizer spreaders and realized the roots, rocks, steps and everything—it simply would have been impossible, short of working in aircraft, and frankly, very few people could afford two thousand dollars an hour for that.
JC: You mentioned homeopathy. Dr. Gernot Graefe, an Austrian scientist associated with their Academy of Science who works with the government, has done tests for agriculture, including remineralization. With Dr. Maria Felsenreich, he's been testing treating forests with homeopathic spray solutions of rock dust Also, an Austrian prince, about three years ago, was remineralizing his forests. I know he used rock dust on one part and homeopathic spray in the other. I want to get back to him; I'm very interested in the whole problem of transport, what results he might get, even though it seems a bit far out of normal science.
RB: It would be interesting to find out, for sure.
JC: If you had resources for a large scale project, how would you design it?
RB: Easy. There are standard statistical designs to test any fertilizer-type regime—things we've done in forestry a long time. If you decide to put in a 50-acre trial, there are ways to find a disturbed forest, sample that area for initial soil and tissue characteristics, go in at different rates remineralizing those forests, go back over periods of time collecting soil, tissue and root specimens, taking all sorts of data and, ultimately, come up with a statistically validated comparison of treated versus non-treated areas.
Then, in treated areas, test the rate used to see what kind of response you actually got. Ultimately, you end up with a package of information that says, "Yes, it works," "No, it doesn't," "Yes, it works at this level but not at that." And that's exactly the package of data the Forest Service or Department of Defense or whoever, will look for before they would even talk about getting involved.
JC: I'd like to see different rock dusts used for comparison.
RB: Oh, absolutely! No question about that. It would be foolish not to compare different substances to see their relative response.
JC: With experiments I've seen in Europe with rock dust in forests, they used, for example, a diabase or basalt dust that would be interesting for forest trials here. Greg Watson, currently Massachusetts Commissioner for Food and Agriculture, and I spoke together to maple growers about a year and a half ago, suggesting a local source of basalt which is very, very fine. In fact, it would have to be applied carefully in small amounts, because it goes through a 400 mesh screen. We suggested that maple growers here try it, and in one town, Salem, MA, I believe several growers have. I want to get back to them and see their results.
When do you hope to see the result for the Mt. Mitchell trial?
RB: Well, actual final results for this year will be done probably by mid-October—when trees start going dormant—stop growing for the year. At that point, I'll measure all the trees, and obviously, look at characteristics of whether alive or dead. In addition, bring soil and tissue samples to the laboratory to analyze, and go through the whole statistical procedure doing an analysis of variants to see what differences there are.
Then, after one year of growth, we'll have a good indication what's going on. But just as important, this coming spring of T92 we'll go back to these harsh ecosystems to look at survival of remineralized versus unremineralized trees.
One of the biggest problems in replanting these areas is the trees simply die—a great deal of stress—from wind and ice, as you can imagine. If there's a significant difference there alone, that by itself would probably be a good omen in terms of the value of the remineralization process.
JC: Twice I've visited Brixlegg Forest in Austria, where George Abermann applied the diabase product called SanVita. It was amazing to see the results. They have a copper smelt nearby, and there's copper, cadmium and lead in the soil. Nothing wild grows—bare duff and deformed trees. Spruces, for example, grow like bushes, bushing downward. Some older trees had side shoots growing out in a deformed way, and so on. Abermann saw results after about six months. It was amazing a few years later to see wild strawberries growing in the remineralized area along with other wild plants.
RB: That's incredible!
JC: There were tree stumps with plants growing out of them, which wasn't true of the rest of the forest. I have slides of this. Spruce trees six or seven years old were doing very well. They'd been remineralized about four years before I saw them.
RB: Areas I just visited in northern Czechoslovakia, southern Poland and Germany sound almost identical. We're talking about hundreds of square miles just devastated by heavy metals and air pollution. If there's any hope to get those forests back, in my opinion, it's through remineralization. They replant trees that die three to six months later, so they pull it out and shove another tree in the ground. No offense to them, but they're wasting time and money. They need to change the entire soil system.
JC: Scientists in the Brixlegg region insisted it would be necessary to bring in totally new soil. When Abermann decided to try rock dust, they didn't expect any results at all.
Now, you've seen improvements in forests with dolomite limestone. This is a little different than the idea we have. It certainly affects pH. I'm curious what for a comparison of results between using limestone and hard silicate rock dust.
RB: A very important point I've raised with my German colleagues. They admit themselves that using dolomite limestone... they use the analogy: it's like taking aspirin for brain tumors. They understand acid rain leaches a tremendous amount of magnesium and calcium from the soil. What they're doing is simply replacing that magnesium and calcium, but they find when they stop re-applying dolomite, the forest goes back to the way it was. Therefore, in my opinion, and I've discussed this with them, they aren't significantly changing the long term prognosis; not turning around the soil's quality.
JC: Yes. George Abermann, for example, told me that just putting lime or limestone into the forests will destroy the humus- building complex.
RB: That's partially true. In the short term, it'll make the trees look good.
JC: By affecting the pH?
RB: That's right.
JC: But it doesn't have enough trace minerals and elements in it for the long term.
RB: That's right.
JC: That's interesting. Did you know that in Germany, you're not allowed to put anything in the forest but limestone? It's a law.
RB: Really? I didn't know that.
JC: Yes. There are, you know, substantial companies with agricultural rock dust products in Germany, and they can't apply their product to forests because of the lime industry. Only limestone can be applied in a forest, nothing else. It's the only amendment that can be applied. So, all the work I've seen with forests and applications of other soil amendments, has been in Austria, not Germany.
RB: God bless America. I know what you're saying.
JC: We have to do something about that. If remineralization proves effective for bringing back the forest, what strategy do you recommend to bring this about?
RB: The way I look at it, is basically two or three stages. First, in my opinion, based on 15 years knowledge of bureaucracies, it will be difficult-to-impossible to get federal involvement with what we're doing right now, because there are budgetary problems and all sorts of things going on. What they'll say is, "You have no definitive, hard core, empirical proof."
On the other hand, what's called the private sector— foundations, environmental activist groups, whatever it takes—is able to pull funds together, get people in different parts of the country, scientists, interested and working on this, and get some good, scientifically-based trials out to collect data. For better or for worse, this is at least a two or three year project. This isn't something you can simply just go in and then come out six months later and say, "Bingo, look what we got." Certainly, we could collect data and publish it, but we'll be hesitant to draw firm conclusions until we really see what whappens over two or three years.
JC: Two or three years is a short time, actually, as far as forest research goes.
RB: To me it's a very short time, but to some people that sounds forever.
JC: Due to the urgency of the problem.
RB: Right. But if that information looked promising, you could start making connections with federal agencies. You have to almost put it in the sense of, "You look good if you get a program started, because you'll be fixing what's gone wrong with our forests." That's more or less the tack I'd take personally, involving grassroots organizations into volunteering money, the labor, time to make these things happen under scientific supervision. Following analysis and publication of the results, hit it on a much bigger scale.
JC: Please tell us a bit more about the idea you mentioned with Greenpeace of setting up a forest fund?
RB: It seems many environmental organizations, whether Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Environmental Defense Fund, are all out there trying to actively do something about the environment. If there was a way to raise money, through whatever means... I've often had the idea, "It would be great to throw a rock concert or something on Mt. Mitchell!" to raise money to get the place alive again! I know it sounds far out, but I think it's very do-able, and with 25 or 50 thousand dollars in the bank to get materials, be able to get experiments in....
JC: How much money did you say?
RB: Well, I would say it would take $25-50,000 to really do it right. This is a kind of ballpark number I would shoot for. Sure, we could take a lot more than that. That also depends on how much volunteer labor there is—whether people will donate materials for experiments—but the bottom line is this would be a way to make something happen, instead of waiting around and playing politics forever. We could actually get something started, or as the old Chinese proverb says, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" and we can't wait forever.
Well, I got back from my meeting with the Governor and I'm looking at my phone messages right now. Do you know A.E.? He's calling about the Indian Embassy being interested in rock dust. I'll have to get back to him. So, you know the word's out in terms of the potential to do things. It will take some leadership and guidance of where it will go in the future.
JC: Coordination and networking is important. For example, in India a French scientist with ICRISAT named Dr. Michel Pimbert, is doing remineralization trials with chickpeas. Some of his work has been published in the last year.
RB: One thing I think needs to be done—I remember speaking to Larry Ephron about this on a dozen occasions—I honestly believe funding needs to be found for an international conference on this. Bring in experts invited from different walks of life and areas to get together a published proceedings that's widely distributed to get this information out. Part of the biggest need we have right now is for people to talk to each other or send reprints to each other. Very often they're in foreign languages we don't understand. It seems the amount of information that's out there, although it's fairly substantial, is completely disorganized right now, and needs to be brought together.
JC: I'm happy to hear you say that. Perhaps there's a way to now do that.
RB: I think these are important, not only to get the information out, but also the kinds of contacts made really allow multidisciplinary cooperative research.
JC: Well, I feel this conversation is very important. You've given us some ideas to pursue at this point that could be coordinated by a group of people here, and I'm really excited about that. Thank you very much.
RB: Good. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
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