Prove your humanity

NOTE: This story was originally published on March 28, 2014.

Maple trees could be in trouble in the Northeast U.S. in the coming decades. In fact, 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 the help of 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 southwestern Pennsylvania.

“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. Blocher starts drilling tap holes in the trees when daytime temperatures climb into the 40s and nights are still below freezing. When he was a kid, his family would tap in late February and early March. But he says that’s changed in the past 10 years. Now, they usually tap as much as a month earlier. And the timing is more erratic.

LISTEN: “Will Climate Change Tap Out the Maple Syrup Business?”

Like most producers, Blocher remembers the winter of 2012. There was a thick layer of snow in his maple forest. 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,” Blocher says. “We had such a drastic change in the weather in a matter of two to three weeks. It ruined our season.”

Milroy Farms wasn’t alone. Syrup production throughout the Northeast was down as much as 40 percent in 2012.

Erratic years like that aren’t a surprise to Dave Cleaves, the climate change advisor at the U.S. Forest Service. It’s a job where it means he’s often the bearer of bad news.

“God, in this job I’m in, people hate to see me coming,” he says. “They run like hell.”

About 15 years ago, Cleaves’ agency published a Climate Change Tree Atlas, which explored the potential habitat shifts for 134 tree species. And what it found didn’t look good for sugar maples in the Northeast.

“We will see it gradually disappear—or become less prominent,” he says.

Cleaves says southern Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland are on the southern edge of large-scale maple syrup production. As the climate changes, they’re the first places that will have troubles with maple trees.

“There are other more aggressive and adaptive southern species that are always there ready to take off and regenerate,” Cleaves says.

Milroy Farms owner Jason Blocher says his maple grove grows along Mt. Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania. That gives trees the colder temperatures they like, so he doesn’t get too worked up about climate change.

“You hear about that all the time. But I think the sugar maple is a very hardy tree—and very adaptable. So I think under slight changes, it will adapt.”

Some of the top maple syrup researchers in Vermont and New York agree with Blocher. Temperatures in the Northeast already have risen an average of two degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, and yet maple syrup production is booming.

Blocher, like most producers, uses vacuum tubing to pull sap from the maple trees. This, coupled with other technologies, allows him to double production in half the time.

Michael Farrell is a maple syrup expert at Cornell University and runs a sugar bush—a tree stand used for maple syrup—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 the U.S. Forest Service’s predictions may overstate the threat to maple trees. And his own research backs that up.

“We’re not getting replaced by oaks and hickories up here in the Northeast,” he says. “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. A lot of them consider sugar and red maple invasive species down there.”

“You hear about that all the time. But I think the sugar maple is a very hardy tree—and very adaptable. So I think under slight changes, it will adapt.”

But that’s not what the Forest Service is seeing in the long term. Dave Cleaves says maple producers and researchers may be experiencing good times now, but Forest Service studies that look at changes in the woodlands every few years don’t find many maple saplings in the Northeast.

“When they actually get down on the ground and count the seedlings by species, then they get an idea of what the future forest is likely to look like,” Cleaves says.

Cornell researcher Michael Farrell says the biggest danger to young sugar maples is deer, which can eat at the saplings. And syrup producer Jason Blocher is 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 [has an] impact,” he says. “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. They say it’s a resilient tree that might not make it unless efforts to cut greenhouse gases take root.