Suzanne Simard is on a crusade to save ‘mother trees’ for the climate – Washington Post – The Washington Post

by | Dec 27, 2022 | Climate Change

MALCOLM KNAPP RESEARCH FOREST, British Columbia — Suzanne Simard walks into the forest with a churchgoer’s reverence. The soaring canopies of Douglas firs are her cathedral’s ceiling. Shifting branches of cedars, maples and hemlocks filter the sunlight like stained-glass windows. A songbird chorus echoes from the treetops, accompanied by the wind whistling through pine boughs and a woodpecker’s steady drumming.About this seriesClimate Visionaries highlights brilliant people around the world who are working to find climate solutions.But beauty alone is not what makes this place sacred to Simard. In each colossal tree, the University of British Columbia forest ecologist sees a source of oxygen, a filter for water and a home for hundreds of different creatures. To her, the lush, multilayered understory is proof of a thriving community, where a variety of species ensures that every wavelength of light is put to good use.And although Simard cannot hear their conversation, she knows the trees are in communion with the fungi beneath her feet — bartering carbon for water and nutrients in a raucous exchange older than the forests themselves.Story continues below advertisementAdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAdvertisementCrouching low, Simard pulls a trowel from her pocket and cuts deep into the earth, through layers of moss, duff and debris.“See this?” In her cupped hands, she holds a palmful of soil flecked with thin, white filaments. “Mycorrhizal fungi,” she says. “It’s joining all these trees together.”Through decades of study, Simard and other ecologists have revealed how fungi and trees are linked in vast, subterranean networks through which organisms send messages and swap resources. The findings have helped revolutionize the way the world sees forests, turning static stands of trees into complex societies of interdependent species, where scenes of both fierce competition and startling cooperation play out on a grand scale.Suzanne Simard, forest ecologist, professor and founder of The Mother Tree project at the University of British Columbia Research Forest. Now, Simard is attempting to translate that research into a road map for protecting forests from the demands of logging and the ravages of climate change. In an experiment spanning hundreds of miles, she and her colleagues aim to show the benefits of preserving “mother trees” — giant elders of the forest, which Simard believes play a critical role in maintaining fungal networks, nurturing younger seedlings and safeguarding millions of tons of carbon stored in vegetation and soil.Adopting such practices would fundamentally alter forest industries, Simard admits. It would mean logging less, using fewer wood-based products and investing more in restoring battered ecosystems. It would require people to behave a bit more like creatures of the forest — to recognize our interdependence, to learn from elders, to take less than we give.But she argues that change is necessary to avert dangerous warming that threatens both trees and humans.“What it comes down to,” she says, “is we have to save our forests, or we’re done.”Opening her cupped palms, Simard allows her handful of fungal filaments to fall back to the earth.“It comes down to whether we value our environment as something to take from, or something to tend.”Through decades of study, Simard and other ecologists have revealed how fungi and trees are linked in vast subterranean networks. The fungi provide a foundation for underground food webs and serve as a link in the biological chain that shuttles carbon from the air, into trees, through the fungi and then deep into the ground.Through decades of study, Simard and other ecologists have revealed how fungi and trees are linked in vast subterranean networks. The fungi provide a foundation for underground food webs and serve as a link in the biological chain that shuttles carbon from the air, into trees, through the fungi and then deep into the ground. The hubs of the forestSimard brushes dirt from her hands, then trudges to the edge of the stand. “Let’s go see the clear cut.”On the other side of the road is a 50-acre expanse of tree stumps, shrubs and child-sized Douglas fir saplings. A sign identifies it as part of Simard’s Mother Tree Project, one of five experimental plots here in the Malcolm Knapp Research Forest, an hour east of Vancouver, Canada.With her trowel, Simard digs another hole in the ground. Four years after the plot was logged and replanted, the soil is dusty and shallow. There’s little of the moss and partly-decomposed debris she found in the uncut forest.Story continues below advertisementAdvertisementStory continues below advertisementAdvertisement“There’s hardly any forest floor left,” she says.Simard’s career began in landscapes like this one. The daughter and granddaughter of tree cutters, her first job was as a forester for a Canadian logging company, flagging the biggest and mos …

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