By Jeff Woodburn
NORTH COUNTRY – Across the North Country people are noticing that trees – mostly white pines – are changing color. This time of year the trees are expected to be a lush green, not a fall rust-brown color, but that’s exactly what’s happening.
Kyle Lombard, Forest Health specialist with the N.H. Division of Forests and Lands, says, “We are seeing a couple of different disease fungi causing white pine needlecast. We started seeing a little needlecast here and there in the last few years, but this year it’s epic.” The fungus is caused by the abundance of rain during the previous two springs.
Coos County’s recently retired Forester Sam Stoddard said the condition is “a bit new to me.” He compared it to “salt spray,” which causes some road-side pine trees to brown because the road salt dehydrates the needles.
Both, “fungus and road salting are not killers,” said Stoddard, “they will re-foliate.” He cautioned people against taking any action; especially wrongly assuming the tree is dead and cutting them down. There are a hundred different kinds of fungi that attack different species, Stoddard said, and it is not uncommon to see a similar effect on other trees, especially Spruce trees.
Ironically, the two most northern counties have vastly different supplies of trees formally known as the Eastern White Pine. “Coos County doesn’t have a lot of White pine. It is more incidental,” Stoddard said, but by contrast “Grafton County is the pine basket for the state.” Spruce and fir are more prevalent in Coos County.
Charlie Baylies, a forester from Whitefield, noted that the White Pine is “one of the most valuable tees as far as volume.” It is a popular wood for finished construction work, he said, because it’s “easy to work.” Mike Doolan, of Littleton-based Saw Log Bulletin, a specialty publication that follows the market, said the price of White Pine “stays pretty consistent.” The average price, he estimates, to be between $250 and $300 per one-thousand board-feet. The price does vary by quality.
Stoddard offered a historical explanation for the differences between Coos and Grafton counties. During the Colonial period, the white pine was a valuable New England staple, so much so that old-growth pines, which reached 200 feet tall, were deemed to be the property of the King of England. In the original town charter of the town of Shelburne (near Gorham), White Pine “was protected by the King,” he added. It was used in ship-building, especially for the long mast and keels.
The tree’s sticky resin, when boiled becomes turpentine, offered an added benefit as a perfect water-proofing agent. After the Civil War and the abandonment of New England farms for westward expansion, the trees flourished in the sod around old farm land. These trees, some 50 to 100 years later, were cut to supply the building boom of the Industrial Revolution and Gilded Age. There is not a simple explanation as to why the White Pines took off in one area, rather than another, but what is certain is that as the sod broke down and the soils changed, other species took over.