Sticky Business: The Future Footing of Maples in Wisconsin

A lovely late afternoon in the Riveredge Sugarbush. The Sugarbush House where we cook sap down into syrup can be seen in the distance.

Botanist John Curtis, famous for having written The Vegetation of Wisconsin, referred to Maple trees as “nutrient pumpers,” enriching the soils in which they root. In the Riveredge Sugarbush, it’s common to find a maple seedling every two inches. Maples are so nutrient baring that an entire assemblage of specific animals, known as a guild, from tiny insects all the way to Black Bears, is directly dependent on maple trees.

Forests: A Continual State of Flux

We tend to think of trees as defining a forest, and they’re important, certainly charismatic, but they’re also one facet of an ecosystem. Factors such as soil type, acidity, moisture, and sunlight dictate which trees will be suitable for a given area and not the other way around.

A Pileated Woodpecker at Riveredge Nature Center.

At Riveredge, we observe and foster a diversity of trees, much of which can be traced to a cut in the 1920’s, and which allowed oaks, hickories, and other species to grow up within the Sugar Maples. Forests with greater diversity tend to be stronger against threats such as diseases or invasive species such as the Emerald Ash Borer. In nature, greater native diversity is generally regarded as beneficial to everyone.

Just as an excavated and only once used Woodpecker cavity nest will continue to be used by other animals, the root channels of an aging tree system will offer younger tree roots opportunities to colonize and expand healthily. We can think of this as a floristic inheritance from aunts and uncles.

Some of the history of our region on display inside of the Riveredge Visitor’s Center.

Hands-on Research and Conservation

For these reasons (and others), clearcutting a forest and replanting other trees can result in less than stellar results and forest health, which sustainable forestry endeavors to take into consideration. Though heralded only recently, this isn’t particularly new to the Americas. The 230,000-acre Menominee Forest in northern Wisconsin has been logged sustainably and profitably since the mid-19th century and is one of the healthiest forests on this continent.

Despite our cinematic imaginations, individual trees are not able to stand up on their roots and venture off. Forests, however, can gradually migrate their location and distribution over years and decades and centuries. This can be both the result of the given lifespan of a type of forest’s existence in an area, and can be the result of environmental factors such as climate change.

Research observes that Sugar Maple forests are gradually migrating north, following cooler temperatures as our region trends gradually warmer due to climate change. Riveredge is located at the southern distribution of Sugar Maple habitat.

In some locations at Riveredge, forest health means thinning Sugar Maple populations so that Oaks can flourish.

At Riveredge, we endeavor to undertake our land management strategy with the scope of a 100+ year vision. How can we best invite this land and the species living within it to flourish a century from now? In considering climate change, for example, oak trees are more drought tolerant than maples and we will look to plant more oaks across the landscape. Oaks also support a guild of species in a manner similar to maples.

None of us knows what the future holds, and at Riveredge we’re pleased to continue celebrating our 5th season of the year. In the future, we may look to incorporate more warmth-tolerant species as climate change develops, such as the Black Maple, also known as the Savanna Sugar Maple or Southern Sugar Maple. Our flavor may evolve with the times, but Riveredge will remain just as sweet.