Ice Palace

(This column was first published in the February 9, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    The end of January I visited the Ice Palace. The Ice Queen was there in full regalia but her splendor could not completely hide her empty soul and cruelty.

    My trip was to the Adirondacks. I went to see the ice storm's effect on our northern forests. Others had spoken to the human problems; I thought I could focus only on nature. I was wrong.

    In early January a warm front moved rapidly across the Northeast. East of Lake Ontario it rode up over low-lying cold air and began to drop heavy rain. The resulting storm in the St. Lawrence Valley, northern Adirondacks and areas further east in New England was very unusual. Higher elevations received only rain but in the lowlands the rain froze and ice continued to accumulate for days.

    Department of Environmental Conservation Supervising Forester Peter Grupe told me he had seen ice coating over an inch thick and had received reports of twice that. Quebec Hydro claimed that it was well over four inches of ice that turned their power standards into piles of jack straws. Almost three weeks after the storm I still found a half inch covering everything.

    You need only imagine the effect on a twig of ice the thickness of your upper arm. Or on a tree, the weight of a refrigerator. North of an east-west line through Whiteface Mountain the countryside was devastated. My drive through the area was almost physically painful though at the same time the scenery was spectacular. Beautiful ice chandeliers hung everywhere. Standing among them like candles were tree trunks that ended twenty feet high in flame-shaped scars, the split off portions of the trunks lying half buried in the snow. Birch trees arched to the ground like croquet wickets and most trees that remained upright were stripped bare of twigs and smaller limbs.

    The structure of spruces enabled them to withstand the storm, their upper fronds bowing to share the weight with lower branches; other conifers and all deciduous trees were less fortunate and sustained heavy damage. "The result on the mature forest," Grupe said, "is a set-back of 50 to 100 years. With the canopy gone, sunlight will penetrate, changing the character of the woodlands to an earlier successional type." He judged the storm to be a 100 to 200 year event. One element of good fortune: unlike a forest fire this storm did not damage the duff -- the life supporting ground cover.

    Wildlife is also adversely affected. Coyotes race over the ice crust after deer that crash through. Grouse hiding in snow banks found themselves imprisoned in icy graves.

    Our northern forests have indeed suffered a severe set-back. But this is part of a forest's history and they will recover.

    On the other hand the landowners of the area whose livelihood depends on these woodlands are less able to withstand this catastrophe. I saw many homes damaged by falling limbs. Insurance will help to defray some of those kinds of losses. But the destruction of a woodlot or a maple sugarbush, the latter often together with thousands of dollars in sap lines, is not recoverable.

    What remains to these landowners is the treacherous job of salvaging their devalued lumber. Then they will have no maturing trees for many years to come.

    These woodlot managers are important to all of us. They husband forest resources, deriving only a marginal existence from their labors. Now, more than ever, they need our support.

    I hope that our legislators will seek to undo at least some of the damage done to them by this vicious Ice Queen.