By Steve Lundeberg
Anthony S. Davis has witnessed, in real time, the wide and ruinous reach of deforestation.
“In Haiti, for example, it’s terrifying to watch the floodwaters churn down the streets, full of trash,” says Davis, professor of forest engineering, resources and management in the Oregon State University College of Forestry. “There’s no time for people to clear the streets of the wares they’re selling, their baskets of T-shirts or soaps – it’s all just floating down, mixing with the water from the sewer, on into the ocean, and there’s no stopping it.
“For me,” Davis adds, “the way to decrease the devastating impact of these floods starts with planting trees in the mountains.”
The associate dean for research and international programs came to OSU in 2016 and is one of the drivers of the College of Forestry’s leadership role in reforestation efforts around the globe – from the Caribbean to Africa, from the Middle East to South America. The work is critical because each year, though about 30 percent of the Earth is still forested, about 25,000 square miles, one-fourth the area of Oregon, lose their forest cover through agriculture, logging and even international conflict.
“When countries are at war, tanks move across borders, and that often results in fires,” Davis says. “When the Lebanese army did drills on the Syrian border, 5- and 6-year-old trees that were growing extremely well were burned from sparks created by tanks. And of course in a conflict setting, getting rid of trees on your opponent’s side means fewer places for them to hide.”
Deforestation carries a broad range of negative environmental consequences, including habitat loss for the 80 percent of the Earth’s animals and plants that live in forests. It disrupts the water cycle and results in large temperature swings in areas where highs and lows had been moderated by forest canopy. It accelerates climate change, since fewer trees mean more carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere.
Davis and colleagues are on a mission to get trees back where they belong, to thwart ecological damage and, in turn, to improve human lives. Their partners in this ambitious effort include the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other universities. Together, they conduct research to understand and teach best practices in planting, vegetation control, forest management and agroforestry.
Seeds of Knowledge
Davis’ interest and expertise lie in seedlings. Growing up in Canada’s Maritimes, he studied at the University of New Brunswick, worked at a nursery after graduation and found himself consumed with basic questions: Why do we grow tree seedlings, and how do they grow?
After graduate school at Purdue, he joined the faculty at the University of Idaho, where he was the director of the Center for Forest Nursery and Seedling Research. In 2011, thanks to connections abroad, he began working with people in disparate locales like Haiti and Lebanon. “Haiti is extremely hilly, and about half the country gets by on subsistence farming,” Davis says. “But only a quarter of the land is even suitable for farming, so they’re farming on twice as much land as can possibly grow crops successfully. And when it rains, the soil just washes downhill from all the tilling, digging and planting.”
A century ago, more than 60 percent of Haiti’s 11,000 square miles were forested; now that figure is less than 2 percent, in a nation where the majority of domestic energy production comes from wood charcoal.
The main tree species in Haiti is Pinus occidentalis, commonly known as Hispaniolan pine for the Caribbean island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. The tree is native only to Hispaniola. “Our program in Haiti is very much working in small communities with motivated partners, trying to provide science-based support to others to grow trees and scale up projects,” Davis explains. “We’re getting more and more support, and next year we’ll have funding for science-into-practice programs.”
A major milestone came in 2015 with the establishment of a small native-plant nursery in Kenscoff, a town of about 50,000 in southeastern Haiti.
A Question of Survival
At about the same time Davis was starting his work in Haiti, he received a group of visitors from Lebanon on a tour sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service. They asked him to come to their country and help transform reforestation practices. Like Haiti, Lebanon has a long track record of cutting down trees.
“The Bible, in many ways, is a historical record of deforestation in the Middle East,” Davis says. In Lebanon, he participates in a $17 million USAID effort to support the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative through 10 different nurseries run by nonprofits and private parties. The focus is around 18 different tree species, including the native, highly symbolic Cedrus libani, the cedar of Lebanon.
“We’re changing when and how and where seeds are collected, how long they’re grown for, when they’re grown, when they’re transported, and the way they’re transported and tended afterward,” Davis says. “It’s been a complete sea change in terms of seedling survival. We use science, the biology of the tree, to guide what we plant and when, where and how it’s planted.”
Similar projects are underway in other parts of the Middle East and Africa. In arid, overgrazed Jordan, the focus is on getting native shrub species to grow in a way that’s cost-effective and biologically successful. In Armenia, a small-scale nursery project uses the methods developed in Lebanon. In reforestation initiatives in Morocco and in Togo on the continent’s Gulf of Guinea coast, OSU students have opportunities for leadership and collaboration with scientists and environmental leaders.
Last fall, Davis hosted a six-person contingent from Morocco to visit forests, nurseries and research facilities across Oregon. Morocco has a sizable forest resource and is aiming to expand its reforestation efforts around cork oak, argan (aka Morocco ironwood) and Atlas cedar.
“They’re looking to increase the number of seedlings they produce from 40 million to 60 million over the next six years, and we’re helping them figure out how to get there,” Davis says. “What’s the right mix of species, how do they deal with changing climatic conditions, and how do we make sure what they’re growing is actually going to be sustainable?”
Helping Davis with the Moroccan effort is OSU colleague Carlos Gonzalez-Benecke. The two met in late 2015, when the latter had just moved to OSU from the University of Florida and Davis was still in Idaho. Gonzalez-Benecke had spent the early part of his career studying reforestation. He moved on to the whole forest cycle, focusing on the biological principles behind responses to management.
Managing vegetation – weed control – is crucial for getting a new tree plantation up and running properly, says Gonzalez-Benecke, the director of OSU’s Vegetation Management Research Cooperative. “If you do not do vegetation management, you have mortality and reduction in growth, and the rotations are delayed.”
Morocco has a large reforestation program, Gonzalez-Benecke notes, “but in many cases it ends in failure. They’ll have to replant, say, three times. Reforestation is a whole chain of activities, planting technique, the season when you’re planting. We have to be polite. Our objective is to help people, not to impose our ideas.”
A Chilean, Gonzalez-Benecke helps the college maintain a strong connection to his native country as well. “We’ve hosted students and faculty, and now we’re going there,” he says. “We plan to repeat that every year.”
Partners in Africa
The college has ongoing collaborations with universities in eight different African nations including Ethiopia, home to Corvallis’ sister city, Gondar. In the northern part of the country, the city straddles the Lesser Angereb River, which suffers from deforestation across the watershed.
OSU senior instructor Badege Bishaw collaborates with the Corvallis-Gondar Sister Cities Association and South African and Ethiopian universities in an integrated watershed management and agroforestry program. The goal is to address food security and land degradation in the Angereb watershed. To date, 2 million seedlings have been planted.
“In most developing countries, forests are very important, particularly as a source of energy for heating and lighting,” says Bishaw, who received his undergraduate degree in plant sciences from Addis Ababa University and has been at Oregon State since earning his Ph.D. from the College of Forestry in 1993.
“Deforestation to address immediate needs has led to environmental degradation, soil erosion, loss of wildlife. It’s a chain reaction, and we need to get back to these countries and do this reforestation work through partnerships with universities, other research institutions and extension programs,” Bishaw adds. “With agroforestry, people can grow trees and at the same time produce food crops.”
What the Oregon State efforts often boil down to, Davis says, is simply “using science to figure out low-tech ways to help communities around the world solve problems.
“It’s wonderful to see deforested nations turn things around and start to conserve their own natural and genetic resources,” says Davis. “In a place like Haiti, there’s that linear connection between deforestation, dictatorships, lack of shade, lack of habitat for native birds, lack of fuel.
“What if it got to the point where that country could grow more biomass for producing charcoal, for fuel wood, to have that shift where people are grabbing their resources back? That’s the kind of goal that motivates me.”
Steve Lundeberg is a news writer in the OSU Department of News and Research Communications.