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Climate meeting: Expect scourges

About 60 listen as speakers focus on damage control

By Joe Beck -- jbeck@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- Insect infestations. Droughts. Floods. Forest fires. Invasive plant and animal species.

People living in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and beyond should brace themselves for more of nature's scourges as the effects of climate change make themselves felt, speakers at a regional environmental conference said Tuesday.

The emphasis was on damage control as the audience of 60 or so from Virginia and neighboring states heard speakers describe a list of worsening threats and what can be done to manage them.

"We know that measured levels of carbon dioxide are much higher and plants will respond to that," said Anne Hairston-Strang, a forest hydrologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who warned of the rise of undesirable plants such as poison ivy.

"Just be prepared to deal with a lot more vine growth as well as enjoying more tree growth," she said.

Hairston-Strang spoke at the Potomac Watershed Partnership Winter 2011 Information Exchange, the second consecutive winter meeting held in Front Royal. The Front Royal/Warren County Tree Stewards hosted both conferences. The event brings together government officials, nonprofit environmental organizations and interested citizens to discuss environmental trends affecting the Potomac River watershed from West Virginia to Maryland.

Judy Okay, a Maryland-based consultant, said the windstorms and electrical blackouts of the last year took a heavy toll on trees. Utility companies and property owners went to work immediately cutting and trimming too many trees after the storms, she said. More trees were cut than necessary to maintain electrical power and prevent property damage in future storms, she said.

"We've had a lot of bad things happen in the last year that haven't been good for trees," Okay said.

Most of Tuesday's conference focused on combating the effects of a warming climate on trees and practical methods to grow and preserve healthy trees.

"We need to work very closely with landowners to get some of this stuff done," Okay said.

Tim Culberth, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service, advised the audience that clearing a site for tree plantings could involve techniques ranging from controlled fires to goats munching unwanted grass.

Despite gloomy trends such as an average loss of 100 acres of forest a day in the Potomac River region since the 1980s, Okay warned the audience to avoid hitting the public with pessimism about climate change.

"Watch your terminology," she said. "Going out and saying the world is ending does not work. People are not going to believe it, or if they do believe it, they will say, 'What happened -- we had a lot of snow last year.'"

Sandy Wilson, president of the Front Royal/Warren County Tree Stewards, described the presentations as "sobering" and "challenging."

Nevertheless, she was pleased with the turnout, especially by members of her own organization.

"I've been delighted so many people came back," she said, referring to the audience from last year's event.

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