OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

environment and natural resources

Research indicates ocean current shutdown may be gradual

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The findings of a major new study are consistent with gradual changes of current systems in the North Atlantic Ocean, rather than a more sudden shutdown that could lead to rapid climate changes in Europe and elsewhere.

The research, based on the longest experiment of its type ever run on a "general circulation model" that simulated the Earth's climate for 21,000 years back to the height of the last Ice Age, shows that major changes in these important ocean current systems can occur, but they may take place more slowly and gradually than had been suggested.

The newest findings, to be published Friday in the journal Science, are consistent with other recent studies that are moving away from the theory of an abrupt "tipping point" that might cause dramatic atmospheric temperature and ocean circulation changes in as little as 50 years.

"Research is now indicating that this phenomenon may happen, but probably not as a sudden threshold we're crossing," said Peter Clark, a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University. "For those who have been concerned about extremely abrupt changes in these ocean current patterns, that's good news.

“In the past it appears the ocean did change abruptly, but only because of a sudden change in the forcing,” he said. “But when the ocean is forced gradually, such as we anticipate for the future, its response is gradual.  That would give ecosystems more time to adjust to new conditions."

The findings do not change broader concerns about global warming. Temperatures are still projected to increase about four to 11 degrees by the end of this century, and the study actually confirms that some of the world's most sophisticated climate models are accurate.

"The findings from this study, which also match other data we have on recorded climate change, are an important validation of the global climate models," Clark said. "They seem to be accurately reflecting both the type and speed of changes that have taken place in the past, and that increases our ability to trust their predictions of the future."

The intensity of computation on this experiment, involving a quadrillion calculations each second, was so great that it took more than a year to run, Clark said. It was the longest such study of its type that ever examined past climate in such detail and complexity. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

It included the height of the last Ice Age about 21,000 years ago, the emergence of the Earth from that Ice Age around 14,000 years ago, and some other fairly sudden warming and cooling events during those periods that are of considerable interest to paleoclimatologists.

The period when the Earth emerged from its last Ice Age actually had amounts of natural warming similar to those that may be expected in the next century or two, with some of the same effects – melting ice sheets, sea level rise, and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Studies of those periods, researchers say, will provide valuable insights into how the Earth may respond to its current warming.

A particular concern for some time has been the operation of an ocean current pattern called the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, or AMOC. This current system is part of what keeps Europe much warmer than it would otherwise be, given its far northern latitudes, and there is evidence that it has "shut down" with some regularity in Earth's past – apparently in response to large influxes of fresh water, and sometimes quite rapidly.

"Our data still show that current is slowing, and may decline by 30 percent by the end of this century," Clark said. "That's very significant, and it could cause substantial climate change. But it's not as abrupt as some concerns that it could shut down within a few decades."

Climate changes, Clark said, are actually continuing to occur somewhat more rapidly than had been predicted in recent years. Arctic Sea ice is both thinning and shrinking, and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are going up faster than had been projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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Peter Clark, 541-737-1247

SPECTACULAR PHOTOS OF IMPERILED EARTH HIGHLIGHT SHOW

CORVALLIS - An illustrated lecture featuring spectacular photos of the Earth taken from photographers around the world will be held at Oregon State University on Wednesday, May 12, in LaSells Stewart Center.

University of Alaska professor Richard Steiner will present the lecture, "Oasis Earth, Planet in Peril," which begins at 7 p.m. in the center's Austin Auditorium. It is free and open to the public.

The lecture features hundreds of slides from NASA, the United Nations and Canon, Inc. The images were selected from more than 70,000 photographs submitted by photographers from more than 150 countries to the United Nations Environment Program/Canon International Photographic Competitions for the Environment.

Among the images selected for the show are dolphins spiraling around a swimmer, a gliding manta ray, a portrait of an Eskimo father and son, and a beam of sunlight slicing through a multicolored sandstone labyrinth. The landscapes and portraits are balanced with images that show the effects of human activity on the planet.

"Life on Earth is an extraordinary, mysterious improbability and should be understood and appreciated as such. It is important to be optimistic about what we can achieve," Steiner said.

Steiner has previously presented "Oasis Earth" in South America, Central America, Europe, Japan and Korea. He believes that seeing the photos from around the world will help people understand the precious nature of the planet and the urgency for action to protect it.

Steiner is a conservation specialist for the University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program, based in Anchorage. He has been a faculty member at that university for 23 years, stationed primarily in the remote areas of Alaska. He has long been an advocate of protecting environmental heritage and has worked throughout the world on conservation and sustainable development issues.

As the marine adviser for the Prince William Sound region of Alaska from 1983 to 1997, he was directly involved in oil and environmental issues, and provided leadership in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

The event is sponsored by several Oregon State University departments and off-campus organizations.

Source: 

Doug Russell, 541-737-5009

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CONCERNS REMAIN ABOUT UV-B DAMAGE TO AMPHIBIANS

CORVALLIS, Ore. - The exposure of amphibians to damaging levels of ultraviolet-B radiation in sunlight is likely a significant part of global amphibian declines, researchers say, despite some recent suggestions to the contrary and a scientific controversy about what role UV-B actually plays in this crisis.

Scientists from the United States, Canada and Spain have outlined their understanding of UV-B's biological effects on amphibians in an article in Ecology, a professional journal.

In it, they respond to some recent studies that have called into question whether UV-B radiation is causing severe health problems or mortality in amphibians.

"At this point, we believe the broad body of research conclusively demonstrates that UV-B radiation can cause damage to many species of amphibians at every stage of their life cycle, from egg to adult," said Andrew Blaustein, a professor of zoology at Oregon State University and the lead author on the Ecology commentary. "It appears the damage may be even worse than we originally thought a few years ago, and it's clear that rising levels of UV-B radiation, which could be caused by erosion of Earth's protective ozone layer, can play at least a part in the amphibian declines we're seeing around the world."

Most scientists now believe, Blaustein said, that a wide range of causes explain the totality of amphibian declines, and those causes include habitat destruction, disease, parasites, introduced exotic species, environmental contaminants and other aspects of global climate change. In some cases complex chains of interlaced ecological effects can lead to amphibian disease, deformity or death.

But UV-B radiation is still high on the list of concerns, the researchers say.

"At first our field studies showed only the damage that increased levels of UV-B radiation could do to amphibian embryos, where they caused mortality in some species and not in others," Blaustein said. "But with more research we've seen how UV-B radiation can affect growth and development in larvae, cause changes in behavior, some deformities, and make the amphibian more vulnerable to disease and death. And in adults, it appears that UV-B radiation can cause retinal damage and blindness."

The evidence gathered from numerous scientists around the world is both alarming and compelling, Blaustein said. Every single amphibian species exposed to natural levels of UV-B radiation has now been found to have some type of health problem, either immediately or later in life.

"Given the numerous other organisms and biological systems that other scientists have already demonstrated to be impacted by UV, it makes sense that some amphibians too would be sensitive to UV radiation," said Lee Kats, a professor of biology at Pepperdine University and another author of the Ecology study.

Some recent studies that have questioned these effects did not have an adequate base of field experiments, made too many assumptions about how UV-B radiation in the life cycle of one species would relate to other species, and fail to understand the natural behavior of amphibians and their evolution, the researchers said in their Ecology article.

"For instance, some researchers have now theorized that amphibians could avoid the effects of UV-B radiation simply by avoiding sunlight or laying their eggs in deeper water," Blaustein said. "But that ignores millions of years of evolution, in which amphibians have developed certain types of behavior for specific reasons. Some species lay their eggs in warm, shallow waters because they are seeking sun and heat, and they need to hatch and grow quickly before the water evaporates or freezes. "Those types of behavior do not change overnight just because the Earth's atmosphere may have changed," he said. "It's not that simple. Moreover, as ponds dry and water levels decrease, amphibians cannot just get out of the sunlight, and they are bombarded by intense UV radiation."

Amphibian declines are an issue that first came to light about 15 years ago and have raised warning flags among many ecologists, who believe they may be a harbinger of ecological changes that are first affecting some of Earth's most sensitive animals and may later cause more widespread damage to other species. Aside from amphibian deaths, population declines and localized extinctions, another issue that has raised concern is amphibian deformities. A near epidemic of deformed legs, eye damage and other ailments has been found in more than 60 species of frogs, toads and salamanders in 46 states and across four continents.

At one site near Corvallis, Ore., 75-80 percent of the frogs are deformed, mostly linked to a parasite and other ecological changes. And egg mortality in embryos of the western toad and some other species in parts of the Oregon Cascade Range have approached 100 percent in some recent years.

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Andrew Blaustein, 541-737-5356

OSU COLLEGE FORESTS TO SALVAGE SOME FALLEN TIMBER

CORVALLIS - Managers of the McDonald-Dunn College Forests at Oregon State University have begun a summer program to salvage a portion of the many downed trees that fell during a major winter ice storm last January.

Weeks of work by forest volunteers and staff following the storm helped to clear most trails and roads, but many areas of the forest remain covered by high densities of fallen trees, officials say.

The salvage plan is designed to protect forest health by reducing the potential for bark beetle infestation, due to the high densities of downed and decaying wood. It will also reduce fire danger from downed wood, recover the value in some of the fallen timber and improve aesthetics along forest roads and trails. Operations will continue all summer.

Not all of the downed trees will be salvaged. Some will be left because the cost to recover the wood is too high, and other wood will be left to meet the wildlife habitat requirements in the college's forest plan. A large number of trees will be left on upper Dan's trail in order to preserve the condition of the trail, avoid excessive overstory removal and preserve the scenic value of the trail.

As the salvaging efforts proceed, sections of roads and trails will be closed periodically. Upper Dan's, Homestead and possibly Calloway Creek trails will be closed for brief periods of time.

Recreational users of the forest are asked to not attempt clearing trees from the trails by themselves. Clearing trails can be dangerous and cutting trees will greatly reduce the timber value when it is salvaged.

For further information, please refer to the kiosks and signboards at all forest entry points. Forest visitors can also call the forest update number at (541) 737-4434 for weekly updates, or the main office at (541) 737-4452.

Source: 

OSU College Forests, 541-737-6072

MEETING TO EXPLORE CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTS IN OREGON

CORVALLIS - A group of leading experts will meet at Oregon State University on June 15 for a one-day professional conference that will explore the future impact of climate changes on the Pacific Northwest.

The event is not open to the general public, but is expected to attract prominent experts in climate change, terrestrial and marine ecosystems, water resources and other topics. It is being coordinated by the Institute for Natural Resources at OSU, and its findings will assist a state Advisory Group on Global Warming that is advising Gov. Ted Kulongoski on climate mitigation strategies for Oregon.

At the symposium, experts will share their knowledge about the present status of global climate change research, state and regional efforts for greenhouse gas reduction, scenarios for climate change, possible impacts in the Pacific Northwest, and areas of consensus and uncertainty.

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Renee Davis-Born, 541-737-9937

WILSONVILLE FORUM TO EXPLORE NEWBERG POOL RESEARCH

WILSONVILLE - A public forum will be held in Wilsonville on Wednesday, June 30, to discuss the findings of a multi-year, $500,000 study on fish deformities in the Newberg Pool, a stretch of the Willamette River south of Portland that has been the source of significant public concern since 1992.

Scientists from Oregon State University will present the most updated information on fish health, water pollutants and directions for future research at this forum, and also answer questions and listen to suggestions. The event will be at the Wilsonville Public Library, 8200 S.W. Wilsonville Road, from 6-8 p.m.

The forum is free, but advance online registration is requested by telephone at 541-737-8105 or at this website: http://www.science.oregonstate.edu/mfbsc. The website will also provide a wide range of other information and resources about this issue.

In the 1990s, researchers observed that fish deformities in this section of the Willamette River were far higher than in some other areas, with more than 50 percent of some species showing lesions and other deformities.

An interim report submitted earlier this year indicated that parasites are the primary cause of the problem, rather than toxic pesticides, heavy metals, other chemicals or organic pollutants.

In an analysis of more than 15,000 fish, researchers have examined a wide range of possible causes, but ultimately it became clear that virtually all of the deformities were being caused by two parasites, which pose little threat to human health but for some reason are more prevalent in this part of the river. The parasites can be destroyed either by freezing or cooking of infected fish.

One area for continued research will be to determine why the Newberg Pool has higher levels of these parasites and the deformities they cause, the scientists said. In comparing water from the Newberg Pool to other sites, the study found no significant difference in levels of heavy metals, dioxins, or other "legacy" pollutants from the past such as DDT or PCBs, he said, all of which were present but at extremely low levels.

The Wilsonville forum is being sponsored by the OSU Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Sciences Center, with support from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Science.

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Larry Curtis, 541-737-1764

OSU ECONOMIST EXAMINES KLAMATH ENERGY PRICING AND IRRIGATION

CORVALLIS - The issue of water allocation in the Upper Klamath Basin encompasses many complex questions, among them: How the price of energy affects the viability of irrigated agriculture in the region.

Oregon State University economist William Jaeger has published a new brief that examines the effect of changing energy prices on irrigated agriculture in this basin straddling the border between California and Oregon.

The analysis was prompted by the potential increase in energy prices currently paid by irrigators in the region under a 1956 contract, negotiated by PacifiCorp's predecessor in exchange for rights to operate hydropower facilities on the Klamath. Those prices - from one-fifth to one-10th the price paid by other irrigators in Oregon - are being reviewed as part of the relicensing process for the Klamath River hydropower operations, scheduled to be completed by 2006.

The analysis suggests that most of these irrigated lands are highly productive, and would continue to be profitable to irrigate even with higher energy prices.

However, farming on some of the land that is sprinkler-irrigated might become unprofitable if energy prices rise. This loss of profitability could lead to water transfers such as water banking to become attractive for some irrigators.

"The analysis draws on two-and-a-half years of work with Klamath farmers, agencies and local experts," said Jaeger, one of a team of scientists from OSU and the University of California who produced a much longer report on water allocation in the Klamath Project in 2002.

"As a 'brief,' this document is not meant to provide a comprehensive evaluation of all aspects of the issues," said Jaeger. "It's meant to be a forward-looking analysis of how possible changes in energy pricing could affect profitability of irrigated agriculture in the basin."

This report is the third in a series of briefs written in response to questions from the Klamath Basin community following publication of the larger report.

"People in the basin are facing some big issues and these briefs provide pertinent facts in condensed form," said Bill Braunworth, Extension agriculture program leader "We anticipate that additional briefs could be prepared on other aspects of water allocation in the Klamath Basin."

This brief, "Energy Pricing and Irrigated Agriculture in the Upper Klamath Basin," along with other briefs and the larger report "Water Allocation in the Klamath Project, 2001," can be found at http://eesc.oregonstate.edu/klamath.

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William Jaeger 541-737-1419

Science Pub Corvallis presents ‘Catch of the Day: Sustainable or Not?’ on July 13

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The fish and seafood bounty just off the Oregon coast is one of the state’s most precious and appreciated natural resources, from iconic silver salmon to razor clams to ling cod. But how can you make sure that enjoying any of these delicacies isn’t contributing to the stress that climate change, invasive species and human impacts have on Oregon’s special coastal ecosystems?

Join Oregon State University Associate Professor of Fisheries Selina Heppell on Monday, July 13, for an exploration of that question as part of Science Pub-Corvallis, the monthly series that features informal, lay-friendly science presentations in the friendly atmosphere of the Old World Deli, 341 SW 2nd St. in downtown Corvallis.

Heppell’s presentation, “Catch of the Day: Sustainable or Not?,” gets underway at 6 p.m. Science Pub Corvallis regulars know that patrons should arrive early to ensure seating and a chance to get food and drinks before the presentation begins. Each presentation since the series began in April has drawn a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 patrons.

In addition to her position in OSU’s top-ranked Dept. of Fisheries and Wildlife, part of the College of Agricultural Sciences, Heppell is an adjunct faculty member in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. She serves on the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, and her coastal research focuses on fishers, populations of various fish species and ways to harvest them sustainably.

Her research often focuses on the oldest and slowest-growing animals in the sea: turtles, sharks, sturgeon and west coast rockfish. “These marine animals share three traits: long lifespans, late age at maturity and threats from overharvest,” writes Heppell on her Web site. “…I am particularly interested in how these animals will respond to climate change and increasing human populations on our coastlines.”

Heppell often works with her husband, Scott Heppell, also a faculty member and researcher in Fisheries and Wildlife. Their work has taken them, among other places, to Eastern Europe, where they teach a course on conservation biology, and the Caribbean to study sex-changing fishes.

Corvallis Science Pub presentations are free and open to the public, though attendees are responsible for their own food and drink. Corvallis Science Pub is a joint presentation of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, the Downtown Corvallis Association and OSU. For more information, visit http://www.omsi.edu/index.php/sciencepubcorvallis or Corvallis Science Pub on Facebook.

Source: 

Selina Heppell,

541-737-9039

USE OF FIRE QUESTIONED IN RESTORING PRAIRIE ECOSYSTEMS

PORTLAND - Native prairies, probably the single most endangered ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest, were historically shaped by fire, one expert said today, but in the future they may be brought back to health by one of the more noisy, pedestrian inventions of the modern age - the lawnmower.

This is one of the conclusions emerging from years of research on how best to recover the native prairies that once dominated such regions as the Willamette Valley of western Oregon, which have shrunk to less than half of 1 percent of their former abundance, along with the multitude of plants and animal species which depended upon them.

"It's no secret that fire was a major factor in shaping these historic prairie ecosystems, and that suppression of fire, along with agriculture and urbanization, led to their demise," said Mark Wilson, an associate professor of botany and plant pathology at Oregon State University.

"However," Wilson said, "the rules have all changed now. We have huge fuel loads, hotter burns, invasive weeds and fragmented parcels of prairie to deal with, and we can't really expect fire to have the same effects that it did 200 to 300 years ago. Fire is not a silver bullet for prairie management."

Wilson spoke today at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, and outlined future management regimes for prairie recovery in which fire may be one of the tools used, but by no means the only one and sometimes not even the most important one.

In recent research, scientists have found that fire was particularly effective at removing tall shrubs and trees that have replaced some native prairies - that's a good start, you can't very well have prairie unless you get rid of most of the trees first. But fire also releases nutrients and other resources that can favor non-native or exotic growth at the expense of native prairie plants. In one study in a wetland prairie, native herbaceous cover remained steady after seven years of prescribed fire, but non-native herbaceous cover almost doubled.

Some of these non-native herbaceous plants are aggressive pests, Wilson said, and can lead to an eventual decline in native plant abundance. Fire can also harm some federally protected plant species, and its use is a particular concern when used in some of the drier sites.

What's the alternative? Well, in some cases, Wilson said, it makes more sense to use a mower.

"We're not suggesting that we take native prairie and try to turn it into a lawn," he said. "But sometimes you can mow at precise times and heights, such as 4-6 inches, and kill upper-level biomass that you don't want while preserving low-growing, native plants that you are trying to encourage."

There may also be a role for selective, careful use of herbicides, Wilson said, especially on lands that have had no native plants on them for a very long time, or in spot applications on good prairie.

"In too many places, when our primary management tool was fire, we just haven't been getting the recovery of native prairie that we had hoped for," Wilson said. "Fire is non-selective, it's expensive and dangerous. There are still places and times when it will make sense to use fire, but it's not an open and shut case."

The advent of invasive species will mean that lands which are being restored as native prairie will need active management forever, Wilson said. But the good news, he said, is that many areas of native prairie are now getting pretty good stewardship, with good results.

Fender's blue butterfly, for instance, was an insect species once believed to be extinct before OSU researchers 15 years ago re-discovered some small populations, living on a particular native plant - Kincaid's lupine - that was essential to their survival. Now officially listed as endangered, the population numbers of this butterfly have exploded in recent years along with the recovery of native prairies at various sites.

According to scientists, Oregon's native prairies are an ecosystem that dates to the last Ice Age and were nurtured by frequent fire, often set by Kalapuya Indians. Prior to European settlement, both wetland and native upland prairie were the dominant land form in the Willamette Valley. They featured a range of native grasses, flowers, shrubs, insects and other plant and animal species that were rare or nonexistent elsewhere in the world.

At this point native prairies are even more at risk than the region's old growth forests. And a variety of groups - university researchers, student volunteers, the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy - have collaborated to help bring these ecosystems back from the brink of extinction.

The arrival of settlers, plowing of farmland, growth of roads and cities, and suppression of fire all contributed to the destruction of these ecosystems, researchers say.

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Mark Wilson, 541-737-5244

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Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge

This mower is used for an experiment within an upland native prairie at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge.

research prescribed burn

The start of a research prescribed burn within an upland native prairie at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge. A Fish and Wildlife Service fire crew set and controlled the fire.

Fender's blue butterfly

A male and female Fender's blue butterfly on spur lupine. Spur lupine is the alternative host to Kincaid's lupine. Although it is not a listed species, spur lupine is very important to the process of restoring prairies for Fender's blue.

MOSS - A HUGE UNDERGROUND MARKET, ECOLOGICAL CONCERN

PORTLAND - A huge, largely underground industry has been built on the moss that drapes some forest trees, raising ecological concerns, questions about export of potentially invasive species, and other issues that have scientists, land managers and businesses unsure about how to monitor, regulate or control this market amid so many uncertainties.

A report on this trade in forest moss - sometimes legal, sometimes on the black market - was made today by a botanist from Oregon State University, speaking at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

"Certain types of mosses and lichens, often those that hang on hardwood trees such as vine maple or big leaf maple, are prized for their use in the floral trade," said Patricia Muir, an OSU professor of botany and plant pathology. "The moss is used in planters, wreaths, hanging baskets, other floral displays. And it has become a big business and big money."

How big? That's part of the problem, no one really knows. The newest studies done by Muir suggests it must be at least $5.5 million a year, but it could also range up to $165 million annually, mostly in the Pacific Northwest and parts of the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern U.S.

Sometimes the moss is harvested legally, by permits on public lands or contractual arrangement on private land, Muir said. But there's strong evidence that the amount taken by permit or private legal arrangements is just the tip of the iceberg of actual harvests.

"Any penalties for illegal taking of moss are usually small and rarely enforced," Muir said. "There also is a lack of record keeping and reporting on many public lands, and clearly some illegal harvesting on both public and private forests."

But legalities aside, millions of pounds of moss are leaving America's forests every year, and that has ecologists concerned.

"When large amounts of moss are taken from an area, we aren't sure what species may grow back in its place," Muir said. "There may be some

inadvertent removal of endangered species. We could be shipping dangerous insect pests overseas in untreated moss samples. And moss may play an important role in nutrient cycling that is not yet fully understood."

Moss also holds about 10 times its weight in water, Muir said, and acts as a natural sponge, a hydrologic buffer to help control the flow of water in forests.

Some threatened species such as the marbled murrelet build their nests in moss mats. And the moss is habitat for hundreds of insect species.

"We don't really know whether the removal of this much moss is a serious problem, because no one has studied it very carefully," Muir said. "Right now it's safe to say that whatever we decide about a reasonable amount of moss to allow harvested is just a seat-of-the-pants guess."

And that assumes, she said, that there is an effective management or enforcement structure in place to control moss harvest, once quotas are decided upon. In fact, there is not.

"Amid land managers, there's a lot of frustration about any type of enforcement of moss regulations," Muir said. "When you consider all the issues relating to timber, streams, fisheries, salmon, endangered species, there is hardly anyone left who has time to worry about moss."

Ideally, Muir said, enlightened managers would know more about their moss resource, how fast it regrows, what amount could be safely removed, and which sensitive habitats should be avoided. Harvesters would be trained, perhaps have a long-term lease on a parcel of forest land, and there would be some enforcement of rules and permits in a system that encouraged trust, respect and responsibility.

The moss industry is unorganized, which is part of what makes it so difficult to regulate. Some of the harvesters are "mom and pop" businesses that are difficult to tell from a couple out for a walk in the woods, Muir said. The moss may bring the harvesters 50 cents to $2 a pound when they sell it to a wholesaler, more often at the low end of that range.

But the pounds can add up. Muir estimates - again, with a huge range of variability - that between 2 and 82 million pounds of moss is used in, or exported from the U.S. each year, with a final market value that could approach $165 million. Domestic sales, which are largely unknown, are estimated based on the value of export sales that are easier to track, an d the known ratio between the amount of moss used locally versus that which is exported. Muir estimated the moss being harvested in the U.S. could fill between 600 and 2,400 semi-trucks per year. In her survey, Muir contacted 361 land managers, 97 botanists and 98 businesses. About 64 percent of botanists felt the volume of moss being removed was of concern.

In the East, the concern about moss harvests in some areas is sufficiently high that the Monongahela National Forest has stopped issuing any harvest permits. In the Pacific Northwest, some business owners are concerned enough about illegal harvests that they have hired private security guards to patrol lands on which they have legally leased the moss rights.

"There's still a lot we don't know here, but there clearly are ecological concerns," Muir said. "Moss harvesting is a big business and it's all around us. We were doing some research up the McKenzie River valley near Eugene and we had a hard time finding a place in the forest, within a reasonable distance from roads, where the moss had not already been picked."

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Patricia Muir, 541-737-1745

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mossy vine leaf maple

mossy vine leaf maple

big leaf maple

big leaf maple

This mossy vine leaf maple and a big leaf maple are two of the types of trees often found dripping with moss in the Pacific Northwest, which are also the basis for a multi-million dollar industry, much of it illegal. New research by Patricia Muir, a botanist at OSU, helps to outline the scope of this business and the ecological concerns it may raise.