Vermont's famous sugar maple trees, which are tapped for maple syrup, are dying at an increasing rate, and scientists blame acid rain.
Robert Howrigan, 65, who has been retrieving buckets of sugar maple sap to boil down to maple syrup for decades, says his daily rounds in late winter now feel like a death watch.
David Marvin, who gathers the sweet arboreal juices at his 700-acre Butternut Mountain Farm in the northern Vermont town of Johnson, said: "We have a few areas that look like they've been bombed."
The decline in sugar maples throughout Vermont--the nation's largest maple syrup producer--has become obvious in the last decade, farmers say. Researchers, citing 20 years of study, blame acid rain.
Maple syrup producers have pledged $15,000 to hire a tree physiologist, Mel Tyree of Toronto University, to spend the summer studying the decline of sugar maples and the link to acid rain.
"The study will definitely involve the impact of acid rain," said Hubert Vogelmann, a University of Vermont botanist best known for his pioneering acid rain research on Camel's Hump, a 4,083-foot mountain in central Vermont.
Vogelmann said his 20-year study of sugar maples on the mountain show there has been a 25% drop in the survival rate of older maples and the growth rate of younger ones.
"Maple trees are being lost and the young ones are not growing fast enough to replace them," he said.
He has heard equally grim reports from maple producers across the state, he said.
On the foggy ridges of his Misty Maples Farm in Fairfield, a lot of "apparently healthy trees are dying for unexplained reasons," said Howrigan, whose family has been making syrup for six generations.
"I'm a Vermonter with a love of the sugar maple," he said. "So I get kind of upset when I see an apparently thrifty tree--say, 12 inches in diameter with no competition around it--just up and die."
Acid rain is thought to be created when sulfur dioxide emitted by coal- or oil-burning power plants is picked up in precipitation, causing the rain or snow to become highly acidic. Most of the power plants are in the Midwest, but researchers say wind currents typically carry acid rain to the Northeast and Canada.
Acid rain has reduced fish populations in high-altitude lakes in the Northeast, particularly in the Adirondack Mountains in New York state, researchers say. In addition, studies show acid rain has killed red spruce and other trees on Camel's Hump.
Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.) has asked Congress to consider a bill for a 10-million-ton reduction in smokestack emissions at Midwest coal-burning plants.
But the Reagan Administration does not support the bill and has urged the Environmental Protection Agency only to study acid rain.
Depends on Cash
With no federal action in sight, Howrigan said he is unsure of the future. Although most of his income comes from his 225-cow dairy farm, he said, he still depends on the cash from making maple syrup.
Younger maple producers, like Perry Armstrong, 28, fear they are watching their first major investment wither and die.
"I'm concerned. I've got a lot of money invested in this business," said Armstrong, who runs the Armstrong Sugar House of Randolph Center, Vt.
"If I could sugar for 40 years, I could realize a lot of income. If I lose my trees, I'm going to have to start looking for another job."
Marvin predicted the federal government will alleviate the acid rain threat, but fears the trees, waters and fish are doomed.
"I really believe the political decision is going to happen," Marvin said. "I just think the answer is going to come too late."