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Acid Rain's Corrosion Spreads in Northeast

By Laurent Belsie and Peter SpottsStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / November 10, 1995


FOR years, researchers have decried the impact of acid rain on forests and lakes in the Northeast. The United States enacted new laws five years ago to clean up the atmosphere in hopes of curbing the problem.

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Now fresh evidence is emerging that suggests the damage to trees and waterways may be more serious than thought - with important implications for forest diversity, marine life, and animal food supplies.

By probing everything from the chemistry of Adirondack lakes to the health of yellow locust trees in West Virginia, researchers and backyard activists are compiling what they say is a disturbing new portrait of the depth of the decline across the region.

''The forest is going to be dramatically changed,'' warns Orie Loucks, professor of botany and zoology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. ''In general, we may see a green layer and maybe a dense green layer - but it will be made up of weedy trees and acid-tolerant shrubs.''

Dr. Loucks has long criticized federal researchers for downplaying the effects of pollution on forests. But in the last few weeks, some of these researchers have also begun to raise red flags.

''I hate to sound alarmist. But looking at the cold, hard facts, if the system operates as our research indicates, then you'll see lower water quality and forest productivity,'' says Walter Shortle, a plant pathologist at the US Forest Service's Northeastern Forest Experiment Station in Durham, N.H.

So far, no one has proved that acid rain is directly responsible for tree deaths in the Northeast. The decline only appears in patches of forest and often affects only certain species. Many forests in the region appear healthy.

What is disturbing is that the swatches of mortality are broadly distributed, are occurring at the same time, and are affecting a broad range of species. For example:

* Activists in West Virginia they have set up survey plots to document the change. In parts of the forest, the canopy has thinned. ''It changes the entire face of the forest,'' says Joe Aliff, a former coal miner and self-taught naturalist. From his backyard, he points out seven trees - including yellow locust, oak, and maple - that are clearly dead or dying. A decade ago, he says, only one would have been visible.

* Concerned about dying red-spruce and fir trees in New England, Dr. Shortle and a team of researchers have been looking at the impact of acid rain on soil. Writing in yesterday's issue of the respected weekly Nature, they claim to have identified how increasing soil acidity depletes calcium in Northeast soils. Calcium is essential for forming wood and is the fifth most abundant element in trees. The results, they say, do not bode well for large swaths of the region's spruce and fir forests or for efforts to reduce acid levels in area lakes, streams, and ponds.

* Late last month, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report on acid-rain levels in New York's Adirondack area. Using the EPA's figures, environmentalists calculate that the current provisions of the Clean Air Act won't stem the tide of acid-rain damage. By 2040, according to the most likely scenario in the EPA report, 43 percent of the 700 lakes under study would be too acidic to support most life.

''There is less [acid rain] and there will continue to be less, but the reductions won't be large enough to stop the grim slide that we've been on for the last 40 years,'' says John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, a not-for-profit environmental research and education group, based in Elizabethtown, N.Y.