For Howard Jewett, as for his father and grandfather before him, the ritual is the same each spring. Over a period of six to eight weeks, usually beginning in early March, Jewett taps 2,500 maple trees on his 25-acre sugar bush near Vale Perkins in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, collecting the sap and then boiling it down into maple syrup. But four years ago Jewett, 57, noticed that some of his trees were dying for no apparent reason. The blight, unlike anything previously seen in the family sugar bush, attacked old and young trees alike at Jewett’s farm. Jewett learned that other Quebec farmers were experiencing the same problem. By 1983 it had spread across the province, and the Quebec government commissioned a study of the problem. Some scientists blamed acid rain; others cited the weather or mismanagement by farmers themselves. But even after extensive study the mystery remains unsolved. Declared Jewett: “We are calling it acid rain down here, but no one has told us for sure just what it is that is killing our trees.”
A two-year study of 129 sugar bushes just completed by the Quebec energy and resources ministry, which was presented earlier this month to an international acid rain conference in Quebec City, warned that the blight will result in a 12-per-cent decline in the province’s $23.5-million syrup industry this year alone. Indeed, Quebec syrup production fell to 1.6 million gallons last year from 1.9 million gallons in 1983. And many producers, particularly in the hard-hit Beauce region, which accounts for 40 per cent of Quebec production, have stopped tapping their trees altogether.
Although researchers could only speculate on the cause two years ago, a growing number of the experts now blame acid rain for much of the decline. Said Leon Carrier, a spokesman for the ministry: “We have eliminated insects, fungus, climatic changes and management practices as possible causes, and acid rain and air pollution are the only causes left that we can consider.” Added forester Gilles Gagnon, who coauthored the government report: “There may be several contributing factors, but we are certain that acid rain plays a large part in the death of the maples.”
The plight of the maple trees first came to the attention of foresters in the early 1980s, when government records indicated that trees were dying at a faster rate than usual: the normal death
rate of two per cent a year climbed to 10 to 20 per cent. About 14 million out of an estimated 50 million maple trees are tapped in Quebec, which accounts for 90 per cent of Canada’s total syrup production. In recent years the Quebec government has encouraged the province’s 9,000 syrup producers to expand their output, mostly for the export market. But the dying trees and declining production have contributed to a 25-percent rise in retail syrup prices this year, setting off appeals for government intervention to resolve the crisis.
When the maple blight first appeared, many scientists blamed it on insects, extreme weather conditions or even automated tapping methods, which use vacuum pressure to extract twice as much sap from trees as conventional spigot-and-bucket systems. But the recent Quebec study showed that the Beauce, where farmers first noticed the decline, receives 18 to 27 lb. of sulphate deposit from acid rain per acre per year, one of the highest levels of acidic precipitation in the province.
The manner in which the trees die has also implicated acid rain and such other forms of airborne pollution as heavy metals and ozone from auto emissions. Maple trees, which usually live 300 years or more, normally exhibit the first signs of impending death in their lower branches. But the new blight attacks
them from the top down, beginning with yellowish leaves at the outer tips of the crown. Then, the disease spreads into the trunks of the trees, and by the third year the bark falls away and the trees die. Said Hubert Vogelmann, chairman of the botany department at the University of Vermont in Burlington, who has studied maple forests since 1965: “The damage to the forests is noticeably different than what you would have seen 20 years ago. The state of the maples indicates that the trees are likely being subjected to stress from a variety of air pollutants.” Although he says he believes that acid rain accounts for a large part of that pollution, Vogelmann added that other forms of pollution could not be ruled out.
As well, Vogelmann said there are “remarkable and frightening parallels” to the current crisis in West Germany, where 34 per cent of the country’s trees show signs of air pollution damage. Declared Vogelmann: “If that happens here, the maple industry will be only a blip compared to the overall problem.” But for maple syrup producers like Jewett, who take part in an industry inextricably linked with Quebec’s cultural heritage, the crisis is already on. Said Jewett: “We are not destitute yet—but we want some answers soon.”
-BRUCE WALLACE, with Patricia Pleszczynska in Quebec City.
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