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Monday, December 5, 2011

Boom and Bust in Acorns Will Affect Many Creatures, Including Humans

But this year, they were failing to do something else they generally do in the harvest season: produce acorns.

“I remember going into areas and you’d get the crunch of acorns under your feet,” said Neil Calvanese, vice president for operations at the Central Park Conservancy. “And this year, you kind of have to search around for them.”

It is a phenomenon happening not only in New York but also throughout the Northeast. While last fall set a recorded high for acorn production, at roughly 250 pounds per tree, this year is seeing a recorded low, with a typical tree shedding less than half a pound of its seeds, said Mark Ashton, a forest ecologist at Yale University. On average, oaks produce about 25 to 30 pounds of acorns a year.

“Scarlet oak, black oak, true red oak,” Dr. Ashton said. “These are the ones that dominate our forest, and these are the ones that aren’t producing acorns this year.”

Coming on the heels of an acorn glut, the dearth this year will probably have a cascade of effects on the forest ecosystem, culling the populations of squirrels, field mice and ground-nesting birds. And because the now-overgrown field mouse population will crash, legions of ticks — some infected with Lyme disease — will be aggressively pursuing new hosts, like humans.

“We expect 2012 to be the worst year for Lyme disease risk ever,” said Richard S. Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. “We are already planning educational materials.”

It will probably turn into a big year for animals’ being killed on highways as well. Deer, in search of alternative sources of food, will leave the cover of the oak trees and wander out closer to roads.

“I would expect that traffic collisions are going to be higher in a year like this year,” Dr. Ostfeld said.

While scientists do not fully understand why this year has produced the lowest acorn crop in 20 years of monitoring, there is nothing unusual about large fluctuations in the annual number of acorns. Fingers are not being pointed at global warming.

Oak trees “produce huge, abundant amounts one year and not in other years,” Dr. Ashton said. “I don’t think it’s bad — the whole system fluctuates like this.”

One theory for why oak trees vary their acorn yield is the so-called predator satiation hypothesis. Under this theory, during bumper years, the trees litter the forest floor with seeds so completely that squirrels, jays, deer and bears cannot possibly eat them all. Then, in off years, the trees ramp down production to keep the predator populations from growing too large to be satiated.

But the variability of weather in New York and New England could also be playing a role in the shortage this year.

“A lot of it has to do with the initial spring,” Dr. Ashton said. Acorn production is high when “everything converges on a perfect spring.”

It takes a red oak 18 months to grow an acorn. The tree is pollinated in the spring of one year, and its acorns drop in the fall of the next year. The rainy spring of 2010 could have dampened the wind-driven transfer of pollen from one tree to another, resulting in the acorn dearth this year.

While acorn fluctuation is normal, what is unusual this year is the abundance followed by the steep drop. “In a sense, it’s just another trough,” Dr. Ostfeld said. “But this is the most extreme pair of years that we’ve seen.”

Dr. Ostfeld describes acorns as an engine that drives the forest ecosystem. “When that engine is cooking along,” he said, “you get these heavy knock-on effects.”

The population of field mice, for instance, exploded this summer. While that was good for the mice, it was bad news for ground-nesting birds like the wood thrush, whose nests are susceptible to rodent predation. In addition, the large numbers of mice caused an increase in the tick population.

On the other hand, Dr. Ostfeld said, “when you get a failure of the engine, things just change radically.”

Now the field mouse population is expected to crash — about 90 percent have died off in similar glut-dearth acorn sequences in the past. And the outlook is not good for the ground-nesting birds, which face an increased threat from hawks and owls.

“The adult wood thrush will take it on the beak by the one-two punch,” Dr. Ostfeld said.

But in the middle of New York City, Central Park will be buffered from the ecosystem effects of the acorn engine.

“It’s a very managed environment,” said Arthur Elmes, the tree data coordinator for the Central Park Conservancy. “It’s nothing that won’t be corrected in years to come.”

Drilling Down: Drilling Down: Fighting Over Oil and Gas Well Leases

So Mr. Ely said he was surprised several years later when the drilling company, Cabot Oil and Gas, informed them that rather than draining and hauling away the toxic drilling sludge stored in large waste ponds on the property, it would leave the waste, cover it with dirt and seed the area with grass. He knew that waste pond liners can leak, seeping contaminated waste. 

“I guess our terms should have been clearer” about requiring the company to remove the waste pits after drilling, said Mr. Ely, of Dimock, Pa., who sued Cabot after his drinking water from a separate property was contaminated. “We learned that the hard way.”

Americans have signed millions of leases allowing companies to drill for oil and natural gas on their land in recent years. But some of these landowners — often in rural areas, and eager for quick payouts — are finding out too late what is, and what is not, in the fine print.

Energy company officials say that standard leases include language that protects landowners. But a review of more than 111,000 leases, addenda and related documents by The New York Times suggests otherwise:

¶ Fewer than half the leases require companies to compensate landowners for water contamination after drilling begins. And only about half the documents have language that lawyers suggest should be included to require payment for damages to livestock or crops.

¶ Most leases grant gas companies broad rights to decide where they can cut down trees, store chemicals, build roads and drill. Companies are also permitted to operate generators and spotlights through the night near homes during drilling.

¶ In the leases, drilling companies rarely describe to landowners the potential environmental and other risks that federal laws require them to disclose in filings to investors.

¶ Most leases are for three or five years, but at least two-thirds of those reviewed by The Times allow extensions without additional approval from landowners. If landowners have second thoughts about drilling on their land or want to negotiate for more money, they may be out of luck.

The leases — obtained through open records requests — are mostly from gas-rich areas in Texas, but also in Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

In Pennsylvania, Colorado and West Virginia, some landowners have had to spend hundreds of dollars a month to buy bottled water or maintain large tanks, known as water buffaloes, for drinking water in their front yards. They said they learned only after the fact that the leases did not require gas companies to pay for replacement drinking water if their wells were contaminated, and despite state regulations, not all costs were covered.

Thousands of landowners in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Texas have joined class action lawsuits claiming that they were paid less than they expected because gas companies deducted costs like hauling chemicals to the well site or transporting the gas to market.

Some industry officials say the criticism of their business practices is misguided. Asked about the waste pits on Mr. Ely’s land in Pennsylvania, for example, George Stark, a Cabot spokesman, said the company’s cleanup measures met or exceeded state requirements. And the door-to-door salesmen, commonly known as landmen, who pitch the leases on behalf of the drilling companies also dismiss similar complaints from landowners, and say they do not mislead anyone.

The Sales Pitch

“There are bad leases out there, and, as with any industry, there have also been some unscrupulous opportunists,” said Mike Knapp, president of Knapp Acquisitions and Production, a company in western Pennsylvania that brokers deals between landowners and drilling companies. “But everyone I know who does this work is on the up and up, and most of the bad actors that there may have been before are no longer in business.”

He said that his company’s leases ensure that landowners will get replacement water. The company also encourages landowners to visit an existing drilling site before signing a lease to get an idea of the potential noise and truck traffic. Some of the complaints about leases, he said, are just sour grapes from landowners who are envious about the amount of money they believe their neighbors are earning in bonuses and royalties.

To be sure, many landowners have earned small fortunes from drilling leases. Last year, natural gas companies paid more than $1.6 billion in lease and bonus payments to Pennsylvania landowners, according to a report commissioned by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group. Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest natural gas companies, has paid more than $183.8 million in royalties in Texas this year, according to its Web site.

Much of the money has gone to residents in rural areas where jobs are scarce and farmers and ranchers have struggled to stay afloat. Mr. Ely once worked for a company owned by Cabot on drilling sites in his area, until he was fired shortly after publicly complaining about Cabot’s drilling practices.

But many landowners and lawyers say that gas companies are intentionally vague in their contracts and use high-pressure sales tactics on landowners.

Jeremy Ashkenas and Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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