Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell 
Artist and UAF professor emeritus Kes Woodward in a stand of exotic trees on the Fairbanks campus.

Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell Artist and UAF professor emeritus Kes Woodward in a stand of exotic trees on the Fairbanks campus.

Alaska Science Forum: Visit to an exotic tree plantation in Alaska

The two-acre exotic tree plantation is part of a much-larger “boreal arboretum” on the UAF campus.

I came here 40 years ago, when I just moved up from Juneau,” Kes Woodward says in a South-Carolina accent soft as butter. “These trees were just saplings.”

Woodward, 69, a painter and emeritus University of Alaska Fairbanks art professor, is guiding me on a walk through an unusual grove of trees. The tall stems standing before us are not often seen in middle Alaska.

In the delicious, 80-degree air of the warmest day in two years, we are surrounded by lodgepole pines from the Yukon, Siberian larch from Finland and silver birch also from Finland, the latter featuring straight-grained wood the locals favored for sled runners.

In 1964, just after Lyndon Johnson swore the oath to follow John F. Kennedy, Alaska forester Les Viereck and others planted tree seedlings at the north end of this old farm field.

The two-acre exotic tree plantation is part of a much-larger “boreal arboretum” on the UAF campus, which mostly consists of native spruce, birch, aspen, poplar and willow trees.

Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell 
Artist Kes Woodward holds the tip of a lodgepole pine branch in a UAF exotic tree plantation.

Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell Artist Kes Woodward holds the tip of a lodgepole pine branch in a UAF exotic tree plantation.

Having borrowed the key from a researcher with UAF’s Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, Woodward has invited me to join him inside the chain-link fence.

I have been curious about these trees for years as I circled the fence on the trails alongside — especially in fall when the larches flame orange.

Some of these trees seem to have cracked the code of living in the subarctic, unlike some sugar maples I have over the years carried home from New England in glass jars. Alaska’s extreme cold and drastic shifts of daylight are too much for most of the species on the planet, including trees.

But a few imported trees here stand tall, straight and perfect: Siberian larch and lodgepole pine seem to be the champions, so far.

“Larch in their first 40 years will outgrow local white spruce in trunk volume by six times, and lodgepole for 35 years will outgrow locals,” Woodward says.

I later check his numbers in a paper written by Alaska forest geneticist John Alden, who dirtied his fingernails planting some seedlings here. Woodward is correct.

He also quizzes me:

“There is only one tree not native to Alaska that scientists documented as having survived and spread to new sites. They call that ‘naturalizing.’ Guess which tree it is?”

“Lodgepole pine?”

“No, that’s what I thought. It’s mountain ash.”

That ornamental species decorating many Alaska streets has red/orange berries. The fruit is a favorite of Bohemian waxwings, which perform much of the seed spreading.

As we walk, our steps quieted by shed orange needles of larch and pine, Woodward and I both say how peaceful it is. Just outside the fence, a runner passes without noticing us. We hear his labored breaths. Above, an alder flycatcher sings its two-note song, having just arrived from the Gulf Coast of Mexico to perch on northern branches.

These exotic trees — some now 70 feet tall — are a nice legacy for the men who planted shin-high seedlings years before Woodward last visited the plot in 1981. Les Viereck, a renowned ecologist who wrote “Alaska Trees and Shrubs,” died in 2008.

Why — in this era of consciousness of invasive species that might crowd out the natives — did Viereck and others plant different trees in Alaska?

“Introduction of nonnative tree species may improve the diversity, stability, and productivity of managed forest ecosystems,” John Alden wrote. He added that new tree species might also “favorably alter the habitat for the indigenous wildlife.”

Though many of the trees in UAF’s plot are thriving, Woodward points out that these woody organisms have enjoyed the lifelong protection of a coarse-mesh metal fence. It prevents moose from nibbling tree shoots and thrashing trunks to a pulp with their antlers.

Patches of hardware cloth also cling to the bottom of the fence. The wire mesh excludes snowshoe hares, which sometimes clip seedlings at the stem or girdle young trees, especially at the peak of hares’ 11-year cycles.

This gentle, south-facing slope on well-drained Fairbanks silt loam has been an ideal place to be a tree for the last half century. The airy lodgepole pines seem to be patiently waiting for their Whitehorse brethren to drop their seeds northwestward.

As these trees shot upward during the last 40 years, Woodward was painting others in his studio overlooking the Tanana River Flats.

“I have always been into trees,” he says. “My name is Woodward; it’s probably in my genes.”

Woodward remembers walking through stands of fragrant pines with his grandfather, a lumberman in South Carolina. His grandfather would select trees for harvest.

Woodward has less-consumptive plans for the trees at the UAF site.

“This is like a dream come true for me to be in this two-acre plot and see how trees from all over the circumpolar north are doing,” he says. “I want to get to know every single tree here.”

• Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell ned.rozell@alaska.edu is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of July 6

Here’s what to expect this week.

Disney Williams (right) orders coffee from Lorelai Bingham from the Flying Squirrel coffee stand at Juneau International Airport on Thursday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
New coffee stand at airport stirs up heated dispute about having proper authorization to operate

Fans of Flying Squirrel Espresso praise location, hours; officials say FAA violations could be costly.

Nano Brooks and Emily Mesch file for candidacy on Friday at the City and Borough of Juneau Municipal Clerk’s office in City Hall. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
City and Borough of Juneau regular municipal election candidate filing period opens

So far, most vie for Assembly District 2 seat — mayor, Board of Education, and District 1 also open.

Killah Priest performs at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center in December 2019. (Photo courtesy of Lance Mitchell)
Killah Priest sets new record with Alaskan artists on ‘Killah Borealis’

Wu-Tang Clan rapper seeks to lift Alaskan voices and culture in his return performance to Juneau

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, July 10, 2024

For Wednesday, July 10 Attempt to Serve At 10:06 a.m. on Wednesday,… Continue reading

Commercial fishing boats are lined up at the dock at Seward’s harbor on June 22. Federal grants totaling a bit over $5 million have been awarded to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to help Alaskans sell more fish to more diverse groups of consumers. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Federal grants to state agency aim to expand markets for Alaska seafood

More than $5M to help ASMI comes after Gov. Dunleavy vetoed $10M for agency.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds up the omnibus crime bill, House Bill 66, after signing it at a ceremony Thursday at the Department of Public Safety’s aircraft hangar at Lake Hood in Anchorage. At his side are Sandy Snodgrass, whose 22-year-old son died in 2021 from a fentanyl overdose, and Angela Harris, who was stabbed in 2022 by a mentally disturbed man at the public library in Anchorage and injured so badly that she now uses a wheelchair. Snodgrass and Harris advocated for provisions in the bill.Behind them are legislators, law enforcement officers and others. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Goals for new Alaska crime law range from harsher penalties for drug dealers to reducing recidivism

Some celebrate major progress on state’s thorniest crime issues while others criticize the methods.

Juneau Board of Education President Deedie Sorensen (left) and Vice President Emil Mackey, holding his son Emil Mackey IV, listen to discussion about next year’s budget for the school district during a meeting March 14 at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. Recall votes for both board members were certified this week for the Oct. 1 municipal election ballot. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Petitions to recall two Juneau school board leaders get enough signatures for Oct. 1 election ballot

President Deedie Sorensen, Vice President Emil Mackey targeted due to school district’s budget crisis.

Most Read