Axing Notorious Poplars

15 May 2015
Kashmir Life


Srinagar: Prettiness of Kashmir is no secret. The verdant and flourishing coniferous forests enveloping the Valley and broadleaved trees in its plains create a mystic aura. Besides orchards of diverse fruits adorning the Valley, the majestic Willows and Poplars add to its exquisite and splendid beauty. It is certainly beyond words to pen down mesmerizing and enthralling Kashmir. While we cherish enthralling nature in the Valley, the news of axing Poplar trees along Boulevard considered being heritage and ecologically significant has stirred loud voices of anguish. The cries of conserving the strip of Poplars are being heard on account of announcement of auctioning these trees by the State government. The charismatic view that adorns Dal banks is partly because of majestic Poplars thriving there from years now. Undoubtedly the aesthetic values and ecosystem services of such a long belt of trees cannot be undermined. However, before jumping into argument of axing or not, we need to dig deeper to unveil the ecologically important facts vis-à-vis Poplars in the Valley. There are infact divergent views in backdrop of such a consideration by the government. Is it the hefty sum that lures government to start chopping? The economic benefits to be accrued as per the report though not substantially huge may not be considered the sole reason behind orders of felling the strip whereby the State is likely to reap a sum of Rs. 50 lakh. So what could be the other possible motive then? The government officials consider the felling to be in public interest, which to a large extent, is true. That is pretty rational. As put in news reports, officials justified the government order based on scientific grounds and in sympathetic solidarity with people who struggle with cotton menace. Is that true? Here is the point: Just few days to go and the Valley especially Srinagar will be seen painted with cottony mass all around. The pathetic environment of cotton needs to be looked into to justify felling of Poplars in the Valley in general. Poplars in Kashmir were introduced as a part of Social Forestry project to meet the needs of farmers and industries such as veneer and ply board, envisaged to alleviate pressure on forests. Besides meeting commercial needs, Poplar plantation was also intended at soil conservation, biodiversity enhancement and beautification of avenues and roads. One such example of avenue adornment is the captivating Boulevard, now a source of debate over felling the Poplars, or not. Deplorably such an enormous plantation drive by the Forest department was a blind move given the ignorance shown during procurement of planting material. The Poplars, which arrived in the Valley for massive plantation were actually the female individuals; the source of perilous nuisance not known then, became marked later. The Poplar most widely introduced was female cultivar of Populus deltoides called Rusi Frass in common parlance. (Being a native of North America, the name Russian Poplar-Rusi Frass is a misnomer.) The large scale multiplication of same clones of this female Poplar species vegetatively was just a matter of few years given its easy propagation through cuttings. It triggered the present day Poplar peril, engulfing the Valley in cottony fluff and fuzzes every spring spewing allergy and infections, besides being a fire hazard. Here I may bring it to notice of common people for the sake of correct scientific jargon often misquoted by journalists and even concerned officials despite a series of articles published by forestry scientists and botanists in this esteemed newspaper and other local dailies, clarifying cotton floss as dispersed seed instead of pollen is misnomer. While seed is related to female counterpart of the plant, pollen is discharged by male. Given the absence of male individuals of Poplar deltoides in Kashmir, relating pollen to Poplars is utterly a wrong and ignorant proclamation. The pollen allergy, no doubt, a reality, is the outcome of certain other species such as Robinia pseudoacacia. This, however, needs a separate write up. Poplar flowers emerge in elongated catkins drooping from tree branches in spring before the leaves emerge. Small round fruit capsules on the catkin split open, revealing small seeds surrounded by white cottony hairs. The wind catches the fluffy hairs and carries the seeds long distances from the parent tree, a manifestation of dispersal mechanism. Consequently the presence of large number of such female Poplars everywhere triggers fluffy storm. The seeds, as I said, are reported to usher in infections and allergy (attributing allergy to Poplar seeds is debatable though). However, the health hazards are unquestionable and cannot be denied. Most pertinently, the respiratory ailments associated with the cotton stuff are seriously a matter of disquiet. Besides health issues, the seeds are absolutely nuisance for the environment, given the dense presence. The impacts are far and wide ranging from air pollution to contaminating water bodies, which again call for a solid breakthrough intervention. The ecological vulnerability due to cottony structures of Poplars has put our Valley on perilous and tumultuous path earning status of troublemaker globally. For now the terrifying outburst of Poplar is quite obvious. So, how it related to the iconic strip of Poplar along banks of Dal Lake? There is a dual opinion about the type of Poplar species dotting the Boulevard. While one group is promoting the notion that these trees along Boulevard are not notorious Populus deltoides, the other section advocates the presence of this particular species. Such a discord in opinions is simply bereft of exact knowledge about the species. The dispute can be resolved by seeking expert suggestions from the scientists of Faculty of Forestry SKUAST-K and Department of Botany, KU. A field visit involving scientists from the both varsities should be arranged in immediate effect to clarify status of species. The type of species and identification of male or female individuals can help resolving the issue of cacophony. Moreover, just in few weeks, the flowering season will be on and the job is done! Plus, on the similar lines, identification of Poplars should be started throughout the Valley. Over to the issue of axing charismatic Poplars along Dal lake! The area with dense canopied trees is certainly ecologically significant. The aesthetic contribution and other ecosystem services cannot be ignored. Most importantly the amounts of carbon being sequestered and microclimatic amelioration are unbelievably noteworthy. For that matter the importance of any sort of trees anywhere is a well established fact. So that doesn't need declaration here owing to shorter space. I must say the stretch is dearest to each one of us and to tourists alike. The trees have been our part and parcel. We have grown with such images of Dal banks adorned with Poplars. But then should the current government order of felling the dazzling avenue trees sadden us? Should all those against the axing protest strongly? Wait! Wait until unanimous and agreed upon decision is made by all the stake holders from scientists and government to common masses. If the entire strip is found to have female cultivars of Populus deltoides under expert panel, let there be no hue and cry then. One may worry about undeniable ecosystem services and other ecological benefits accrued from these trees irrespective of status of species and whether male or female. Remember the hazy and fuzzy spring in offing with fluffy discharge from the particular species. In that case we cannot simply come to protest its felling. The ecological disaster that Poplar seeds are set with is a serious concern. As said about its long drawn impacts, there is no other option other than to take axe in our hands! The menace is almost difficult to contain until the female cultivars are removed. This may seem weird and strange but we just need to dig deeper and open eyes to realize the burden our ecosystem is engulfed with. At this point, we should not be emotional conservationists and naturalists. Think of panic and anxiety every spring we live with, and respiratory ailments we suffer with. Is that not an ecological threat putting in danger the health of masses and other perils of pollution already discussed? It is a global hazard. The ecosystem services, which in that case may be sacrificed, can just be ignored in a run to prevent perpetual menace. This will be for posterity! Better late than never. Regretting the blind move of propagating female cultivars of Poplars is not good every time. It is best time to look out for easy remedy of felling all the female cultivars in phased manner. The area may look ugly for few years but it will bring in fresh air in just short span given the fast growing native Poplars, more adaptable and ecologically viable. Subsequently male cultivars can be propagated once the female counterparts are felled completely. Plus, the propagation of native Poplar species such as Populus ciliata will be a boon as they are reported to produce less fluff during seed dispersal. This will further help in promoting indigenous species, a highly preferable ecologically. Besides this, the introduction of many hybrid Poplars are reported to be sterile and do not produce flowers, which can verily be propagated, though it needs field trials and more research. Undoubtedly, the molecular research in identification of preferable cultivars is need of the hour, which can be fruitful in long run. We will again have charming boulevard with magnetic and towering Poplars (given the idea of planting Poplars instead of conifers). Not only Boulevard, entire valley should get involved in phasing out this burden, ushering in healthy ecological signs. This infact is a long drawn briefing between forestry scientists and the department. On the other hand, if boulevard is found to have native species and male cultivars of Poplar, axing should be strongly protested. In that case, chopping down trees would entirely be an unscientific move. The scientific community along with common masses should, if such a matter arises, come forward and stop the felling. At the same time we should not forget to clear-fell the particular Poplar entirely from the Valley as mentioned, keeping aside the Boulevard issue. So, I have put forth the two situations. Both the moves have significance, whichever found true after proper technical field visit. It is urgent to survey the area and find out true status of Poplars to arrive at undisputable decision. Once the situation is ascertained, immediate action should be taken - whether to have Poplars along Boulevard or not, only after scientific reckoning. Looking at both sides of axing will prevent drowning into common regret. Let Boulevard trigger the scientific community to study in depth the vulnerabilities Kashmir's fragile ecosystem face. The scientific study should be started on similar lines. This would further help in formulating policy and bringing in legislation for phasing out menace once for all. Let us stand for ecologically stable and healthy Kashmir. P.S: As per the recent news reports, the J&K High Court directed all the Deputy Commissioners to order immediate removal of fluff producing Poplars across the Valley, which in fact, is a healthy move and meets the long pending demand. Notwithstanding the order, the Boulevard issue needs to be looked into cautiously as mentioned. (Mir Faizan Anwar is Research Fellow in Forestry.)