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[Columns]Endangered acorn forests:Locals aiding their restoration

In late autumn, acorns add color to forests in 'satoyama'(the traditional Japanese countryside characterized by paddy fields, streams and forests) and parks. However, 'kashi'(oak), 'konara'(Quercus serrata Thumb) and other Japanese oak species of trees in the Quercus family are suffering mass die-offs, which have spread to the south-central areas of the Kansai region, are threatening to make these trees locally extinct. Both governments and residents are standing up to stop this phenomenon. A movement in which residents collect acorns to grow them into seedlings and replant forests may appear very primitive and feeble at first sight, but it is a popular means of nurturing love and care for the natural environment. It has also begun to have an effect.
Acorns grow on oak trees such as 'konara,' 'mizunara,' 'kunugi' and 'ubamegashi.' They fall on the ground in autumn and sprout in the following spring. The mass die-offs of oak trees are caused by germs carried by a type of beetle which, about 5 mm long, bores into tree trunks. The disease has always been around, but it became noticeable on the Japan Sea side of the archipelago from around the late 1980s. It spread to the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture around 1990. The disease gradually spread southward and reached woods and forests around Kyoto City. Shiga, Hyogo and Osaka prefectures have also been hit by the disease.

Lack of young trees blamed
According to the Kyoto-based Kansai Research Center of the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute, oak trees used to be felled frequently to make charcoal, grow shiitake mushrooms and produce woodcrafts. Hence natural forests such as those in 'satoyama' were always rejuvenated and there were not many old trees favored by pests. The presence of many strong, young trees which pests did not like kept the disease from spreading. The disease can be fought by such means as killing pests with chemicals or using a sticky substance to stop them, and felling diseased trees. But there is no surefire way. Even without the disease, natural forests in 'satoyama' and elsewhere are often untended and dying. One of the effective means of fighting this is to replant oak trees in mountains and forests by hand and replenish trees.

'Acorn Bank'
This concept has given birth to the 'Acorn Bank,' launched in Kagawa Prefecture in the 1990s, and the 'Tree-Growing Dream Bank,' opened in 2003 by the Conservation Promotion Division of the Osaka prefectural government's Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Department. Both of these banks receive acorns as 'deposits' from local residents and children and allow them to withdraw seedlings depending upon the amount of their deposits. In the case of Osaka, acorn deposits placed by the end of November this year can be exchanged for seedlings next March and depositors may plant them at home or, with a permit, in mountain forests. The Osaka division says 18,000 persons obtained passbooks by March 31, 2008, deposited 7.5 million acorns and withdrew 3,500 seedlings (an additional 3,000 seedlings were distributed to schools and other groups).
To restore oak forests destroyed by natural disasters and diseases, the Hometown Improvement Section of Sumoto City in Hyogo Prefecture nurtures acorns gathered by residents at seedling farms (15,000 seedlings this year) and plants them. In order to replace typhoon-destroyed Japanese cypress forests with acorn trees, the Himeji Nature Sanctuary has been holding events since 2006 for residents to take home acorns gathered there to grow them into seedlings and bring them back for planting. Three tree-planting events are scheduled for next March, each event open for the participation of 60 persons.
These civic movements to nurture acorn forests are spreading to many parts of Japan. In addition to government activities, there are many examples of volunteer groups and individual gardening-aficionados growing acorn seedlings. To tell the truth, this writer also planted acorns at home in 2006.(photo) He wishes to report to his readers that unexpectedly some 20 s