Old-Growth Forests: Windows to the Past

By Robert T. Leverett Gazette Contributing Writer

In 1600, forests covered at least 85 percent of the Massachusetts landscape, except for areas cleared by Native Americans near the coast and along major stream corridors. White settlement changed all that—gradually at first, but then at an explosive pace until the mid-1800s. From then through the early 1900s, the state was made up of fields, settlements and fairly small woodlots, mostly; just 25 percent of the land was forested. Fortunately, because of increased urbanization and lifestyle changes in the 20th century, the forest has returned. But are today’s forests the same as the woodlands of pre-settlement times?

Yes and no. The species we commonly see today—oaks, maples, pines and birches—were present in the past, although they now have company. We’ve introduced many non-native species, and some—like buckthorn and Norway maple from Europe and black locust from the Southeast—have spread into the forest. American chestnut and the American elm, which existed in pre-settlement forests, have been eliminated by devastating blights.

Today’s forests are also quite young compared to those of pre-settlement times. Our youthful woods are predominantly between 30 and 100 years old. Decades of poor forest practices have left us with many acres of degraded woodlands and commercially undesirable species. And tree size is small compared to what once grew; private woodlots are often dominated by trees under two feet in diameter.

Our largest trees are actually often in urban areas, along roads, in yards, and on public properties. Consequently, Massachusetts residents have become accustomed to undistinguished forests. For those of us who like big trees, this is disappointing. Must today’s paradigm be permanent? Are there exceptions?

The good news for people searching for inspiring forests is that there are in fact two kinds of exceptional forests: Old-growth and exemplary second-growth sites exist today around the state, including one gem in our own region. Around 1,300 acres of forests have survived as leftovers of the original forests.

Located on inaccessible sites in the Berkshire Hills and Taconic uplands and in a few spots in eastern Massachusetts, remnants of the forest past can still be found. These days, we call such places old growth. They give us a taste of what once was. On the old-growth sites, we’ve found eastern hemlocks and black gums nearly 500 years old. Sugar maples, yellow birches, American beeches and northern red oaks exceed 300 years. Other species are between 200 and 300 years old. They often grow in places that were not settled until the mid-1700s.

Some old trees are large, some are not. Tree size in old growth depends more on growing conditions than age. In the least favorable growing spots, trees are often stunted, but can easily be 250 years old.

Besides old growth, there are locations where re-growth forests have matured into exceptional woodlands. It will surprise many Massachusetts residents to learn that great white pines, comparable to what grew in the past, have returned in a few places, including the Connecticut River Valley and the Berkshire-Taconic region. At Mohawk Trail State Forest in Charlemont, for example, pines that sprouted during the Civil War grow to exceptional heights. The tallest accurately measured tree in New England—169.3 feet—grows there. Eighty-six white pines in Mohawk reach heights of 150 feet or more.

My organization, the Eastern Native Tree Society (www.nativetreesociety.org), finds and documents exceptional forests and trees, and when we initially set out to gather information about the Bay State’s forests, we didn’t expect it to offer much. But 15 years of searching, measuring and comparing shows Massachusetts to have areas of special forest that compare with the best we’ve found in New England—if not the entire Northeast. And while the acreages of old-growth and spectacular second-growth forests aren’t large, these inspiring woodlands remind us not only of what once grew, but what can grow again.

Take some time to visit Mohawk Trail State Forest—nearby and truly exceptional. It’s the forest icon of Massachusetts: window to the past and inspiration for the present.

Bob Leverett, co-founder and executive director of the Eastern Native Tree Society, and co-founder and president of Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest, is the coauthor of The Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient Forests of the Northeast.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

One response to “Old-Growth Forests: Windows to the Past”

  1. Jamie Anderson says:

    I was wondering if you had contact info for Bob Leverett. I teach a Natural History course at Northampton High and would love to try to get in touch with him for some class ideas!

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