Swamps, stewardship and conservation: What does it mean to care for a forest?

By Christine Hatch for the Gazette
June 6, 2024

Bellatrix Delfino measures and Peyton Ewan notes the ecohydrologic variables in a middle-aged Atlantic White Cedar swamp, Blackwater State Forest in Kingston. CONTRIBUTED/CHRISTINE HATCH

Swamps are great story villains. They are notoriously difficult to navigate due to their sinking sticky mud, spiked vines and dense vegetation; they are neither fully land nor water, negating boats and footwear as helpful vessels for traversing them; and black, smelly, organic-rich waters and sparse sunlight add to the impenetrable mystery. In short, they have the perfect protective outerwear to shield them from human predators — at least for a while.

I used to think that in order to conserve nature, we had to wall it off and protect it from all outside influences, especially our meddling human selves. I thought that left to its own devices, the natural world would restore itself to balance.

Unfortunately, not only was I mistaken in that notion, but also, we have so thoroughly disrupted planet earth, that even protected inside a fortress, a reserve of nature would still be subject to larger human influences including climate warming and intensification caused by loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, acid rain, nutrient and chemical additions to waters, and near-extinction of apex predators keeping the wild food web in balance. This made sense to me for animal food webs, but could the same be true for forest ecosystems?

In our work restoring cranberry farms to freshwater wetlands, we always ask, “restore to what?” Should we be aiming for the first-generation ecosystems to develop after the glaciers retreated? The peatlands that followed? The Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) swamps that dominated peat-filled kettle holes 9,000 years later? And, for each of those ecosystems, we might wish to know whether they were controlled by a single dominant species or condition; or whether they were merely transitional assemblages evolving from one grouping to the next.

At the same time, I’ve wondered what our predecessors on this land thought about these restoration projects. Like so many of my white colleagues in 2020, I sent out a few emails to inquire, and received a justified radio silence. Part of the problem was the idea of land ownership.

Sphagnum moss in Blackwater State Forest in Kingston. CONTRIBUTED/LILY ATTIAS-INZANO

When a person owns a piece of land, it has been historically treated as a commodity, there to produce wealth. However, when the person is beholden to the land for their well-being, they are more likely to enter into a relationship to that land, nurture it, give back to it, and share its bounty, but not to an extent that leaves it barren for the next human, or other living thing to come along. I have this same argument with so-called “ecosystem services,” (like flood protection, carbon sequestration, and water purification, to name a few) which are framed in terms of their monetary worth to humans.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, my students and I have been out measuring numerous variables in mature Atlantic White Cedars (AWC) swamps, trying to find the conditions that are most conducive to a healthy forest. In many forests, having trees of different ages seems to ensure forest health, since the young can grow up to replace the old. As we started looking, we found many stands that were extremely dense and dark, and seemed to be of relatively uniform age, with no young or seedlings — what was going wrong?

Around that time I got a call from Jennifer Albertine of Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust (MGLCT) and Andre StrongBearHeart, founder of the Nipmuc cultural heritage non-profit No Loose Braids who wanted to talk to me after reading my past Earth Matters column on AWC swamps.

Together we’ve begun to explore different ways of knowing these trees, and what it means to restore their health. Organically, a cooperative began to form, ranging from non-profits to government agencies and small land trusts, all interested in AWC health. From our very different perspectives, we found that the seedlings clearly needed sunlight and open patches to regenerate.

And it seems that AWC are a disturbance species — they tend to regenerate most effectively after a large disturbance. When there was significantly less development on the landscape, a hurricane or fire (or later, a clearcut) might wipe out a stand of mature AWC, leaving the open, saturated peatland available for recolonization by AWC. And if the seedbank were activated all at once, the new trees would all grow up and be roughly the same age. Andre told me that historically, Native peoples in our region would actively steward these swamps, clearing out deadwood and making small openings in the forest cover with fire or selected cuttings where new seedlings could grow in the sun. Rather than waiting for catastrophe by hurricane, people were the (deliberately limited) disturbance and created healthy, mixed-age forests.

Peyton Ewan navigates a uniform-aged Atlantic White Cedar swamp, in Blackwater State Forest in Kingston. CONTRIBUTED/CHRISTINE HATCH

Here’s where my assumptions, and those of prevailing conservation law, were challenged. In a disturbance-driven ecosystem, if all of the trees are wiped out over here, conservation law assumes the mature trees over there will provide enough seed to replace the damaged area. But if the forests are too far apart to share seed, or there are too few open areas to occupy, what will become of these species? And, if people are prohibited from thinning too-dense stands, or removing dead wood that would shade out seedlings, or applying limited controlled burns, how will these isolated stands of AWC survive? In addition to rematriating culturally important lands, allowing access for this kind of indigenous stewardship is central to the important Land Back work being conducted by No Loose Braids in partnership with MGLCT and others.

What does it mean to care for a forest in the Anthropocene era, when we (humans) have occupied and transformed so much of earth’s surface; fragmenting some rare ecosystems that have nevertheless persisted in their isolation? Perhaps those among us who still remember how to nurture these trees can help teach the rest of us how to listen to the forest.

Christine Hatch (she/her) is research-extension liaison for the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, and extension professor of Water Resources and Climate Change in the Earth, Geographic, and Climate Sciences Department at University of Massachusetts Amherst. She works on ecohydrology, river flooding, and wetland restoration of cranberry bogs.

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 15 years. HCE’s mission is to educate and to inspire action for a healthy planet. Our Living Building and trails are open to all at 845 West St. in Amherst. To learn more, visit hitchcockcenter.org.

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