By 1830 in Massachusetts, wood was in such demand that fences were made of field stone instead of split rails. Widespread clearing of first-growth timber for charcoal operations in the eighteenth century continued and expanded during the nineteenth century as Massachusetts entered the height of agriculture and the cusp of the industrial revolution. Concerned that the Commonwealth would soon lack sufficient timber to meet its fuel and construction needs, Massachusetts conducted a statewide forest survey. Not every town participated, but the results indicate that more than 2/3 of Massachusetts – essentially all but the built areas, the least productive land and steepest slopes- had been deforested.
The largest remaining woodlands in 1830 were not in the Berkshire Hills but in the Plymouth pinelands and Bristol County and on Cape Cod. Forest stands were primarily young trees or sprout woodlands cut on very short rotations. Meadowlarks and Bobolinks thrived in the expansive grasslands, while forest nesting birds had all but vanished. The village streets were lined with ranks of American Elms – Sheffield planted over a thousand in the 1840s - and in central and south western Massachusetts, as much as half the forest trees were a single dominant species: the American Chestnut.
Between then and now, the New England forest has undergone a remarkable recovery. About 70% of Massachusetts today is in forest cover. Indeed, cut-over properties acquired by the Commonwealth in the last hundred years such as Cookson State Park now are densely forested and contain some of our loveliest and most productive woodlands. Our forests today contain predominantly 60-90 year old trees, but we lack both the very young and very old stands that should ideally be part of the forest mosaic. Agricultural abandonment, the development of fuels replacing wood, a more mobile population and the growth of urban areas all contributed to the return of the forest of today, but it is a new forest facing both regional and global threats.
To understand what we have recovered and still stand to lose, it helps to see our forest from a global perspective. The temperate broadleaf forest system of eastern North America represents one of Earth’s major habitat types. This type of forest is also represented in the broadleaf forests of China and Japan, which share many of the same characteristics as our own woodlands but contain species that evolved separately. With the global movement of plant material, unwanted organisms and invasive species are able to leap over vast distances and overwhelm native species at an unprecedented rate.
Asian and European Chestnuts developed resistance to a fungus that has so devastated American Chestnuts that this tree today has vanished as a canopy species. Dutch Elm Disease and the Elm Bark Beetle likewise destroyed those grand avenues of American Elms and new introduced pests and pathogens – Sudden Oak Death, Emerald Ash Borer, Asian Longhorn Beetle, and Hemlock Woolly Adelgid – have the potential to radically alter our woodlands in the coming years. The southern Berkshires are confronting the leading edge of the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid invasion, and while bio-control measures have been attempted with mixed success, a program of early detection and rapid response offers the best chance to prevent those pests and pathogens not already present from becoming established.
There is another hopeful sign. Today, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has enrolled all its publicly held forestland – nearly 500,000 acres- under Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. Among the requirements of this highly regarded program of “green” certification is the establishment of forest reserves where commercial forestry will not take place and old growth characteristics can eventually develop. Approximately 50,000 acres of large reserves and another 50,000 acres of small reserves are proposed by the Commonwealth, leaving 80% of public forest lands for various sustainable uses, including forestry where appropriate. Public hearings are underway for these proposed reserves and management plans for public lands, and these will benefit from broad citizen involvement and discussion. The future of the Massachusetts forest may indeed be impacted by external forces, but today as in 1830, the choices made by those who live with this resource will tell the most.