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By Nicole Croke

Tracking the decline of New England's forests

Since their formation, Earth's forests have been constantly changing. Species fade in and out of existence, and new lineages develop as our climate changes due to subtle but cataclysmic geologic and galactic events. However, with the growth and spread of the human population and, more prominently, with the onset of industrialization and the development of massive global trade systems, we are looking at a radically altered future for the forests of New England and the world at large.

Turn back the clock a few hundred years to a pre-Columbian America and we see a landscape dominated by massive old-growth forests. The inner forests of Massachusetts alone are marked by towering white pines as well as massive oaks, hickories, and chestnut.

As European settlers begin to arrive and populations expand, white pine with its light wood and straight growth becomes a favored material for construction, leading to the establishment of a flourishing ship building and mast industry. With the revision of the Massachusetts Bay Charter in 1601, the king of England declares all pine exceeding 24 inches in diameter to be property of the crown in order to grow the navy and promote military expansion that cannot be supported by the depleted forests of Western Europe.

Fast forward to the early 1800s. America has won the Revolutionary War and by this time rural Massachusetts is evenly settled. Most rural New Englanders support their families by farming and in order to create space for their crops and livestock, vast portions of land are clear-cut, leaving behind only small, difficult-to-access pockets of growth.

By the beginning of the 1900s, the Northeast is fully industrialized and trade with the world is expanding. Forests are beginning to grow back as farms are abandoned.

The American chestnut, a species that is immortalized in folk culture (think chestnuts roasting on an open fire), is introdued to a foreign blight, originating on an Asiatic species of chestnut that was imported as a novel landscape species. Having no resistance to this new disease, American chestnuts are rapidly infected and largely eradicated from the landscape.

Today, our forests face more threats than ever before. Barraged by climate change and a slew of non-native predators and disease, our forests are ailing. Hemlock, a dense evergreen that provides the shade and lowered temperatures needed to support unique soil species, is under threat by an insect known as the woolly adelgid. Ash, a tree known for its use in the manufacturing of classic baseball bats, is being attacked by the emerald ash borer, a brilliantly colored beetle hailing from Asia. The Asian longhorned beetle, a species with a far less specific taste is boring through thousands of North American trees and damaging their delicate vascular systems.

It is hard to imagine the change that our forests will face in the coming century as prominent species continue to lose to these invasive threats. While aggressive efforts at containment are underway in many of the affected areas, we must race to find a more lasting solution before it is too late.

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