The trees we have to use and enjoy are the trees that have been spared and planted by those who have lived before us. Making an investment in the future, as they have for the last 18 years, the Friends of the Trees and the Groton Garden Club held a festive family Arbor Day celebration Sunday, May 18 at the entrance to the Lawrence Playground off Broadmeadow Road.
About 20 official Friends of the Trees, members of the Garden Club, and simple friends of trees attended, and heard that Groton has been selected again as a Tree City USA.
Celebrating Arbor Day annually is one of the requirements for the “Tree City USA” designation given to Groton by the National Arbor Day Foundation and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation Urban and Community Forestry Program. There was tree-inspired music, the giving away of Black Hills White Spruce seedlings, and the planting of a tree, a water-tolerant Bald Cypress that should thrive in the high groundwater level near the Broadmeadow wetlands. This species, in its native southern range, reaches maturity in 200 years, with some specimens’ age figured at 1,200 years old.
Nearly all trees have a longer life span than we humans. The trees we plant ourselves, we will mostly witness as saplings. Dying older trees that sprouted long before we were born are often spared the ax, like beloved pets we can’t put down. Their usefulness continues after death though, as snags provide a space for greater biodiversity.
If we can’t see the life span of individual trees, we can barely fathom the life cycle of a forest. It takes about 150-200 years for a meadow in New England to progress to a climax hardwood forest. The middle part of that succession cycle is dominated by white pine. Natural disturbances, like fire and windthrow, reset the cycle, so there are always different age forests that support a variety of plant and animal life.
The greatest disturbance to the New England forest occurred with European colonization. The amazing abundance of large trees must have been a heady sight for the first settlers. They put those trees to use as ship masts, lumber, fuel, furniture, fencing, and even burned them for charcoal and potash fertilizer.
Almost all the original forest was cut down for an even greater treasure, land to be farmed. Less than 1,500 acres of original Old Growth Forest still exists in Massachusetts, in steep mountainous areas that were extremely unconducive to farming. The Mohawk Trail in western Massachusetts has some trees that are 500 years old. A stand of Old Growth Forest close to Groton can be found on Mount Wachusett.
Those early farmers may have rued the loss of easy firewood, but when the fertile virgin forest soils played out, their loss was more catastrophic. By the 1850s, New Englanders started abandoning their farms, moving to industrial pursuits and west where there was always more land and forest.
The end of the western frontier came sooner than expected, and at the turn of the century some Americans, led by President Teddy Roosevelt, who was familiar with Western natural treasures, began to consider forest benefits, like erosion control, water quality, and the sustenance of wildlife. Ironically, the last major timbering of Old Growth Forest in the East happened in 1912, when the 300-acre Colebrook forest was felled in Northwestern Connecticut. It had been studied and photographed by Yale ecologist G.E. Nichols, who saw the cut as a catastrophic loss for scientific understanding of the forests.
By that time, coal had supplanted firewood, but forests were still an important resource for timber. Other Americans, like Groton’s William P. Wharton, started to experiment with ways to sustainably manage forests. Noted for his bird-banding efforts at his farm on Broadmeadow Rd., Wharton began buying up adjoining parcels of abandoned farmlands and planting them with pine trees. In 1968 he gave his 722 acre plantation to the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF), which he helped to found. He had persuaded the town to establish the Memorial Town Forest in 1922.
Early twentieth century forests were attacked by two different foreign fungi, accidentally introduced in shipments of exotic plants. The chestnut blight went on to destroy what had been a keystone species in the whole Appalachian range, the American Chestnut. Chestnut saplings still spring up from the roots of these trees in Groton, and for the past few decades, successful efforts have been underway nationally to back breed a blight — proof tree. The American Elm was hit by a separate fungus, which caused widespread but not total loss from Dutch Elm Disease.
These setbacks to the restoration of old growth forests were magnified by the Hurricane of 1938. It was an event unprecedented in living memory (an earlier hurricane had destroyed forests in 1815). It blew down every tree of considerable size in New England, including all the old elms along Main Street in Groton. As there were yet no chain saws to use, much of the windthrow lay piled up for the rest of the Depression Era years.
The Federal government bought up some of the timber and used it in the building of Fort Deven. In April 1941, a portion of the downed woods near the Dunstable border started to burn. The fire lasted three days, burning in a circle as wind changes spared Groton Center. A swath of woods was destroyed from the Dunstable line through Westford’s Graniteville and Forge Village, including the pines in the Wharton Plantation, and hundreds of thousands of board feet of cut timber waiting to be moved to mills. The Groton forests started the journey to old growth again.
It’s now been 75 years since the hurricane and fire. As the New England forests came back a new generation began to understand the forests’ role in cleaning the air and water, and the importance of biodiversity. They realized there was a second chance to save the forests. Groton’s Conservation Commission was formed in 1963 and the next year saw the beginning of the Groton Conservation Trust. Over 8,000 acres of forest lands have been protected by these and several other groups in town.
Massachusetts has 3 million acres of forest now, but loses about 40 acres a day to development. There are new threats to its biodiversity. Invasive plants destroy or replace native vegetation, and invasive insects are targeting hemlocks and ash. Global climate warming will mean the loss of species, like sugar maples, that depend on cooler summers. The forest themselves are valuable carbon sinks, storing up to 43% of New England’s carbon emissions, just one of the estimated billions of dollars’ worth of ecosystem services they are providing.
“Wildlands and Woodlands: A Vision for the New England Landscape,” a report published in 2010 and updated in 2012, www.wildlandsandwoodlands.org envisions the selective conservation of 70% of New England’s remaining forests, with sustainable logging encouraged in most areas, and an increase in agricultural land.
In includes this fact: “Eighty-five percent of the region’s forests are privately owned, much of it in small parcels. The single most important action that we can take today is to help those landowners maintain their forested and other natural landscapes through permanent conservation on a collective scale that allows natural and human communities to flourish for the many generations that follow.”