A History of 'Common Forests'

Article excerpt

WORKING TOGETHER FOR A HEALTHIER ENVIRONMENT

Backyard woodlands invite diverse public use and lay the groundwork for cooperation on larger issues. A look at how they began in the United States.

Charting a path through the thicket that is America's conversation about forest use is no simple proposition. Opposing points of view often are firmly fixed, and understandably so. When commercial or industrial access to forest resources is withdrawn or restricted, those whose livelihoods depend on these resources face immediate and potentially severe economic and social consequences.

Yet the history of America's forests shows what amounts to a breach of public trust by private industries. Such influences must be held in check if we are to find balanced policies. The health of our human environments is inseparable from that of our natural environments. We must try to create habitability through meeting human needs by way of an all-inclusive patchwork quilt of land-use ideas.

Community forests offer one such model. Agreeing on how these backyard woodlands should be used lays the groundwork for cooperating on larger issues. And community forests invite diverse public use, accommodating commercial as well as recreational activities and serving as common grounds where these activities' benefits to society become visible to communities at large.

American towns and cities have been practicing forest management for four centuries. Advocates observe that, in community forests, cultural and natural resources blur to the extent that distinctions become unnecessary. Clearly, in the quest for habitable environments for all species, community forests are a valuable piece of any land-use quilt.

America's ancient continuum of forest and community can be divided into five distinct categories: common lands, public lands, town forests, watershed plantations, and forest parks; lands owned by local conservation commissions, which gained popularity after 1960, are a sixth category. Familiar woodland ethics include: utility accompanied by stewardship; forests' contributions to community structure; European influence; and local efforts by foresters and surveyors for forest use and conservation.

Forested common lands comprised substantial segments of America's colonial 17th century towns, particularly in New England, where town proprietors established community settlements and controlled property divisions. Lands surrounding village centers were called the "common and undivided," and great woods, cedar swamps, pine plains, cow commons, ox pastures, and great meadows all were important segments of community structure. All, too, were used for forest resources in one form or another.

As woodlands quickly became depleted in these early settlements, proprietors in many towns began practicing stewardship, turning to customs transplanted from rural England, where the practice of culling forest resources without killing trees had long been established. Unfortunately, common lands steadily dwindled, and by 1700 most had vanished into private hands.

Yet proprietors in a few communities granted land to be held perpetually common, suggesting a focus on horizons more distant than immediate utility. Brunswick Commons in Brunswick, Maine, is one of the best examples of a proprietor's grant for unspecified public benefit. The town was chartered in 1717 by a group of Boston investors who reserved a thousand acres for perpetual common use. Until the latter decades of the 19th century, however, the commons endured an uneasy existence, vulnerable to encroachment, fires, neglect, and efforts by town officials to sell it.

Community interest finally prevailed, and the Brunswick Village Improvement Society began a plantation of white pine in 1900, on the eve of the town forest movement. Today, although diminished in size, this community woodland pays tribute to the foresight of Brunswick's planners and exemplifies one of New England's earliest planted town forests unrelated to watershed protection. …