Magazine article Insight on the News

Good News Is That Bad News Is Wrong: Despite the Almost-Constant Warnings of an Impending Ecological Doom, Forests in the Eastern United States Are Flourishing and Once-Endangered Animals Are Abundant. (Special Report)

Magazine article Insight on the News

Good News Is That Bad News Is Wrong: Despite the Almost-Constant Warnings of an Impending Ecological Doom, Forests in the Eastern United States Are Flourishing and Once-Endangered Animals Are Abundant. (Special Report)

Article excerpt

By October of 1630 the tadpole-shaped peninsula called Boston had 150 English-speaking residents. Led by John Winthrop, the colony's first governor, these Puritan emigrants virtually began the historical process in which large numbers of recent European arrivals settled and subdued Massachusetts Bay and the North American environment during the next three-and-one-half centuries.

With each austere-living family constructing a wooden home and fencing an adjacent garden, Bostonians by the 1640s already were traversing the Charles River to gather firewood and building materials as precious timber close at hand virtually had been erased. As early as the winter of 1637-38, Winthrop noted, Boston was "almost ready to break up for want of wood."

Peter Dunwiddie, a plant ecologist with the Nature Conservancy in Washington state, has studied core samples of bogs and swamps on Cape Cod, looking at microscopic pollen to determine what was growing there and on the proximate islands about the time the Pilgrims landed in nearby Plymouth, Mass. His research shows the development of English settlements.

"Literally in a matter of decades the forest was cleared," Dunwiddie says. "There is no more oak pollen, and all of a sudden lots of grass pollen. That persisted throughout much of the following couple of hundred years" as Europeans transformed most of the area into a giant sheep pasture. The cleric Timothy Dwight wrote in 1821 that "almost all the original forests of [southern New England] had long since been cut down."

Dwight also reported that the 240-mile journey from Boston to New York City passed through no more than 20 miles of forest. Surveying the changes wrought by farmers and loggers miles upstream from the coast near Dover, N.H., Dwight wrote, "The forests are not only cut down, but there appears little reason to hope that they will ever grow again."

One easily can see evidence today of that deforestation throughout most areas of New England with a short walk in what once more are woods. The ubiquitous rock walls of New England's currently wooded areas mark the edges of erstwhile farms abandoned years ago.

The widespread deforestation centuries ago was due to farming and wood being used for virtually everything--home construction, of course, but mostly for heating and cooking. According to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the amount of forested land in Massachusetts drastically decreased from 4.63 million acres in 1630 to 2 million acres in 1907. Maryland went from 5.73 million acres to 2.2 million acres, Rhode Island from 650,000 acres to 250,000 acres and Delaware from 1.13 million acres to 350,000 acres.

And with the stripping of the forests and increased hunting came a depopulation of the animals that lived among the trees. The environment as a whole was changing radically.

But it was not only the new arrivals from European shores that altered the landscape. American Indians prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims also had a great effect on the land, though not as much on a per capita basis as the new Europeans. Human destruction of the forests did not start with the English, Spanish or French, as the Indian natives affected tens-of-millions of acres. The American forests first seen by the new English colonists in the 17th century were far from primordial.

Doug MacCleery of the USFS in Washington says the American Indians "burned forests to grow crops and create grasslands and prairies to increase the numbers of the game they hunted." Indians also burned down trees to make it easier to travel, create open space around their villages to hinder sneak attacks from their enemies and as a hunting method to drive animals into enclosures, MacCleery says. "There was lots of grassland in Ohio and along the eastern coast as a result of Indian burning."

Indeed, the names given to venues by Indians often had to do with the area's agricultural purposes, which meant clearing trees. …

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