Air Date: Week of January 1, 1993
Steve travels into the forest of western Massachusetts with old-growth hunter Bob Leverette. Leverette is documenting the large and small old-growth stands that remain in the northeastern US.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Old-growth forests: usually one thinks of the Pacific Northwest, where the largest tracts of virgin forest in the continental United States still exist. But even such densely populated states as Massachusetts have patches of old-growth forest. Not much, just tiny artifacts of what originally covered much of the eastern United States.
LEVERETT: The colonial side of New England, which attracts so many people is great, but it misses something. There's a precolonial and to have it all here from presettlement forests to colonial America to post colonial America, we have it all in this state.
CURWOOD: Bob Leverett is a computer consultant in Holyoke, Massachusetts. But on weekends, and many days in between, he becomes a natural historian. He scouts out and documents stands of old growth trees. Here in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, they range in size from a couple of acres to a couple of hundred. On a cold winter's morning in the country town of Charlemont, a hundred miles or so west of Boston, Bob Leverett takes us into the Mohawk State Forest.
LEVERETT: This spot is the confluence of Black Brook and Cole River. There's somewhere between 3 and 5 hundred acres of what we would call the ancient or presettlement forest. We are going to be seeing trees like that up on this ridge.
CURWOOD: Now how late into the season do you do this? Do you go out all winter?
LEVERETT: Yes, except these ridges become treacherous once the snow falls. We are going to be cutting up actually---
CURWOOD: I am going to need both hands for this, aren't I . . .
(Sound of climbing)
CURWOOD: Hand over hand, searching for footholds, we pull ourselves up the steep side of the ridge. We grab onto thin tree trunks and shrubs which grow straight out from the nearly vertical face of the slope and then take a sharp turn skyward. Near the top we stop in what looks like a rather unassuming spot. But to the trained eye of a natural historian, it's easy to see that these trees have remained undisturbed for more than two centuries.
LEVERETT: Look at this one over here, Steve. The coloration is toward the cinnamon and I have not found any trees of sucacana canadensis with this coloration and depth of furrowing that have been under 150 years and typically they are over two. This is probably a 230 to 250 year old tree. If you look at the younger trees, you can find younger trees around, probably have to walk over this way a little ways because almost all of these are over here, so you've gotta -- now you'll notice that there the bark is thinner and thickness of bark is certainly an indication of age. Size is much much less so.
CURWOOD: Rooted only in a very thin layer of topsoil and on the exposed side of the ridge, the growth of the trees is stunted. But while that steep slope slowed tree growth, it also saved the land from being cleared. There are some big trees ahead, our guide says, though they make up only a tiny fraction of the ancient forest. We hike a little further along the backbone of the ridge and then down the inside the north slope of the gorge. Here protected from the elements, we find them.
CURWOOD: Hey hey, now, take a look at this size of this one. This is a pretty big tree here.
LEVERETT: Yeah, this is monster-sized. What I'm going to do here is get a circumference measurement on it . . .
CURWOOD: Too thick for two people to reach around, the huge hemlock towers more than a hundred feet above the forest floor. Leverett estimates the tree is 250 to maybe 300 years old, and there are five or six such giants scattered over an acre or two of land. And uphill, closest to the top of the ridge is a fifteen-foot high stump of a fallen hemlock.
(Climbing sound) Bracing ourselves against some debris left by the downed tree, we climb towards the top of the stump.
LEVERETT: Whoops -- you all right?
CURWOOD: I'm fine, it's just a little steep here.
CURWOOD: Once I'm back on my feet, Leverett uses the fallen tree to glean some history of this old growth stand. Although the stump is hollow with rot, he is able to count the tree's remaining annual growth rings and make a fairly accurate estimate of its age.
LEVERETT: Fifteen, seventeen, eighteen. That reflects a fairly fast growth. (counts silently) Now notice here you speed up again. This was probably water cycles, you know, wet years, dry years cycles. (counts silently) Okay, this is going to be probably about 230, to 240 years in age. And that makes me think that the larger one down there, that age of 250 to 300 is about right.
Now you notice over here on this ridge, you've got a big patch of hemlock. Now that is old forest in there and it's old forest right around in this bowl, but it is not all uniformly hemlock. A lot of it is yellow birch, black birch, sugar maple, white ash, red maple. As you look up that side you also see stems of white birch. If we start seeing too much white birch then that really spells major disturbance and opening. Toward the top it probably reflects colonial or post colonial fires coming from I would imagine clearing operations from the top. Slash catching on fire. But it comes to the edge and essentially then most of it stops. These north facing bowls just don't burn.
CURWOOD: The north facing slopes hold moisture better, so it was harder for settlers to burn away the trees and clear the land for pasture. Just as Brazilian settlers today make their way deeper and deeper into the Amazon, Americans worked their way out from the East Coast, slashing and burning as they went, leaving only pockets of virgin vegetation in their wake.
CURWOOD: Now with the vegetation are there other animals or other plants that can only be in this kind of old growth forest?
LEVERETT: probably not. These areas are far too small, too fragmented to harbor any species that are strictly associated with old growth. We haven't found any in Massachusetts.
CURWOOD: No spotted owl, is there?
LEVERETT: No spotted owl in these areas.
CURWOOD: Although no unique plant or animal species have yet to be identified in the tiny old growth stands in Massachusetts, there are other tracts of old growth forest in the East which Leverett says may be more important biologically. In the Adirondacks in New York and in northern Maine , for example, there are thousands of acres of ancient forest which Leverett says, are more than just historical curiosities, and which he says need protection.
LEVERETT: We have something here that is really priceless. It's a piece of America that existed before European colonization. It is as much of history as any item, any ship, any invention that we have. In a sense we've got one last chance to have a piece of our history, to be able to say we as a species can live at harmony with land, but to do that people have got to know about it.
(Sound of running water)
LEVERETT: This is the Black Brook, what we call the Black Brook hemlock stand.
CURWOOD: Just a few acres here.
LEVERETT: Just a few acres. And what's nice here is, people can drive up the road leisurely and see these ancient trees. One of my objectives is to find places that people can get to and see. Because obviously, not everyone is going to do what we just did.
CURWOOD: And for those who can't make it to the woods, Leverett is collaborating on book that will document the story of the surviving forests from southern Canada to the southern United States. A series of old growth stands, in places people never thought to look.
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