With the introduction of settlers to New England in the 1600’s, deforestation occurred at a rapid pace. This was major product of the agricultural growth of farms and lumber production. Vermont and Massachusetts were major areas for lumbering due to their location near bodies of water, while other areas became farmland. By the 1850’s forest to land percentage was at an all-time low with less than 40% of the land being forested, and so was the population of wildlife in the area. After the settlers abandoned the farms and lumber mills spread out across the area, natural reforestation occurred and gradually the forests resembled what they were pre-settlement. This allowed for a rapid increase of animal and plant life in the area, and made New England the most forested location in the United States with about 80% of the land being forested.
Deforestation by Early Settlers
When the early settlers came to New England, it was a land full of vast forests and hills. This terrain was hard to traverse due to the amount of trees and foliage covering the land. Once settlements were created, people needed better land to support livestock and farming. This when mass deforestation happened, making room for large farms and towns to support the new citizens. Over time, this deforestation ran the percentage of forests in the area to below 40% of the land, a number significantly less than what can be seen today (Nickerson, 2013). This had dire consequences for the wildlife of the area, causing a migration of most forest-dwelling animals out of the area. By the 20th century many native wildlife were at an all-time low, such as the deer population in Massachusetts being down to the hundreds. The positive effects of this change was the ability for some species to thrive due to the lack of presence from their natural predator (such as fish as bears were less common) (Nickerson, 2013).
The Abandonment of Farms
By the mid 1800’s farming and logging became less important to the settlers, so many moved into towns or other areas of North America, leaving their farms abandoned. Before the Civil War, many moved their farmlands to more viable locations such as the Appalachians, and industry caused a collapse in mills and machine tool factories (Nickerson, 2013). Within 100 years the forests began to repopulate the areas that were left, spreading across vast baron fields. Much of this reforestation was natural, however it was a slow process. When this began, the percentage of New England forests to land was at its lowest, however over the time of the process it began to resemble to vast land of trees and shrubs it was before the settlers came. This also brought back many of the species of wildlife that had disappeared from the deforestation (Nickerson, 2013).
Modern New England Forests
Modern-day New England has the highest forest to land ratio among all of the in-land states in the USA. As depicted in Figure 1, the area around Swift River Valley, Petersham Massachusetts in the late 1800’s was mostly barren, with farms inhabiting the area. Modern-day Swift River Valley holds a dense forest that covers nearly every inch of land. Along with the return of the forests, projects to remove dams from the New England Rivers has been underway, with nearly 96 dams cleared (Nickerson, 2013). Both of these changes have brought many of the species of wildlife back, which has had both positive and negative consequences. With the return of wildlife such as deer and bears, other forms of wildlife have become naturally regulated such as fish and bees. The deer population in Massachusetts rose from the dangerously low population in the hundreds to nearly 85,000. However, with the forests so close to civilization, there have been issues of wildlife in towns or near homes. This has caused many incidents of moose attacking or accidently killing civilians, or bears destroying property. There has also been an issue of flying wildlife such as hawks, which completely disappeared during the deforestation period, returning and attacking household pets (Nickerson, 2013).
Areas of Major Reforestation
Vermont Logging and Reforestation
The famous lake that Burlington, Vermont peers over, Lake Champlain, was created during the glacial period, known by older geologists as the Champlain Epoch. When the ice melted, and the water withdrew into the sea, the leftover water created Lake Champlain and the connecting rivers. This left the land with various species of trees, mainly a large population of white pine. This changed drastically, however, prior to the Civil War due to Vermont being a prime location for logging (Howe, 1910). By the mid 1800’s the White Pine in the Vermont area was nearly extinct, causing the region to have to import the wood from Canada instead. This saved the White Pine from complete extinction, and gave the Pitch Pine precedence over the region. This complete change was crucial to the environment in the area, as the species of shrubs and flora changed with the change in trees (Howe, 1910).
By 1905 Vermont was down to about 38.4% forested, which was a major decline from the 98.7% of forested area that existed before the settlers came (Merrill, 1947). The area lacked farms, however, due to the reckless deforestation and fires that were common in the area due to settlers and trains. This caused the land to be cheap by the late 1800’s, however it did not stop the production of lumber. In efforts to stop the rapid deforestation, the state issued principles to farms and lumber mills, as well as dedicated money to stopping railroad-caused fires (Merrill, 1947).
It was not until 1906 that the state took action toward reforestation to save the species of trees that were otherwise being driven to extinction. Laws were set in place to establish a state nursery which distributed seedlings to landowners in an effort of reforestation. In 1907 approximately 30,000 white pine and 5,000 black locust seedlings were distributed, and in the following century over 31,000,000 trees were planted throughout Vermont (Merrill, 1947). The reforestation by the state was for economic purposes exclusively. It was a political belief that idle land was a liability, and that forests were necessary for many reasons. They found that the forests aided in the control of water by stabilizing river flow, prevent soil erosion, and are viable for recreation centers (Merrill, 1947).
Due to the restorative efforts of the state of Vermont, the percentage of forested land rose from 38.4% to approximately 66.7%. This was not only from the dispersal of saplings to the surrounding farms, but the establishment of state parks and recreational areas. Figure 2 shows the areas the state has declared as national forests, which spans over 580,500 acres of land. While lumber-harvesting is still a major operation in Vermont, the state has made efforts toward keeping the forest natural and unharmed, being deemed “The Green Mountain State” (Merrill, 1947).
Massachusetts Agricultural Deforestation and Reforestation
Much of the Massachusetts area, such as Cape Cod and the Commonwealth, were deforested for the purpose of agriculture and settlement purposes by the mid 1800’s. In 1725 Massachusetts used land grants for debt payment, spreading across the state and causing mass forest destruction. This started off slow due to the lack of markets to handle the excess production, which wasted much of the lumber taken (O’Keefe and Foster, 1998). Much of the lumber that was being produced only had local value, so exporting it to other counties was no financially stable. This makes sense as the other areas being settled were also producing lumber, making lumber production for local use only. This did not stop the overproduction of lumber, however, which is why the forests were devastated. Figure 3 depicts the changes in forest percentage to land between the years of 1720 and 1980. Before the early settlers started to effect the land, it was nearly 100% forest, however by the mid 1800’s that number dropped below 40%, with certain areas such as Prospect Hill and Petersham dropping below 25% (O’Keefe and Foster, 1998). However, after 1850 when lumbering became less critical to the settlers, reforestation started to occur both naturally and artificially. Efforts were made to help forests reclaim the land, causing the percentage to rise to over 80% in most areas around Massachusetts by 1980 (O’Keefe and Foster, 1998). Figure 4 shows a direct map of forested land to open land in both 1830 and 1985 in Petersham, Massachusetts. In 1830, much of the land was open, inhabited by farms and mills. The forests were sporadically placed around the area, which was not suitable for wildlife and natural tree production. However, after the abandonment of farms and the efforts for reforestation the land became mostly forest, as seen in the 1985 map. By this time, open area was nearly eradicated, and forests dominated. This was economically significant, as the new forests allowed lumbering to occur again, however at a slower pace that was sustainable for the forests located in the area (O’Keefe and Foster, 1998).
Other Reforested Locations around New England
Vermont and Massachusetts were the largest areas of reforestation in New England. This was mainly due to their locations near large bodies of water, which allowed the transportation of lumber with river currents. However, places like New Hampshire and Connecticut were also deforested on a large scale for farmlands and agriculture. Dairy farms, orchards, truck crops, and specialty items were found in these areas, while farms were less prevalent in Vermont and Massachusetts (Foster, 2004). Furthermore, the rivers that were in these areas were typically used for dams, providing hydroelectric power to nearby settlements. Over time, however, these dams were abandoned and eventually destroyed to allow water to flow freely again in an effort to revitalize the area. Forests gradually returned to these New England settlements after the mass abandonment in the mid 1800’s (Foster, 2004).
The Effects of Reforestation throughout New England
After the settlers left the farms and mills, and forests returned to the area, there was a noticeable difference in the species of plants and wildlife inhabiting these forests when compared to pre-settlement. Due to the mass-use of white pine in lumbering, which was the dominant species of tree prior to deforestation due to its versatility and fast growth, there is a significant decrease in its presence (Foster, 2004). Figure 5 represents the change in forest cover by state and population growth between the 17th and 21st century. This graph provides a visual representation of the major decline in forested land during the settler period, and the rise in forest cover after 1850. While population continues to rise, reforestation of the cleared landscape allowed some states to return their forest cover percentages back to an above 70% level (Matera, 2012). In terms of wildlife, many species of animal (such as snakes and spiders) had disappeared completely from the area, and the population of deer and bears became dangerously low. With the regrowth of the forest, the wildlife population sprung back at a rapid pace. While this was a major benefit of the reforestation, it also caused an overpopulation of certain species of predators and large animals that can be found in suburban areas. However, overall the reforestation harboured positive outcomes for New England in terms of both sustainability and economy (Nickerson, 2013).