We moved to Canaan (NY) in 1970 and, as a young boy, one of my most vivid memories is of walking through a Red Pine plantation in the woods behind our house. The tall, straight, light-barked trees aligned in regular rows lorded over a clean and cushy covering of pine needles. The combination of surprising, all-encompassing symmetry and a feeling akin to walking on a water mattress made the experience other-worldly.
I did not at the time ask myself where that plantation came from nor where it might be going. Neither my parents nor I had any inkling of a ‘what should we do with it?’ sort of question. And yet, encapsulated in the history of that stand are the histories of many stands throughout the County and perhaps the region – the story of the forgotten tree plantation.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, New York State land use visionaries, especially those in the eastern half of the State, had a quandary. For a variety of reasons (including the opening up of the fertile Midwest and a large-scale conversion to corn-based dairy), many former farm fields were being abandoned. For example, in 1925 it was estimated by Vaughan that New York had 4,500,000 acres less farmland than in 1880, the approximate peak of agricultural clearing. That amounted to about 15% of the State’s land cover, an area roughly equal to that of Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Dutchess, Ulster, Orange, Sullivan, Putnam and Rockland counties combined. In Columbia County alone, we estimate that improved farmland dropped by around 100,000 acres or more than 25% during the same period.
Reforestation was one way to fill this void. As Vaughan also put it, “The vast areas of idle land in the State are not only non-productive but they have a very depressing influence on agriculture and on the State as a whole…. In order that such land be kept from [unprofitable] agricultural production and still not remain idle and unproductive, reforestation has been suggested as the logical remedy.”
Perhaps inspired in part by German forestry, creating plantations became a focus of reforestation efforts. But what to plant? For several reasons, conifers seemed the logical answer: for example, White Pine was an eager old field volunteer, reflecting the ability of pines to grow on open land; pines tended to grow tall and straight in plantations; and the oft-erroneous vision of the primal pine forest perhaps helped to convince foresters of the long-term appropriateness and ease of growing such species. The State grew and planted millions of conifer seedlings. Between 1909 and 1952, over 790,000,000 trees were reportedly distributed. The vast majority of these were conifers, with White Pine, Red Pine, Scotch Pine and Norway Spruce prominent amongst them. Eventually, Red Pine was apparently favored over White Pine because it seemed more resistant to the pests and diseases that killed or, at least, distorted White Pine thereby reducing its timber value.
While some of these plantations were on public land, many trees were distributed free to private land owners and plantations sprang up on farm fields throughout the region. However, as one prescient former DEC employee noted in 1959,
as every plantation owner knows (including the State of New York), with the trees in the ground the work has just begun. .. These plantations have got to be thinned out, just as you would thin out a row of radishes, if you want a good crop at harvesttime. … The problem – and it’s a very big one- is how to pay for these operations…. I can’t help wondering at times if reforestation, as an economic proposition, hasn’t been oversold, or at least misleadingly advertised to the general public. I’ve seen too many plantations, all over the Northeast, put in with a burst of enthusiasm, patriotism, and great expectations-and then left to take care of themselves when the time comes for somebody else to take care of them.
– Pieter W. Fosburgh, 1959, The Natural Thing: The Land and its Citizens.
Indeed, our landscape is now scattered with forgotten, decaying plantations. As the series of images below illustrate, my magical backyard Red Pine stand was no exception.
In 1942 (above), the future location of that ‘home’ Red Pine stand was clearly open field, one of many in this well-worked landscape. Its microtopography suggests that, at least at some point, it was ploughed ground, not just hayfield or pasture.
By 1952 (above), however, the field had been planted to Red Pine, probably with funding from New York’s Forest Practice Act of 1946. The thick ‘head’ of trees suggest the seedlings had already been in the ground for a few years when that photograph was taken. An oblique view taken around the same time emphasizes how densely the trees were planted.
These trees continued to mature, and, by 1971 (below), they had formed a well-developed stand. The initial photo in this posting was taken at about this time.
A decade later (above), much of the stand was still intact, although holes had begun to appear. During the 1990s, a storm or storms tore apart the stand, breaking off many trunks. I don’t recall the exact meteorology but I do recall that, over a relatively short period of time, the stand collapsed, a startling glimpse of landscape mortality. By 1995 (below), most of the inner pines had evidently died, resulting in a configuration very similar to today’s.
The mere ring of remaining pines in today’s stand (above) outlines a deciduous core. This too was a surprise to me. I had come think that pines begat pines, because their needles so acidified the soil as to rule out other sequences. However, if I were to have looked around me while walking through that 1970s stand, I should have grown suspicious – there were, in fact, no young Red Pines waiting to take their place in the slow-motion relay race of tree generations. Once the adult pines began to topple and light reached the ground, a flurry of deciduous trees started to stretch skyward. Today if one looks into the same stand where the initial photograph was taken (below), it requires imagination to believe it was ever a pine stand. True, a few incongruously tall and skinny Red Pines remain, but they are rapidly being enveloped by Sugar Maple and Black Cherry, together with lesser amounts American Beech, Red Maple, Hop Hornbeam, White and Red Oak, White Ash, and a couple of Hickory species.
This should not have been a surprise. Red Pine is not a common tree in our area; McVaugh’s flora (digitized version courtesy of the NYS Museum), researched during the 1930s, described it as ‘rare’. It is a tree of dry sandy or gravelly soils, not of the loamy soils typical of our Canaan forest. As is true of many plants, that doesn’t mean that, given a head start as this plantation was, Red Pine can’t briefly prosper on a site, but it does mean that, without further human intervention, it will soon lose out to other species which are better able to persist. As a result, barring many new plantings, it is likely that Red Pine, despite its massive inoculation into our flora, will fade away over the coming decades. In fact, we are not sure we have ever found natural Red Pine in Columbia County, although, with a native species like Red Pine, distinguishing natural from planted is not always easy. Not all plantations are set in tidy rows that declare their origins. Aside from checking the soil beneath your feet (is it sandy/gravelly?), a glance at the ground cover may give a hint – according to Fergus (in Trees of New England: A Natural History), a plantation has the typical, pine-needles-only ground cover, whereas a natural stand will likely have populations of acid-tolerant plants such as Star-flower, Blueberry, and Canada Mayflower.
Many stand biographies similar to that outlined here likely exist in the County. We regularly come across fading plantations. They are bittersweet – on the one hand, a dilapidated plantation represents a plan and work that went unrealized; on the other hand, the determination of wild forest to dominate and slowly erase some of our handiwork is encouraging. The mixed forest that emerges will probably be home to a greater diversity of plants and animals than the mono-culture plantation.
And yet, we continue to use wood for paper, fuel and timber. Where should that wood come from?
While it is inconspicuous in some of the above aerials because of its deciduous trees, the plantation lot is bordered to the east by a much older forest that might help inform those questions (below). That adjacent stand had mature trees in the 1942 aerial, and its topography and botany suggest it was never completely cleared. A rocky creek runs through it, springing into being where a gentle dip in the field above it meets the forest land. This is an example of what we call ancient forest – forest that, while some of its individual trees were likely logged, was probably never completely cleared by humans.
Ancient forests can contain relatively rare soil conditions and an unusual ground flora (although, to be honest, the narrow patch beside the plantation has few documented rarities). Although they are now embedded inconspicuously in a matrix of young, post-agricultural forest regrowth (below), such ancient forests deserve to be identified and given conservation preference. In our region, few if any ancient forest stands are primary or old growth forest, indeed many owe their persistence in the landscape to their role as farm woodlots. As such, some careful, continued use might be appropriate, although especial care should be taken to minimize soil disturbance and avoid the introduction of invasive species. However, the primary focus of wood production should be elsewhere in the landscape.