An Explosion of Green

The reforestation of the eastern United States—thanks partly to conservationists and mostly to accident—can show the developing world how to make room for people, farming, industry, and endangered species of plants and animals, which have been returning. We can give the rest of the world a better example if we address the problems that even this fortunate region still faces

ON August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare became the first child born to English parents in the New World. Her birthplace—on Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina—was Britain's first attempt at colonizing this continent, and was the site of the first recorded British murder of an Indian chief. Though Dare's band of settlers did not survive intact, Roanoke Island was the beginning of the historical process in which English-speaking Europeans settled and subdued North America over the next four centuries.

On September 14, 1987, 400 years later, a team of biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office on Roanoke Island opened the gate of a pen and released a pair of red wolves wearing radio collars into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The animals disappeared into the woods perhaps half an hour's drive from the spot where Dare was born. Their species was the first ever to go extinct in the North American wild and then be reintroduced into the natural world from a remnant population in zoos. They were, as surely as Dare, pioneers.

The forces set in motion by European colonization had all but erased red wolves from the continent: settlers made wolves a symbol of the devil, placed bounties on their heads, organized state and federal predator control programs, and farmed and developed their last few strongholds. The Roanoke Island biologists have watched and listened for the past eight years as the animals they released have reproduced and spread across the refuge's swampy, mosquito-infested 150,000 acres. As of this winter the biologists had counted sixty-one wild-born puppies. One wild-born female had borne four litters, and one of her pups had in turn given birth; a third generation of wild red wolves was howling in the night.


FIVE hundred miles to the north, from his home on Nantucket, Peter Dunwiddie, a plant ecologist, studies core samples of swamps and bogs, looking at pollen under a microscope to figure out what was growing on Cape Cod and the neighboring Atlantic islands in the time before and after the Pilgrims debarked in nearby Plymouth. It's easy to spot the onset of European settlement in his pollen samples. "Literally in a matter of decades," he told me recently, "the forest was cleared. There's 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 turned most of the area into a giant sheep pasture.

In the late 1800s, just as the agricultural economy was beginning to dwindle, local residents started taking photographs. In addition to his pollen samples, Dunwiddie has gathered a vast library of original pictures along with ones taken from the same places fifty or a hundred years later. "Here's Prospect Hill, on Martha's Vineyard, in 1916," he said to me, choosing one in which a stone wall marched up and over the top of a hill. "There's not a tree to be seen. The retake of the photo today is entirely of an oak forest—a mature oak forest. You can't see the stone wall; you can barely make out the contours of the hill at all, because of the forest."

The scenario—oak and pitch pine replace pasture—has repeated itself all over the area. "Sometimes we had to use a ladder and a pole to get the camera above the treetops just to take a picture," Dunwiddie said. In his bog cores "the pollen is beginning to resemble the pre-European." Coyotes, which in the 1970s crossed the Cape Cod canal and established themselves on the Cape, have recently managed the ocean crossing to the remote Elizabeth Islands. "They've very quickly decimated the feral sheep that were left out there," Dunwiddie said. "They're taking quite a toll on the deer population. The deer and the sheep had been browsing down the seedlings; there's likely to be a really dramatic spurt of growth."

IMAGINE the view from a satellite, Alan Durning writes in the 1994 edition of the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World report. A time-lapse film that showed you a thousand years each minute would reveal only the slightest changes in the earth's forests, which for millennium after millennium covered about a third of the planet's land surface. But in the film's last three seconds, he says—the years after 1950—the change "accelerates explosively."

Vast tracts of forest vanish from Japan, the Philippines, and the mainland of Southeast Asia, from most of Central America and the horn of Africa, from western North America and eastern South America, from the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa. . . . Southeast Asia resembles a dog with the mange. Malaysian Borneo is scalped. In the final fractions of a second, the clearing spreads to Siberia and the Canadian north. Forests disappear so suddenly from so many places that it looks like a plague of locusts has descended on the planet.

If you stared from space at eastern North America in the same three seconds, however, you'd see something different: a patch of green spreading like mold across bread, and spreading fast. In the early nineteenth century the cleric Timothy Dwight reported that the 240-mile journey from Boston to New York City passed through no more than twenty miles of forest. Surveying the changes wrought by farmers and loggers in New Hampshire, he wrote, "The forests are not only cut down, but there appears little reason to hope that they will ever grow again."

Less than two centuries later, despite great increases in the state's population, 90 percent of New Hampshire is covered by forest. Vermont was 35 percent woods in 1850 and is 80 percent today, and even Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have seen woodlands rebound to the point where they cover nearly three fifths of southern New England. This process, which began as farmers abandoned the cold and rocky pastures of the East for the fertile fields of the Midwest, has not yet run its course. Forest cover in New York State, for instance, continued to grow by more than a million acres a decade through 1980. In sum, writes Douglas MacCleery, of the U.S. Forest Service, "the forest and farmland landscape of the Appalachians, as well as many other parts of the East and South, has come full circle. By the 1960s and 1970s, the pattern of forest, fields, and pastures was similar to that prior to 1800, its appearance much like it must have been prior to the American Revolution."

This unintentional and mostly unnoticed renewal of the rural and mountainous East—not the spotted owl, not the salvation of Alaska's pristine ranges—represents the great environmental story of the United States, and in some ways of the whole world. Here, where "suburb" and "megalopolis" were added to the world's vocabulary, an explosion of green is under way, one that could offer hope to much of the rest of the planet. The forests, as a recent federal study pointed out, will still take centuries of care before they recover their original grandeur. And backsliding is always a danger; the regreening of the East faces many threats. But it is undeniably real. In his journal Thoreau listed the species gone from Concord by the middle of the nineteenth century: bear, moose, deer, porcupine, "'rav'nous howling Wolf,'" and beaver. In 1989 environmental police had to kill a moose that had decided to make its home on the median strip of Route 128, famous as "America's Technology Highway." "We've never been faced with a moose ten miles from Boston," said one game warden, who donated the animal's carcass to a Salvation Army soup kitchen.

American heads turn west when the subject of nature comes up. I have before me the Sierra Club engagement calendar for 1995, with fifty-eight gorgeous pictures, most of them sweeping western vistas. Precisely two come from the thousand-mile sweep of the Appalachians—a patch of orchids in Tennessee and a picture from Maine titled, accurately, "Leaf in Stream." We are raised on what the writer Jose Knighton calls "eco-porn"- sunset-tinted photos of the Grand Tetons and other swelling bosoms of the West. But we might take as our emblem the pine: not towering white pines, marked by the first lumbermen in North America with a "King's Arrow" to reserve them for the Royal Navy, but the spindly pine that springs up when cows leave a pasture, the pine that begins the long process of reclamation. From the Pisgahs, the Unakas, and the Nantahalas of the southern Appalachians to the Whites and Greens and Adirondacks of the North, the woods are coming back, and people are starting to notice. In the late 1980s Congress called for a study on how to protect the 26 million acres of forest in New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine —forest that in some cases wasn't there a hundred years ago. "Show me another twenty-six-million-acre chunk," says John Harrigan, a New Hampshire newspaper editor who sat on the study commission. "Outside of Seward's Folly, I don't think you can." Yellowstone Park, in contrast, covers 2.2 million acres.


THE story of this recovery begins long before Europeans arrived on these shores. It is worth remembering that no spot on the globe was originally more natural or wild than any other: if America had been settled west to east, we might think of the East Coast as the wild shore, and our calendars might concentrate on Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades. Over time the mountains of the East have risen to heights we would consider western, been eroded, and risen again. The rock on Grandfather Mountain, rising 4,000 feet above the Piedmont Plain in western North Carolina, is more than a billion years old, among the oldest on the planet. Along the Blue Ridge and its surrounding highlands neither glacier nor ocean has covered the land for hundreds of millions of years; the result is a rare biological refuge that preserves much of the story of evolution. Plants could travel slowly north and south along the ridges of the Appalachians as climates changed, escaping extinction. Thus the Smokies boast more than 1,300 flowering plants and a hundred types of trees. Arguably, the southern Appalachians form the most diverse temperate forest in the world.

Farther north the landscape was a mile deep in glacial ice until comparatively recently—perhaps 11,000 years ago. On the glaciers' retreat the rock and till were colonized by fungi and lichens that eventually converted the rock to soil. The soil provided a home for forests that were spreading northward, but the North has never been especially hospitable. Though cold fronts from Canada and warm air from the Midwest and the Gulf bring abundant precipitation, the soils are not deep. Often acidic and fragile, they make agriculture difficult; the short growing seasons have favored spruce-fir forests in the colder places and a mixture of maple, beech, and birch in slightly warmer sections. Nonetheless, about three quarters of America's original forests were found in the eastern third of the nation, and today about three quarters of the nation's forests are in the East.

Very little of the forest is virgin, of course. Most of it is haunted by the human history that brings time into being—a history that long pre-dates Columbus. Paleo-Indians moved into the northern forest not long after the glaciers receded. Scientists continue to debate whether their arrival caused the sudden dying-off of megafauna—mammoths and mastodons, armadillos and ground sloths, giant beavers, dire wolves, and saber toothed tigers—that once roamed the East. There is no question, however, that over thousands of years Indians rearranged the landscape to suit their needs. "It is tempting to believe that when the Europeans arrived in the New World they confronted Virgin Lands, the Forest Primeval, a wilderness which had existed for eons uninfluenced by human hands," William Cronon writes in his masterly account of New England's early history, Changes in the Land. "Nothing could be further from the truth." Indians cleared land for agriculture and burnt some forests once or twice a year, keeping them open and parklike.

The Indian disruptions, though extensive, were usually temporary. When Indians had used one area for a time, they often moved to another. Not so Europeans. Early logging was bad enough, but farmers cut down every tree as they cleared pasture, and then brought in grazing animals that ate the native grasses down to dirt. New plant species arrived in shipboard fodder: mulleins and mallows, for instance, and nightshades, stinging nettles, and dandelions. Other agricultural techniques left their own devastation. Instead of rotating crops, farmers planted corn year after year, and corn quickly exhausts soil. Colonial farmers often used fish as fertilizer—at the end of the eighteenth century, Cronon writes, a dollar could buy a thousand fish.

This was merely a warm-up, however, for the destruction in the first century of the new republic. From 1780 to 1850 the population of the United States grew nearly eightfold, from nearly three million to about 23 million. It took about three acres of cropland to feed each person. For a while the trees that farmers cleared for fields met the nation's demand for timber, but in the second half of the nineteenth century lumber consumption rose from 5.4 billion to 44.5 billion board feet a year.

Wood was used for everything—it was the cornerstone of the economy in the same way that petroleum is today. What iron existed was smelted using wood charcoal; to produce a thousand tons of iron a year, a furnace needed 20,000 or 30,000 acres of forest, MacCleery writes. A square forty acre field required 8,000 fence rails. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, when barbed wire began to replace wood, there were more than three million miles of wooden fence in America. Railroads soon claimed the wood freed up by wire fencing; at the turn of the century the demand for railroad cars, ties, fuel, bridges, trestles, stations, and telegraph poles was taking a quarter of the nation's timber production. Steamboats burned wood for fuel until the Civil War, consuming a fifth of all the wood sold for fuel in 1840. In the second half of the nineteenth century forest cover in many areas of the East had fallen from 70 percent to 25 percent or less. Eventually the profligate cutting left lumbermen little choice but to move west: there were few mature forests left to take. Loggers moved from New England to New York, Pennsylvania, the Great Lakes, and the South.

Something similar was happening in agriculture. Even for those lands that had not been exhausted by poor farming, improved transportation to the fertile soils of the Midwest meant insurmountable competition. The opening of the Erie Canal, in 1835, is as good a starting point as any. In the decades that followed, the Northeast stopped concentrating on supplying raw materials and began the long transition to an economy based on manufacturing and services. For example, the first Merino sheep arrived near Mount Ascutney, Vermont, in 1809. By 1840 there were 1,681,000 sheep in the state, or six per person. Thirty years later the number had been cut in half: the reasons include that western ranches could now ship their wool by rail and undercut Vermonters. The dairy industry has survived, milk being harder to transport great distances, but it, too, has long been in decline.

By 1890, 42 percent of the people who had been born in Vermont lived elsewhere. It was a Vermont native, Horace Greeley, who said "Go West, young man"; among those who lit out was another, John Deere, whose machinery would transform the plains. According to the author Ben Bachman, Vermont has produced thirty-five U.S. senators, 114 congressmen, and sixty governors who have served in other states. "Vermont recovered because the destruction was a one-shot destruction," says Steve Trombulak, a biologist at Middlebury College. "It was cleared, pastured for maybe twenty or thirty years, and then everyone discovered Ohio. I don't believe for a moment that Vermont would look like this if it weren't for the Louisiana Purchase—if we hadn't found places where you didn't break your plough on the stones."

If the nineteenth century was an epoch of destruction for the northern forest, the twentieth century has been a long sleep. If you walk in almost any woods in the East, you can see the recovery process up close—see the cellar holes that sprout birch, the careful piles of stone now covered by moss and surrounded by forest. From the window in the room where I type these words, I can see the crumbling stone dam that powered the small Adirondack sawmill that once skimmed the trees from all the surrounding ridges. Trees gone; sawmill gone. Sawmill gone; trees return.

For me the proof that what is happening is significant—and right and necessary—lies in the recovery not only of the forests themselves but of much of the life they always supported. As early as 1672 wild turkeys were described as rare in Massachusetts. Beaver were disappearing from the Massachusetts coast as early as 1640 and from the Narragansett region by 1660, as Indians and others filled the demands of the fur-trading posts, moving farther up the rivers in search of fresh supplies. Massachusetts had its first closed season on deer in 1694; eventually deer were eliminated from Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and all but the northern fringes of the Great Lakes states. In Changes in the Land, Cronon quotes the nineteenth-century cleric Timothy Dwight: "Hunting with us exists chiefly in the tales of other times."

But just as the last animals were vanishing, organized sportsmen's groups, led by Theodore Roosevelt and others, banded together to oppose market hunting, enact game laws, and establish refuges and reserves. Their efforts meshed with the slow return of habitat, and animal populations boomed. Whitetail deer now number more than 18 million—perhaps half as many as were in the original herd, but forty times as many as existed in the late 1800s. Pennsylvania motorists alone killed 43,000 deer in 1990; deer browse so much suburban shrubbery that some homeowners call them "rats with hooves."

Perhaps 40,000 black bears roam the East. Alligators, placed on the endangered-species list in 1967, after hunting had nearly wiped them out, rebounded within ten years to a population of two million. In 1972, thirty seven wild turkeys were introduced into western Massachusetts—where the species had long since vanished. By now the population exceeds 10,000.

As game has spread, so have predators. Even in heavily settled Massachusetts, coyotes—not seen until the 1930s—now live in virtually every town. Larger predators, too, may be appearing. In rural uplands throughout the East the part of the imagination that elsewhere is reserved for Elvis sightings is given over to stories about cougars, panthers, pumas, mountain lions, and catamounts—all names for the same long-tailed wild cat. Officially there aren't any. As the final clearing of the region took place, in the nineteenth century, and as the deer herds that were their prey vanished, cougars were wiped out across the East.

The Eastern Puma Research Network, however, has received reports of 1,800 puma sightings in the past decade. During hunting season in 1993, for instance, a Maine hunter heard a sound "like a woman screaming in pain." Topping a rise, he saw a large tawny animal shaking something in its mouth. The animal turned toward him, and he saw a "big angry head- about the size of an average human head." It snarled, dropped its prey, and disappeared in "three tremendous long leaps." The hunter collected the carcass of the prey, which turned out to be a bobcat—a smaller feline that is common in the northern forest. Biologists said that the bite and claw marks on the bobcat were the right size for a cougar. The sightings increase each year; the wildness seems to gather. Last fall Vermont wildlife officials confirmed that they had found scat from at least one mountain lion.


THIS recovery was not automatic. It is an accident of climate, soil, and economics. Recovery has not come to the Midwest, because the soils there continue to be valuable for industrial agriculture. Recovery has not come to the entire East, either—some places are still logged as brutally as the Pacific Northwest. And even where recovery has progressed farthest, it will not necessarily be permanent. Stand on top of North Carolina's Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet the tallest mountain in the East (in 1835, when it was measured, it was the highest point in the then United States), and you see the twin vistas of recovery and ruination. Clear-cut logging had spread within half a mile of the summit before it was finally halted, in 1915. Now the forest is protected by the Blue Ridge Parkway and the city of Asheville's watershed, and so the spruce and fir have grown anew on its slopes. Near the top, however, low-level ozone and acid rain have left a dying and skeletal forest, its branches bony and silver. From the observation deck, signs tell you, you can see "Slick Rock Mountain, a residential and resort development. The flattened, barren area is the end of an airport runway." You can see the scars of feldspar mines that produce much of the world's high-purity quartz for use in making computer chips, halogen lights, and semiconductors. And you can see the effects of the burning of coal and oil to power all those chips and lights—a semipermanent brown layer of haze that obstructs the view to the distance.

Though the basic physical trends in the East may be toward restoration, increasingly these are running up against renewed human assaults. To use a regionally appropriate metaphor, the East is like a young sapling sprouting from the stump of an old chestnut that was killed off by a deadly fungus in the early twentieth century. It looks healthy, it seems full of vigor—but it isn't going to get much bigger before it, too, succumbs to blight.

Some of the blight is literal. Global trade, which is ever-increasing, introduces new plant diseases through transported nursery stock, packing materials, and timber imports. A devastating beech-bark blight is ravaging trees in the Northeast, while hemlocks across the region are succumbing to a menacing insect, the woolly adelgid. Still, blights move slowly, at least by comparison with a feller-buncher—a machine equipped with a grappling arm that grabs a tree by the trunk and a buzz saw that slices it off near the ground. The machine symbolizes the industrial forestry that dominates the southern and northern extremities of the region.

Precious little prime eastern land, even that owned by the federal government, is protected from clear-cutting and other devastating "management" techniques. The damage is not new. Steve Trombulak, the biologist at Middlebury, talks of the many plant and animal species that have gone extinct in the Northeast, in part because they depended on old growth forest that vanished long ago. Whatever the eastern equivalents of spotted owls were, we lost them two centuries ago. "And of course we'll never know about soil microbes, things like that," Trombulak says. And the losses are not confined to the past. David Cameron Duffy, who has studied wildflowers in the southern Appalachians, reported recently that even ninety years after the forests were last cut, many species have not returned. The smaller, denser stands of trees that mark a recovering forest mean changes in soil conditions, temperature, and water availability. Beyond mere species, a recovering forest lacks the richness of interactions found in an ancient forest—the relationships between species big and small which are at the heart of any forest.

For example, a recent study of national forests in western North Carolina found that catches of salamanders were five times as high in mature stands as in forests clear-cut less than ten years ago. Because they need to keep their skin wet to breathe, salamanders generally seek moist microhabitats. A clear-cut, which leaves an unshaded field, dehydrates the forest floor, reduces leaf litter, and increases soil temperature. All in all, says James Petranka, an expert on amphibians at the University of North Carolina, clear-cutting is killing about 14 million salamanders annually and "chronically reducing regional populations." When the clear-cut woods come back, they are no longer what we think of as a forest but an "even aged" stand, often composed predominantly of one species, and, in the words of a recent report from the Interior Department, "structurally and biologically less diverse than natural forests of any age."

The coastal plain of the Southeast has perhaps been the most badly damaged—the great mature stands of longleaf pine have nearly vanished, replaced by faster-growing species in vast pulp plantations. The same attack of industrial forestry has afflicted the Maine woods in recent years. The ten million acres of the core Maine forest—the largest green blob on the map of the East—houses virtually no permanent inhabitants. Loggers go there, and so do some hunters and fishermen who pay the usage fees required by the enormous timber and paper companies that own almost the whole spread. People routinely mistake the emptiness for wildness, but in fact the Maine woods produce huge quantities of pulp for paper, and export large quantities of raw logs. The cutting has been most Bunyanesque in the past fifteen years; as companies scrambled to salvage timber that was threatened by an infestation of spruce budworm, huge clear-cuts spread across the region.

The damage inflicted on the woods by cutting at such a rate is a sight to behold. You can behold it only if you happen to be in a small plane, though, which allows you to peek over the "beauty strips" that protect watercourses from runoff and also shield the view of what can look like vast deserts. Rudy Engholm, the New England director of the Environmental Air Force, a group of ecologically minded private pilots, picked me and a couple of environmentalists up at a small airport in northern New Hampshire last summer. We flew across Lake Umbagog and into Maine, flying for hours over land that knows no human settlement and yet is devastated in ways inconceivable in many more-densely settled parts of the Northeast. We could see the occasional moose standing on a logging road, but mostly the view was of clear-cuts—tracts sometimes thousands of acres in size on which almost every tree was gone. Other spots had been spared clear-cutting but had been "high-graded" so relentlessly, with every big tree removed, that the land looked as if it had mange. Many huge patches had been sprayed from the air with herbicides to keep down "undesirable" hardwoods and produce more fir and spruce, which are the woods easiest to use for paper; in the middle of summer the leaves of the dying trees were awash with the colors of autumn. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway was instantly recognizable along much of its length by the line of trees a few hundred feet wide that ran along each side of it. From a canoe in the river you would think you were in the wilderness, but if you walked a quarter mile to pee you might find yourself staring out across a plain nearly devoid of life. In recent years new legislation has limited the size of clear-cuts. In some cases this has led to more partial cutting; in other spots strange geometric figures are now cut from the forest—huge assemblages of clear-cuts separated by narrow "wildlife corridors" that may lead nowhere.

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