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

"That's the Ragmuff area," Michael Kellett, the director of the small environmental group RESTORE, said as we flew over one particularly barren clearing. "Thoreau wrote about it. It looks like it could be Kansas now—a few little clumps of trees and then vast fields." Engholm, who frequently takes passengers up to let them see the damage firsthand, told me, "Almost universally, they are just aghast. It's not any one cut in particular—it's that they just go on and on and on. There's virtually no place in Maine where from a couple of thousand feet up you don't see a manipulated forest." With the old trees gone, the loggers quickly return for the young ones. Log trucks in Maine today carry eighty or a hundred skinny trunks in one load, where once only a score would have fit.

In the eighties the cutting of the Maine woods, according to Kellett, proceeded faster, relative to the woods' size, than the clearing of the rain forests of South America. According to data supplied by landowners to the Maine Forest Service, nearly 2,000 square miles—as much land as in all of Delaware—were clear-cut from 1980 to 1992, and thousands of miles of roads have been cut since the river drives ended, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. From the air we clocked log-truck drivers, some of whom are paid piecework rates rather than salaries, topping 90 mph on the gravel roads, their roostertails of dust visible twenty miles away.

A few days after the flight I visited Mitch Lansky, a Maine woods resident who began to investigate the forest industry when, in 1976, he was sprayed with pesticides from three modified Second World War bombers while leaving for his job at a sawmill. He unrolled a huge photo for me on the floor of his cabin, near the town of Wytopitlock. "I want to show you what northern Maine looks like from outer space," he said. "This is a satellite photo from 1990, and these white blotches are six-mile-square townships. Just in this one little corner are a hundred and thirty square miles of clear-cut." Lansky took me for a drive around the area, where the clear-cuts stretch for miles. They are growing back heavy in poplar, which once made up less than three percent of the forest. "One other species does really well," he told me. "Raspberries."

Paper companies and timber barons have mounted a large-scale public relations campaign to persuade people not to trust the feeling in their gut that comes from looking at the ugly face of industrial forestry. "Trees are renewable resources" was the industry mantra for years, until the realization grew that what matters is not simply the number of trunks but the quality of the forest. Later, responding to cries for biodiversity, industry spokesmen argued that clear-cuts created more "edge" (places where woods meet open land), which is good for certain species of wildlife—white-tailed deer, for example.

But it is plain that the forest the huge companies are creating with their management resembles a real Maine forest about as closely as "extruded seafood product" resembles lobster. Thoreau wrote, "The surface of the ground in the Maine woods is everywhere spongy and saturated with moisture. I noticed that the plants which cover the forest floor there are such as are commonly confined to swamps with us." Now, with sunlight streaming down on the clear-cuts, the forest can dry; in other areas, without roots to soak up the rain, the floor can turn to puddles. Whole-tree clear-cuts take everything—leaves and branches as well as trunk, and with them a higher percentage of the nutrients the tree had sucked from the soil. "The 'working forest,'" Kellett says, "the industry's current euphemism, is classic Nineteen Eighty-Four doublespeak. It sounds industrious, it sounds healthy, but it's a disaster. It's a factory."


INDUSTRIAL forestry, for all the trauma it continues to inflict, has produced one great blessing: You can fly for hours over the Maine woods, or drive for days in the national forests farther south, and though you will see clear-cuts, gravel pits, and areas decimated by herbicides, you won't see any houses. You won't see the shopping malls and subdivisions and vacation homes that threaten to fragment and degrade habitat even more effectively than did the farmers' ploughed fields of two centuries ago. "We have two armies of occupation in this state," says the poet and environmental organizer Gary Lawless, a native of Maine. "There are the paper companies in the north, and along the coast the people who move here for a better life and change it in a different way. They're clear-cutting it too, only in very small pieces." In far-northern New Hampshire, says John Harrigan, the newspaper editor, "every year there are more of those all-night lights where there used to be darkness. People from away come here, and they think darkness is the enemy—bears or bogeymen or something." People bring pavement, Harrigan points out. Troublesome as a dirt road or a clear-cut can be, "once you've paved it, you've changed it forever."

Perhaps the paradigm of development can be found forty miles from the middle of Manhattan, in Sterling Forest, a wood that straddles New York and New Jersey. A century ago it had been denuded by more than a hundred years of fueling iron smelters. (The great chain that the Continental Army stretched across the Hudson to block British ship traffic during the Revolution was forged in Sterling Forest.) But like so much of the East, it slowly grew back. Now it is a 17,500-acre patch of green full of rattlesnakes and bear, a critical path for migrating birds. Only one problem: the nicer it gets, the more valuable it becomes. At the moment the owner wants to develop it into five planned towns, with 13,000 units of housing and eight million square feet of industrial and commercial space. The business plan quotes the work of the environmentalist Wendell Berry on the need for ecological stewardship, and the company is indeed plotting carefully clustered homes. But the unbroken forest will vanish, and in its place will arise a chain of suburbs that together will constitute one of the larger towns between New York and Albany.

Susan Sharko, who grew up in the area, and John Gebhards, who heads an environmental project that is trying to persuade New York State and the federal government to buy and preserve the land, took me for a hike one magnificent spring afternoon on the Appalachian Trail, which runs a few hundred feet from one of the planned communities. "This is literally less than an hour from Manhattan," Sharko said, pointing to a surging brook with shaggy old hemlocks leaning out across it. "Not much less, maybe three minutes less, but still . . ." Every time we reached a vantage point Gebhards would point to the next ridge and say, "That's going to be the new town of Tuxedo Estates" or "That's going to be one of the golf courses" (three are planned for the site).

Whenever the trail reached a spot along bare ridge, we saw nothing but forest stretching into the distance. The view is powerful testimony to the enormous vigor of the natural world even on the edge of the megalopolis. But we're trained not to see it. Gebhards told me that although national environmental groups have endorsed his campaign, he had difficulty persuading them to devote their lobbyists' time to winning the congressional battle for funds to save the tract. "No one really believes there could be something like this near the city," he said—let alone that such a large space could be spared development. Leon Billings, a lobbyist for the developers, was more explicit when he spoke to a newspaper reporter about the plan in 1993. His childhood in Montana filled him with "an absolute admiration for the wilderness," he said. But to speak of Sterling Forest in the same breath was ludicrous, because it isn't virgin land. "We're not talking Glacier National Park here," he said. "This isn't even farmland in Virginia. This is an area that was at one time industrialized." By that reckoning there is hardly an inch of the East that should be off limits.

And, in fact, some of the areas that have most recently been heavily cut are also under the greatest threat of development. One of the chief fears of eastern environmentalists is that the twin plagues of industrial forestry and overdevelopment will merge. In New England, for instance, the forest products industry—which for all the damage it has inflicted has at least kept the vast woodlands it manages free of houses and pavement, and thus theoretically restorable—could decide to start selling off the land it has cleared.

A single deal, one that speaks eloquently of the emerging global economy, touched off this worry. In the early 1980s a British financier, Sir James Goldsmith, took over Diamond International, a forest-products company that owned about a million acres in the northern forest. He quickly sold off most of the divisions of the company, recouping nearly all of the money he had spent to buy it—and was left with all the land, mostly undeveloped forest. This he sold to a French conglomerate that began retailing the land to the highest bidder. The region's economy was booming, and the demand for second homes climbing—a forty-acre lot on Moosehead Lake, in Maine, which sold for $50,000 in 1986, went for $250,000 in 1988. It was easy to imagine Loon-Cry Estates and Trillium Manors spreading across the New England landscape as quickly as the clear-cuts; the economic term for such development is "highest and best use" of the land. Because what builders really want is river and lake frontage, the journalist Ted Williams has pointed out in Audubon magazine, highest and best use "translates to suburbanization of remote watersheds."

Alarmed at such a prospect, state governments and conservation groups paid premium prices to acquire some of the land. More important, New England senators pressed Congress to authorize the Northern Forest Lands Study, initiating a process that was finally completed last fall, when a council of government, industry, community, and environmental representatives released their report. Though the report disappointed some activists, especially because it paid little attention to clear-cutting and other logging practices, the council did recommend some modest acquisitions of land by the public, and called for the reconfiguration of tax codes to make development less likely and reduce economic pressures to cut. Its recommendations, if adopted, might help. But the study process also produced an unintended benefit: it spurred the emergence of a new breed of environmentalists in the region.


EASTERN environmentalism was long a patrician enterprise—the effort of big-city swells to protect the mountain heights where they spent their summers, the lakes where they had their camps. The products of their time and place, these men and women played essential roles in preserving great tracts of land. But their sort of feudal noblesse oblige, although it lives on in many of the region's conservation groups, is clearly insufficient for the future.

The prototype of the emerging environmentalist is perhaps Jamie Sayen, who lives on a back road in a paper-mill town in northern New Hampshire—a road lined with trailers, none of them with clever names carved on wooden signs out front. He has a big vegetable garden, a wood stove, and "running water" that runs from a spring in the woods.

In the spring of 1987 Sayen published a map and an essay, "The Appalachian Mountains, Vision and Wilderness." In the years since, he has repeated his call for "continuous wild habitat the length of the Appalachian Range which in time could enable the return of unique plants and large animals—panthers, bears, wolves, moose—that have been exterminated throughout all or part of the mountain chain." The Appalachian Trail, stretching from Maine to Georgia, could be the "backbone"of this recovering wildness—one strong enough to "support the weight of the massive wild areas throughout the eastern reaches." These areas would be joined by corridors through zones of human habitation. Sayen wrote with confidence, because he had begun with a simple assumption that drove the rest of his thinking: the East, and by extension other spots on earth, would be successfully restored when the animals and plants that belonged there could safely return.

His assumption ran counter to the prevailing mood of the Reagan-Bush years, when environmentalists tried to hang on to the small victories of the past; in the new Congress that mood might prevail again. "Is this a radical crackpot idea?" Sayen has written. "Certainly the defenders of the status quo would have you believe it is. But their ilk dismissed Benton MacKaye's 1921 proposal to create an Appalachian Trail . . . as the idea of a fool. Yet, the Appalachian Trail, one of the most treasured landmarks in the east, was completed less than two decades after it was first proposed!"

Following Sayen's lead, others have forwarded similar proposals. Michael Kellett's group RESTORE, for instance, recently proposed a three-million acre Maine Woods National Park, which would be the largest such area in the lower forty-eight states except for the newly created Death Valley National Park. All day as we flew above Maine's huge clear-cuts in the small plane, Kellett would announce, "We're crossing the park boundary now" or "We've just flown out of the park." At one point Rudy Engholm took us up to about 4,000 feet and turned the plane in a tight circle. "From here you can see about three million acres," Engholm said. "It makes it all a little more real." And it did. It was easy to envision the northern anchor of a renewed wilderness system, a block of green vast enough to nurture packs of wolves and herds of caribou, solitary cougar and lynx. "It's not too late," Kellett said. "The loggers have done a lot of damage, but there's still a chance for regeneration."

Conservationists up and down the eastern mountains are thinking on the same scale. Wilderness proposals covering big tracts of land have surfaced for the Monongahela National Forest, in the central Appalachians, and for the Green Mountain and White Mountain national forests, in Vermont and New Hampshire respectively—indeed, for all the surprisingly large eastern tracts still devoid of houses, which with changes in management might become reservoirs of wildness for the entire region. The Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project recently published detailed recommendations for reclaiming the Blue Ridge Mountains. In some ways the task is easier in the Southeast than in the North, because the public already owns much southern land as part of its national forests. Many of the millions of acres of national forest in the mountains stretching from Virginia down to Georgia are still heavily logged, however, and are crisscrossed with roads that must be gradually closed if the most sensitive plants and animals are to survive.

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