My Turn: A history of old growth forest loss


Published: 03-29-2023 6:45 PM

Johanna Newman’s March 22 column in the Recorder [“White House must take older trees off cut list”], a call to protect older trees from logging nationally, was a commendable piece; however, I would like to point out that some of the worst cutting of older forests is due to logging projects in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont and in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest.

Sadly, Massachusetts has no national forests or parks, or in fact any significant amount of permanently protected state-owned forests of any sort, and contracted logging of older forests by state agencies continues.

On the accompanying four maps can be seen the change in old growth forest cover as European colonists arrived and started genocidal wars on Indigenous people to get at the resources from the lands they occupied. Interestingly the date for one map, 1990, just happens to be the date of the very first report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Geographer Richard Hakluyt convinced King James in 1606 to issue a charter for companies to establish settlements in North America, arguing that the wood resources from forests provided the greatest reason for chartering these settlements.

Trees were used by settlers to build houses and forts that aided continuous military expansion. English Colonial settlers were required to send back logs for masts needed for warships since the forests in Britain and Western Europe in general had already been decimated.

A shipbuilding industry was begun just 10 years after the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. This industry, along with associated fort-building and clearing of forests by continuous waves of settlers, denuded the landscape at a rapid rate.

The book “American Canopy” describes how over time the timber industry, along with forest clearing for agriculture, destroyed most of the forests in the Northeast, followed by the Midwest, the Southeast and finally the West. Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, violent dispossession of Indigenous tribes throughout Massachusetts and surrounding states continued, with trees being cut for various construction purposes as well as for making charcoal, which required extremely large amounts of wood.

By 1833, the Mashpee on Cape Cod, who had drafted their own declaration of independence, declaring their right to share the land equally and govern themselves, found some European men loading logs from their land. The insistent but peaceful unloading of the log cart by Mashpee tribal members became known as the “Woodland Revolt” and illustrates how important the equally shared forest environment was to the various tribes.

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It can be seen on the 1990 map that in the eastern United States, only one significant spot of old growth forest is left. It is the Adirondack Reserve, protected by New York State as a permanent wild forest. Today in Massachusetts, old growth forest constitutes only .05% of all forested land in the commonwealth, which means that only one out of every 2,000 acres is old growth.

Losing our old growth forest is like growing up with no view of the stars in the Milky Way. If we continue to lose our maturing, majestic old forests, we should begin to wonder how our world will look without a sense of wonder.

This is only a tiny percentage of the much larger area now referred to as “young forest habitat” by the agencies in charge of state-owned forests. It is typically “created” by destroying older forests, which could have instead grown older and expanded the area of endangered true old growth forest ecosystems. It is these ecosystems in fact that have a greater diversity of species than do any younger forests.

The Massachusetts Forest Alliance, a trade association which includes the woody biomass burning industry, logging interests and the general wood products industry, lobbied against S.557, a bill to protect the remaining old growth forests on state-owned lands. To my way of thinking, this effort was worse than lobbying against protection of individual endangered species.

The just released IPPC report on climate change indicates that there is virtually no waiting time left to drastically cut emissions. Continuing to release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere by logging out older forests is both a crime against nature and a crime against our children and grandchildren, who will be forced to inhabit a dying earth.

Studies show that in some states, logging is the largest source of carbon emissions. Unfortunately, these emissions are not counted because of the lobbying power of the global timber industry.

Jim Thornley has lived in Wendell for about 12 years on property completely surrounded by the Wendell State Forest, where he regularly walks. Since 2019, he has been studying the scientific literature on forests.