Forest stewards and scientists with a downed old-growth hemlock. From left to right, Jody Bronson, Hans Carlson, Carole Cheah, Russell Russ, forest technician Wesley Gomez, and John Winiarski.
Great Mountain Forest (GMF) occupies slightly more than 6,000 acres at the southern end of the Berkshires, in northwest Connecticut. The forest was under private conservation and management for nearly a century, but a decade ago it became a nonprofit and operates under a Forest Legacy easement. I’m the director, and my job is to engage the public with both the work and the forest’s story. Forestry decisions are the purview of our forest manager of 38 years, Jody Bronson. Our roles increasingly overlap, as we must not only make the best management choices for the forest, but also educate the public about the actions we are taking.
Perhaps the best example of this centers around GMF’s hemlocks. Hemlock makes up about 40 percent of Great Mountain Forest (mixed with oak in some stands and with other hardwoods elsewhere), including a handful of very old hemlocks in the forest, and there are a few more on Nature Conservancy land adjoining. There is a coolness and quietness to all hemlock groves, but these old trees have a palpable gravitas. Researchers in the 1950s dated many of these hemlocks to the 1600s, and a few proved to have been saplings when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620.
Nothing about them leaps out at you as being ancient – nearby there are much younger trees of other species that are as tall and broad – yet you don’t need an increment borer to know that they were well established before the first European reached these woods in the mid-1700s. Their heavy, plated bark is the giveaway. So is the sense of grandeur that settles on you if you spend a little time beneath them.
It’s something of a mystery that these stands survived as long as they have. Northern Litchfield County was at the heart of nineteenth-century iron production, and most of the forests in Norfolk and Canaan were cut several times to produce charcoal for local blast furnaces. There are old colliers’ hearths and roads within a quarter-mile of the old-growth stands, and there were tanneries in this area, too. They razed whole forests to procure the hemlock bark used to tan leather.
We will likely never know what circumstances saved these trees from the nineteenth-century onslaught – maybe it was as simple as disputed ownership – but today, the rather sad fact is that these stands appear to be falling apart. Many are still outwardly healthy, but in the last few years some of the oldest trees have been wind-thrown or their tops have been snapped off. At nearly 400 years old, they have not yet reached their natural age limit, but new stresses are affecting all the hemlock in the forest.
Last fall, we spent a day monitoring hemlocks across the forest with Carole Cheah from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, trying to judge the encroachment of hemlock wooly adelgid and hemlock scale. Because we are home to some of the highest elevations in the state, we have many places that look a great deal like northern New England. Norfolk is well-known as the “icebox of Connecticut,” and our cold climate may have helped hold off these pathogens for a time, but their arrival was inevitable.
We covered only part of the forest that day, but we found no areas free of both scale and adelgid, even in the coldest hollows. This was disheartening, but a second examination by Cheah found that last winter’s deep freeze killed upwards of 99 percent of the adelgid at her monitoring stations. Still, cold winters are an increasingly random event here, and the adelgid is a prolific breeder, so we are likely to eventually see significant mortality. The loss of the hemlocks will change everything in this forest, ecologically and aesthetically. If we look at the big picture, losing these trees will restart the process of growth that began more than a century ago with the end of charcoaling. We’ve spent decades cutting trees in an attempt to break up the even-aged character of the forest that was left by the nineteenth-century industrial clearcuts; it seems our successors will be doing similar work.
We’ll do some salvage cutting when the hemlocks succumb, but there’s not much of a market for hemlock even in the best of times. When red pine scale hit the forest in the 1990s, there was extensive salvage cutting and a ready market, but this will not be the case now. A lot of our hemlock grows in places where we couldn’t cut without doing damage to soils and watersheds, so we will leave a lot of trees to die, too. We have a mill, so at the very least we will have a good supply of construction timber for our own use.
Large sections will have to regrow and some parts may need replanting. Nursery work and planting stopped here in the 1990s, but we once produced our own Norway, white, blue, and meyeri spruce, as well as red pine. These non-native trees are strung out along the road that makes up our western entrance, forming curious ethnic neighborhoods in the Yankee forest. The real exotics are remnants of a different era of forest management, and we will certainly not replant with tiger-tail spruce or King Boris fir, but some of the spruce and pine offer valuable information in our current situation. Some have adapted well, and others are struggling or near-dead. All this offers clues regarding which trees we should focus on in our plans to start a new nursery.
Whether we cut hemlocks or leave them standing, it will all be messy for a while and people will not like it. For the last century, GMF was funded by family money, but now that we are a nonprofit, public perception and support are paramount concerns. Public input will shape the forest now, as much as hemlock pathogens.
Smart foresters at least consider public perception when planning their work, but managing a working forest as a nonprofit is something new in forestry. In order to continue stewardship of Great Mountain Forest, we will have to educate people so they see the community value in local forestry as they now understand the value of local agriculture. It is here where forest management and outreach will intersect.
This series is sponsored by the Stifler Family Foundation, in support of forestry practices that promote healthy and sustainable forests and wildlife habitat.