Posted on July 11, 2017 by Site Admin


Photo:  Jerry Monkman/EcoPhotography

Article by Jill Buchanan

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Henry David Thoreau penned this famous quote from his home in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid 1800s. It was a time when the Colonial government was giving groups of European settlers large parcels of land to develop quickly. The result was that by the end the 19th century, over 80% of New England's forests, including most of Essex County, was converted to open fields for agriculture and livestock.

It's difficult to fathom how the landscape must have appeared back then. Thoreau's world was filled with the sounds of axes against trees and cowbells in fields. Whereas wolves, turkeys, beavers, moose, and cougars had recently roamed through forests, now open-land species like skunks, meadowlarks, rabbits and foxes reigned.

And yet, as stunning as the seemingly wholesale loss of the wooded landscape was, so was the remarkable discovery of Essex County's —and in fact most of New England’s - forests.  At the turn of the century, the industrial revolution lured people into urban areas and away from the hardscrabble rural farming life; new railways transporting food from new farms out west meant that easterners didn't have to grow as much of what they ate.

So, despite the fact that our region was becoming increasingly populated in urban centers, outlying areas were quickly returning to woodland. It was, as author and environmentalist Bill McKibben described it, "the great environmental story of the United States, and in some ways of the whole world."

Today, forests make up approximately half of Essex County's landscape. The portion of Greenbelt's conserved woodlands reflect these figures as about half of our protected lands are wooded.

What's the Hurry?

Given our landscape's proven resiliency in the wake of drastic change, you might wonder "why the sense of 'urgency?'" with regards to conserving our woodlands today.

Unlike the "soft deforestation" of our past that allowed for repopulation of forests when farming declined, today's changes are "hard", meaning that wooded lands are generally replaced with roads, parking lots, malls and developments, making it impossible for land to recover on its own and creating permanent loss of natural lands.

Recent studies show that today, Massachusetts is losing an average of 40 acres of open space per day to development. In Essex County, 25 percent of our region's landscape remains
under threat of development. And that means a significant threat to our woodlands.

The Hidden Value of Trees

Trees obviously provide important wildlife habitat and make our region a more attractive place to live and to visit.

A less obvious but farther-reaching benefit of our woodlands has to do with their role in carbon sequestration, or capturing the harmful greenhouse gases associated with global warming.

At the global level, carbon emissions from deforestation far outstrip damage caused by planes, automobiles and factories.

In fact, figures from the Oxford-based Global Canopy Programme, an alliance of leading rainforest scientists, show that deforestation accounts for up to 25 percent of global
emissions of heat-trapping gases, while transport and industry account for 14 percent each; and aviation makes up only three percent of the total.

While much of this deforestation is occurring in the tropical rainforests, some of the most important reforestation is occurring in New England forests.

For over a decade, researchers have monitored the carbon levels in New England woods. Their work shows that these and other so-called "midlatitude" forests stretching from the Carolinas into New England and Canada and the Midwest, are reducing the global increase in carbon by more than 10 percent.

The Northeast forest doesn’t hold as much carbon as tropical rainforests. But New England woods have shown that the rate of carbon-holding is changing in surprising ways. When you balance out the carbon taken in and released, the Northeast forest retains a sizeable amount-
three to six acres per year, according to research done at Harvard Forest.

What's more, as these young forests grow, they hold more and more carbon, increasing the rate of new carbon storage uptake to the point where it will soon surpass that of the Amazon's. This new understanding puts our Eastern forests  on the map as a big and important player in global carbon storage.

Greenbelt’s Role

It's important to note that not only is the quantity of conserved forests significant, but so is the quality. In other words, the healthier the forest, the more carbon it captures.

Greenbelt's approach of proactively identifying large, healthy corridors of undeveloped land for conservation, therefore, is  not only important for maintaining ecological health, it is a key factor in reducing the impact of climate change.

In the future, more extreme storms and droughts that occur as a result of climate change may put increasing stress on our local infrastructure.  More than a decade ago, the "Mother's Day" storm showed us what happens when severe flooding pushes our municipal infrastructure beyond its capacity.

Given this scenario, conserving floodplains may become increasingly important in our land conservation strategy.

Another emerging climate-related reality is the northward movement of traditionally southern plants and animals.

Over the long term, this movement will translate to the loss of some species and the introduction of others. Finding a healthy ecological balance will require a proactive
conservation and management approach.

(This article was first published by Essex County Greenbelt in 2010 and its time references have been updated.)


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