Spring 1999

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Observations on the Environment

A Plea


Robert J. Gregory

One of my unrealized life's dreams has been to be a forest ranger, and in keeping with that interest, I have studied plants and trees and ecological relationships all my life. I grew up in Elmira and specifically Tompkins Corners in Chemung County in Upstate New York.

After many years working in far off Pacific Islands, I returned in 1993 and again in 1996 for brief visits "back home." While I was here, I observed a surprising situation through studying the trees, which led me to reflect deeply on our environment.

Observations of Trees

As a frustrated ex-jogger reduced to walking, I toured the Tompkins Corners area through a series of long walks during my return visits. In ever increasing jaunts: I began with a 3.5, then a 4.5, a 7.2, and ultimately several 10-mile-plus daily walks beginning from the family farm at Tompkins Corners. On these walks, I carefully noted the types and sizes of trees I could see from the various roads I covered. Usually people traverse the area by car or truck, and I suspect they only rarely look at roadside woodlots, and even more rarely contemplate what they see. Returning after some ten years away, I viewed the countryside with a fresh and eager and enthusiastic vision.

The first thing noted was that I saw lots of young trees, and very few mature trees. Every tree has a growth cycle: seedling, sapling, pole-sized, mature stage, senescence. As I observed more closely, I became aware of the almost total lack of mature trees. I then decided to carry out a count of the mature trees on my walks, but soon came to the conclusion that there was no point in counting. There were only five mature maples, probably a few other mature trees down in a couple of inaccessible ravines, and virtually none anywhere else.

A large number of silver maples, a lot of sumac, many yellow poplars or cottonwoods, and a sprinkling of white and red pine caught my eyes, along with a few pin oaks. There were few varieties that will grow up to become useful and valuable timber. Certainly plenty of trees are available for firewood for the wood stoves and furnaces and fireplaces. But, in terms of millable timber, useful for building and construction, or hardwood for other uses, almost none could be found!

The older houses and barns around Tompkins Corners were made from strong locally grown and cut timber. As a teen, I recall working with my dad on a cross-cut saw to cut three giant evergreen trees to make the 2 x 4s and the siding for our barn. But that was 40 years ago. New houses are built with wood taken from distant locales combined with metal, brick, stone, glass, and plastic.

I remember well the bits of my grandfather's old stump fence on the farm. I located parts of that old line, just to be sure the big roots were still there and I even measured them up. My grandfather had pulled some massive stumps, lined them up carefully to provide stock-proof barriers, doubtlessly with the help of my uncles who grew up on the farm. That would have been in the 1920s or 1930s. Placed as a fence, the roots spanned 10 or 15 or more feet. Now crumbling, only a few bits are left. These old stumps held aloft trees 3 feet in diameter at breast height, or even larger. The trees were probably cut in the 1900s. Trees aren't let to grow to that size any more!

I recalled, too, going to the woods, when a boy, to collect black walnuts covering the ground underneath respectably-sized trees. We used to make maple sugar from a dozen or more huge hard maple trees-only two of those trees remain, and they are diseased and under threat. My father talked about the loss of chestnut trees in the same way I now talk of the loss of the big old American elm trees. Some of the loss has been through natural or even unnatural diseases, but much of the lowering of the value of woodlands has resulted from land owners over-cutting the better trees while allowing defective trees to grow.

The local people I talked with explained away the decline in the quality of timber stands with such statements as "The gypsy moth has weakened the trees," or "acid rain has been destructive around here." They mentioned the encroachment of suburbia, the expense of more taxes, and the movement of their children to other locations. They were not aware of the deeper story-the abuse of the forests that has taken place for generations.

The climax forest was cut about two hundred years ago, and nearly all the valuable trees were taken away or burned. On a continuous basis since then, the trees that would yield saw logs have been removed from the land left forested. Not much millable timber remains in the woodlots of my area, the old growth has usually been scoured for anything that could be taken. Further, the more highly valued species of trees are so depleted in the timber stands that few seeds from those sorts are produced for regeneration.

Yet, fields that once were pasture or hay meadows are growing up with trees scattered throughout. Nature is retaking the land with trees, but if all the better trees are harvested first, the regrowth of valuable timber will take a very long time. Most people travel by and see "lots of trees out there," with little awareness of the depletion we have suffered. Finding a giant oak, hickory or walnut is nearly impossible. Try to locate a mature black cherry, or a black walnut, or even a shagbark hickory! And, with perhaps worse implications for the future, try to locate an immature example of the above species!

Aside from a few sporadic plantations, planted by public work programs or sponsored by the Department of Conservation, and now a growing number of carefully managed private forests there are acres and acres of unused farmland in a slow and uncertain process of returning to woodland. Reseeding is taking place, but Nature alone is unable to accomplish reseeding given the lack of mature trees of valuable species.

Further Reflections

Another observation that came quickly to me as I walked along those country roads was the vast amount of debris scattered about, particularly on the downhill side of the roads, and especially in the intervals between houses. The area around Tompkins Corners, like others, has its collection of old plastic, automobile parts, bottles, cans, and various bits and pieces of junk. Close observation revealed many old beer cans and, along the road, remnants of cigarettes. At one point I noticed the carcasses, stripped of meat, of at least five deer, partly decomposed in plastic bags. Dogs or other animals had chewed and dragged parts of the carcasses deeper into the woods. The quantity of rubbish was astonishing.

Reflections about the attitudes that led to the accumulation of garbage along the roads told another story. Where is pride, cleanliness, and respect for nature? Not only that, but where are the teachings of the educational system, evidence of the values generated by the churches, proof of the will of the political system, and certainly the results of caring demonstrated by the business system of America?

As I thought about the future of my birthplace, I was reminded of the recent work by Professor J. R. Flenley at Massey University in New Zealand. His observations of forest destruction on Easter Island demonstrated that the inhabitants could literally see the demise of their forests, for Easter Island is not large. But, they apparently could not stop their cutting of timber. There came a time when the last tree was cut and the human population died off not long after as well. For many years now, there are virtually no trees left on that island.

We face a great problem in the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier region of New York because relatively few people are aware of the degradation of the forests that has gone on for generations, ever since the initial clear cutting of much of the original stand. The practice of always taking the best trees has left the poor and undesirable trees growing in old woodlots and spreading over abandoned farm land. How many people who walk in forests or even along back roads are aware of what has happened? Sure there are hikers and hunters, and farmers who inspect their fields but few notice or reflect upon what is so evident-the valuable species were not allowed to mature and regenerate and now are no longer able to reestablish themselves.

The region of Upstate New York has a climate that favors tree growth. On many farms there are rough, stony hillsides unsuited to tillage or pasturing that can support only trees. The marginal land in this area offers many splendid opportunities for farmers, land owners, and woodsmen to recreate a landscape of well-tended forests interspersed with meadowland and arable fields.

1999, Robert J. Gregory
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