Imagine stepping back in time, before the first Europeans arrived, into the forests of New England more than 500 years ago.
At that time, these forests were dominated by towering giants, such as the chestnut and white pine, capable of reaching over 100 feet, above a layered variety of species right down to the forest floor. They would have looked very different from what is seen today.
We tend to look at deforestation in areas like the tropics, but we should also look at what is happening in our own backyard. — John Volin
Widespread change initially came to New England after the arrival of the colonists, when forests were cleared to make way for farmlands, says John Volin, a professor of natural resources and the environment and vice provost for academic affairs. Then when richer, less rocky agricultural lands further west appealed to farmers, many New England farms were abandoned and the forest began to regenerate.
That was in the early 1800s. Then industrialization happened, and deforestation took place for a second time in the mid- to late 1800s. It’s hard to picture today’s largely forested landscape as it was 100 years ago, with significantly fewer trees.
The relatively quick regrowth of the forests is testament to the resilience of nature, but the young forests of today are not the same as the forest of 500 years ago.
The attractive, but destructive, Emerald Ash Borer. (Getty Images)Typical northeastern forests now consist of dense canopies populated by smaller tree species of similar ages, all currently facing various new threats such as beetles, caterpillars, or blights that have been brought to the area directly or have made their way here due to climate change.
One notable blight, the chestnut blight of the early 1900s, left a devastating legacy, Volin says, completely wiping out the towering chestnut species that once dominated as much as 80 …