Nature is making a comeback in New England. According to researchers from Harvard University, the region can now boast that it is the most heavily forested in the United States.
80 percent of New England is now covered by woodlands, Colin Nickerson writes in the Boston Globe. Back in the mid-1800s, only 30 to 40 percent of most parts of the region was still forested, the result of logging, farming and leveling by generations of settlers since the time of the Pilgrims.
Native species including beavers, moose, bears, gray seals, pileated woodpeckers, hawks and white-tailed deer that had been all but wiped out have reestablished themselves. There are now some 85,000 white-tailed deer in Massachusetts; only a few hundred were alive in the state at the start of the 20th century.
While there were no bald eagles in Vermont ten years ago, 14 nesting pairs are now rearing 24 chicks.
There’s a number of reasons for the return of the New England’s woodlands.
1. Demographic Changes
In the 1850s, the population of New England was about 4.8 million. It is now around 14.4 million. Ironically, the urbanization and industrialization of New England after the Civil War resulted in trees taking over, as more and more people left rural areas for towns and cities located on rivers where textile mills and machine tool factories were being established.
2. Taller Trees and More of Them
Fewer people living on farms has resulted in poplar, birch and spruce trees retaking the land and “march[ing] back to their old ground,’’ as Foster puts it.
Even more, in New England’s suburbs, trees built in the 1950s are flourishing and providing homes for all manner of birds from pileated woodpeckers to songbirds, ravens and hawks. 60 percent of bird species in Massachusetts including red-bellied woodpeckers, willets and ospreys are regarded as “stable.” Wild turkeys, wiped out in Massachusetts in the 1800s, have been successfully reintroduced and can be found even in well-populated areas like Brookline.
3. Breaching Hydroelectric Dams
Across New England, 96 dams have been knocked down. This has meant a a “rejiggering of the power grid” with other generating stations having to increase their electrical output. It has also made it possible for salmon and alewife to again spawn in rivers. One river, the Acushnet River in southeastern Massachusetts, is again flowing with thousands, rather than hundreds, of herring.
4. Cleaner Water
The efforts of environmental activists to clean up the Boston Harbor and prevent pipes from sending raw sewage and industrial toxins into the Connecticut River are indeed “bearing fruit” in the form of restored forests and ecosystems.
5. Making Wildlife Welcome
Erecting wood duck shelters, bluebird houses, osprey perches and other artificial nesting structures has helped at-risk species to recover. Legislation that calls for clean air, bans insecticides and protects wetland has also been key.
Living with nature does require some adjustments for everyone. Suburbanites are finding that bears don’t let fences, doors, etc. get in their way when they’re in search of a meal and that the larger deer population means a greater risk of Lyme disease, which is passed onto humans from ticks. Fishermen find that the renewed population of 15,000-plus gray seals seek out the same fish (cod, haddock) that they do.
But as John Gobeille, a Vermont wildlife biologist comments, humans seem to be “doing a better job of living with nature. Maybe it’s because we got so far away [from nature], most of us truly appreciate seeing it back.’’
“It feels almost like we’re entering an age of miracles… New England is undoing many excesses of the industrial age’’ says John Banks, director of natural resources for the Penobscot Nation, a tribe in Maine who fought to breach dams that had been blocking breeding grounds of migratory fish.
New England’s forests still face their share of threats, from climate change to rivers polluted by fertilizer runoff. But nature, as the revived woodlands and wetlands in the region reveal, can stage a “second act.” How can we make the same happen elsewhere?
Photos from Thinkstock