Bearly Awake

Black Bears Emerge from their Winter Slumber

Many of my friends bemoan April in the Northeast as one of the worst times of the year. Dirt roads turn into mine fields of muddy ruts and potholes, melting snow and flowing springs turn trails treacherous and even make off-trail woods-walking messy. The trees are all still leaf-less, as though the mud from the roads is stretching brown fingers high into the sky.  Even the leftover snow is dirt-covered and dingy. 

I always jump passionately to April’s defense in these conversations.  April is one of my twelve most favorite months of the year and hopefully when you know where to look you will love it as much as I do. 

Ramps emerging from the forest floor. Shelby Perry

April is (usually) when most of the snow melts in our region, and while that may be sad for lovers of winter sports, it means that water is once again abundant in our landscape. With that water comes all of the things that rely on it to live, breed, and migrate.  Geese fly overhead, resting at lakes, ponds, and even flooded fields.  Amphibians begin their annual migration to breeding pools, singing merrily for all to hear.  The earliest blooming spring wildflowers start to poke up through the soil, unfurl their delicate new leaves, and drink in the sunlight before the trees leaf out and snatch it all away.  Melt water trickles down into the ground, displacing the gasses in the soil that have accumulated from winter decomposition, and releasing what we all think of as the quintessential smell of spring, geosmin.  April in Vermont is magic, if you know where to look. 

One of my very favorite signs of spring, and one that I often first see in April, is black bear (Ursus americanus) tracks. Sometimes staggering, sometimes determined, the prints tell the tale of one of our region’s largest wild predators, and spotting them always gives me a thrill. By now black bears are out and about (time to bring in your bird feeders!) and the females might even have some cubs in tow. It’s been a long process for all these bears to den up in the late fall and emerge five months later—a process that goes unseen but is nonetheless fascinating.

Bear tracks across Binney Pond at Binney Hill Wilderness Preserve in New Hampshire. Mike Przybyla

There is some debate about whether or not bears should be considered “true hibernators,” since they don’t dramatically lower their body temperature during their winter snooze. Yet they do spend the winter in a den, mostly sleeping.  Their sleep ranges from deep to light, and they wake regularly to scratch itches, shift positions, and stretch.  During this time their metabolism and heart rate slow down slightly so they burn fewer calories, which come from fat stores they’ve built up over the previous summer and fall. Adult bears rarely urinate or defecate in their dens (though newborn cubs do) because the slow use of calories stored in body fat generates less waste than eating. Bears also possess the impressive super power of “pee-cycling,” meaning they can recycle built-up urea into new proteins. This prevents the waste buildup from becoming toxic.

Bear tracks through mud at a property protected by Northeast Wilderness Trust in New Hampshire. Shelby Perry

Male bears and non-nursing females coming out of their den in the spring might weigh as much as 15-30% less than they did in the fall. Female bears have an extra challenge through their winter survival, as they often are also pregnant when they enter their dens. Mama bears are mostly asleep through their pregnancy, waking briefly to birth their cubs around January, and then hitting the pillow once again. The cubs, born around the size of chipmunks, will then nurse on their semi-comatose mom until spring, when she will emerge from the den up to 40% lighter than she was when she went in. 

Despite all this, bears don’t wake up hungry. Their bodies suppress their appetites starting in late fall, triggering them to stop foraging and start looking for a cozy place to hole up through the cold. Black bears would be unlikely to stay safely in their dens during the winter if they woke up hungry, so a hormone that simulates the feeling of fullness sticks around in the blood at high levels until well after it is warm enough for them to emerge. And when they do venture out they are, as you might imagine, pretty groggy and stiff. A bear may come and go from its den or other shelters several times while recovering from their winter sleep. Early in the process they blearily stumble and yawn, stretch and laze about, just like I imagine that I would if I slept for 5 months. Gradually, they regain their strength and stamina, and eventually their appetite too. To get a sense of the experience, check out this video of a bear in Minnesota waking up over the course of many days.

A mother bear scent-marks with her cub in Vermont. (c) Sue Morse

As mama bears begin to wake, their cubs are around three months old and weigh around six pounds— slightly more than a Chihuahua, but with significantly more fur! Over the summer the cubs stay with their mom. These three cubs were caught on a game camera last spring following their mom across the brand new Bramhall Wilderness Preserve in Bridgewater, VT.

As they wrestle and play their way through their first year of life, they learn what foods to eat, how to climb trees, and other bear necessities before entering hibernation alongside their mom in the fall.  This will be the last time they will share a den though, and the following April they will strike out on their own, seeking new territories where they can begin the cycle anew. 

 

 

Stop and Smell the Geosmin

 

Spring is a time of transformation. The sleepy silence of the cold white winter recedes into a decadent symphony of sound and color, slowly at first, but with continually increasing vigor right on through until summer. There is so much to see and hear during this time of the year that it is easy to overlook one of my favorite spring sensations: the smell.

Usually described as “fresh earth” or “muddy” the smell is one we all know well. I associate it with those hardy little flowers known as spring ephemerals that come up as soon as the ground thaws, producing both flower and fruit before the trees above open their leaves and soak up all of the available sunlight. Trout lilies and spring beauties and trilliums—just writing their names brings the smell of spring to my mind; but it is not these flowers that give us that springy smell. So just what is it that we have to thank for spring’s classic scent?

Spring beauty emerges from the forest floor in April. Photo by Shelby Perry.

It turns out the scent of spring is the very same substance responsible for the earthy taste of beets: a terpene known as geosmin. The name geosmin comes from the Greek words for “earth” and “smell.” Geosmin is produced by blue green algae and certain kinds of soil bacteria called actinomycetes. These bacteria break down plant material, and in the process convert another soil chemical (farnesyl diphosphate) to geosmin in a two-step process.

Geosmin exists in the soil year-round, but its smell is only noticeable under certain conditions—you might notice it when digging into soil, during spring thaw, and after a rain. This is because generally the gas pools in spaces beneath the soil surface and is only detectable when these pools are disturbed, like when digging turns over the soil or water soaks into it, displacing the gasses within. Sometimes the smell of geosmin is apparent before a storm hits, the result of decreasing pressure associated with the approaching weather causing the soils to off-gas geosmin and carbon dioxide that has built up beneath the surface.

With spring in full swing I hope you take the time to get out into the wild, where forests are coming to life and there is so much to see and explore. And while you are out there don’t forget to stop and smell the geosmin.

 

Welcoming Our New Board Members

Northeast Wilderness Trust is delighted to welcome four new members to our Board of Directors!

In the News: Muddy Pond & Binney Hill

 

This winter, two Northeast Wilderness Trust Preserves were featured in local news. A big thank you to the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript and Wicked Local Kingston for highlighting these special places and the wilderness message! Click below to read the full articles.


 

Honoring Annette Dykema’s Legacy

 

Every so often, we encounter a special wilderness champion whose passion for nature makes a very real difference in the lives of wild beings. Annette Dykema was just such a person. Annette passed away last December, but left a legacy that will last for generations to come.

 

Annette and her family spent summers and weekends at their property in Guilford, Vermont, connecting with each other and the land. The forested valley lay at the end of a dirt road, “For my mom, it was a big part of her; she knew every inch of that place,” said Alex Liston Dykema, her son.

Annette deeply cared about protecting any property she could; she had placed a conservation easement on her former property in Oregon. In the early 2000s, Annette began to explore conserving the Guilford forest surrounding her home. Annette’s wishes were for the valley to remain wild and unmanaged, but she had difficulty finding a land trust that was philosophically aligned with her personal land ethic. Alex, who is now an attorney for the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy, began to do some digging and eventually came across Northeast Wilderness Trust. It was a match.

“The concept, for Mom, of being able to protect [the land] as a completely natural space forever was remarkable,” said Alex. Soon after Annette had placed a forever-wild easement on the land with Northeast Wilderness Trust in 2004, an adjacent parcel of land came up for sale. So she worked with her neighbors to buy it and raise the funds for the Wilderness Trust to place forever-wild protections on it. In total, Annette’s devotion to the wild protected 232 contiguous acres in Guilford.

The Dykema family on their Guilford property in 1999. From left: Martha Frost, Alex Liston Dykema and his son, Eligh, and Annette Dykema.

Annette’s daughter, Martha Frost, will keep the land in the family. “My siblings and I were outside in all four seasons as kids,” noted Alex. “Mom’s eight grandkids each have a connection to this land—it is firmly rooted in all of us.”

In the 45 years since they have owned this land, the family has watched it evolve. In addition to seeing the forest itself grow older and wilder, they have seen moose and black bear come back to the woods. “The property really gave us a sense of what rewilding could do,” said Alex. “There was no chance we’d have seen moose or black bear four decades ago, and now they’re there.”

Annette’s generous spirit and warm heart will be missed. She has set an example of unfailing dedication to the wild. For that, we are grateful…and we’re pretty sure those moose and bear are, too!

Thank you as well to the donors who made a gift to the Northeast Wilderness Trust in memory of Annette Dykema. Together, you contributed $1,375 to wilderness conservation. Thank you!

 

Covid-19 Update from the Executive Director

Thanks to those who support wilderness conservation, Northeast Wilderness Trust has made strides towards a wilder tomorrow for the northeast. In 2015, we set a goal of conserving 10,000 additional wilderness acres by 2020, and we exceeded that goal this past year with the protection of Eagle Mountain Wilderness Preserve.

2019 In Review

 

Thanks to those who support wilderness conservation, Northeast Wilderness Trust has made strides towards a wilder tomorrow for the northeast. In 2015, we set a goal of conserving 10,000 additional wilderness acres by 2020, and we exceeded that goal this past year with the protection of Eagle Mountain Wilderness Preserve. Each conservation success in the intervening years was critical to making it this far.

Check out our work in each state below!

New Hampshire

In 2019, NWT launched a campaign to expand the Binney Hill Wilderness Preserve in New Ipswich, NH by 47 acres. With the help of 76 generous donors, we have met the fundraising goal and now count the Sawtelle Addition as a forever-wild piece of this critical wildlife corridor! This land connects Binney Hill to the NWT-protected Wapack Wilderness to the north, and it secures the last piece of the Binney Pond shoreline so that this undeveloped pond is now fully protected.

The 47-acre Sawtelle Addition secures a small but beautiful section of the Wapack Trail as it crosses boardwalks affording views of the undeveloped, and now fully protected, Binney Pond.

New York

Just west of Poke-o-Moonshine in the northeast Adirondack foothills, the brand new Eagle Mountain Wilderness Preserve now protects 2,434 acres. The land includes pristine ponds, cliffs where peregrine falcons nest, wetlands, brooks, and vernal pools. The protection of this land furthers the effort to secure a swath of interconnected lands for wildlife, linking the Adirondack Park to the shores of Lake Champlain.

Cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) bloom at Eagle Mountain Wilderness Preserve
Photo by Harry White

Maine

NWT bought the 12 acres to add a beautiful, official access point (below) to the Alder Stream Wilderness Preserve in Atkinson, ME. In partnership with NRCS and local contractors, we removed culverts from former logging roads in the Preserve to restore waterways and jump-start the rewilding process. We will soon be launching a fundraising campaign to purchase 3,000+ acres in Western Maine…stay tuned!

Alder Stream Wilderness Preserve now has a beautiful parking area.

Southern New England

On the Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve in Kingston, MA, more than 75 students have connected with the globally rare Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens ecosystem this year. They visit Muddy Pond to hike and reconnect with nature, and learn science, history, and wilderness values in a real-world setting. Biology students and local ecologist Tim Simmons are monitoring rare and endangered plants, while dozens of volunteers have helped haul out litter, close down ATV trails, and create a beautiful new parking area.

Students enjoy a hike through the globally rare Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens on the Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve

In Connecticut, we’re excited to be exploring new conservation opportunities in the northwest corner of the state, and will be presenting at the Connecticut Land Conservation Conference this March (see upcoming events below). UnTrammeled: The Case for Wild Nature, our popular presentation, will make its Connecticut debut at the Norfolk Public Library on May 21…save the date!

Vermont

In partnership with The Nature Conservancy in Vermont, we now hold forever-wild protections on Burnt Mountain. Spanning 5,000 acres across the northern spine of the Green Mountains, this rugged terrain is home to black bear, brook trout, and a rich diversity of breeding songbirds. We continue to raise money to protect the Bridgewater Hollow Bramhall Wilderness Preserve, and hosted a BioBlitz on the land this summer.

Calvale Brook at Burnt Mountain

Curious what the next five years will bring? Check out our 2020-25 Strategic Plan to see how the Northeast Wilderness Trust will accelerate and expand the protection of wild places. You can help make the Northeast a wilder place by making a tax-deductible donation. Your support gives the Northeast Wilderness Trust the standing to conserve more land at a greater pace. Thank you.

 

Wilderness Preserve Expands in New Ipswich

 

For more information, contact:

  • Jon Leibowitz, Executive Director: jon@newildernesstrust.org, 802.224.1000
  • Sophi Veltrop, Outreach Coordinator: sophi@newildernesstrust.org, 802.224.1000

For immediate release: February 7, 2020

New Ipswich, NH – The Northeast Wilderness Trust bought 47 acres of forest and wetlands from Shirley Sawtelle, safeguarding the last remaining unprotected shoreline of Binney Pond and a section of the Wapack Trail. The Wilderness Trust will manage this land as a forever-wild addition to its Binney Hill Wilderness Preserve, which it purchased in 2016.

The Sawtelle addition connects the Binney Hill Wilderness Preserve to the Wapack Wilderness—a property owned by the Hampshire Country School and legally protected by Northeast Wilderness Trust.

“The Sawtelle Addition, while relatively small in size, is mighty in its impact,” said Jon Leibowitz, Executive Director of Northeast Wilderness Trust. “It protects the final puzzle piece of Binney Pond’s shoreline, and is a critical linkage between two Wilderness Trust-conserved properties.”

With the addition of 47 acres to the Binney Hill Wilderness Preserve, the entire shoreline of Binney Pond is now protected from development.

In total, a 1,963-acre landscape of unbroken wilderness is conserved by the Northeast Wilderness Trust in New Ipswich and Rindge. These Wilderness Trust lands abut a network of other private and public conserved lands, creating interconnected, diverse natural habitats that are needed by far-ranging species like moose and bobcat, both of which have been observed on the Sawtelle Addition.

“Northeast Wilderness Trust’s ongoing conservation of forever-wild lands in southern New Hampshire is part of a larger vision to secure a resilient New England landscape,” added Mr. Leibowitz. “In this region, wildlands and well-managed woodlands complement one another for the benefit of nature and people.”

Now that the Sawtelle property is protected as forever-wild, a connected corridor of 1,963 acres creates an expansive refuge for wildlife.

Mrs. Sawtelle wanted to preserve her property for its values to wildlife, including the beaver, heron, waterfowl, and amphibians that rely on the pond and its surrounding wetlands and forest.

“Nature is very important to my family,” said Mrs. Sawtelle. “We came to love it here because of the wildflowers and the animals…we’ve enjoyed the Wapack Trail tremendously.”

The 21.5-mile Wapack Trail, which leads from Mt. Watatic to North Pack Monadnock, the recently conserved property. The trail is maintained by the Friends of the Wapack, who partner with organizations like the Wilderness Trust to protect the lands surrounding it. Rick Blanchette, president of the Friends, has volunteered with the organization for 30 years.

“As a teen, I would climb Pratt and New Ipswich Mountains and wander the Wapack,” said Mr. Blanchette. “Adding this piece with the Binney property is huge—it’s just terrific to have it all done.”

In 2001, Jacob Varney and the Ashby Boy Scout Troop built boardwalks on Mrs. Sawtelle’s property. The boardwalks were Varney’s Eagle Scout project to improve the hiking experience without disturbing the natural flow of water or the fragile wetland soils. “That was just the best thing,” said Mrs. Sawtelle. “Everyone always uses them because the trail is so wet there.”


The Sawtelle parcel protects a short section of the 21.5-mile Wapack Trail, affording hikers views of Binney Pond and a pleasant meander along boardwalks built in 2001 by the Ashby Boy Scouts.

“From the boardwalks, one can see beautiful mountain laurels and herons in the summer,” said Mr. Blanchette. “I’ve encountered signs of moose on this land while hiking alone.”

The Friends of the Wapack are celebrating their 40th Anniversary this year. Only five miles of the Wapack Trail remain unprotected, and the Friends hope to accomplish this goal in the upcoming years. As for Mrs. Sawtelle, her 2020 goal is to hike from her house to Mt. Watatic for a picnic, crossing the newly protected trail en route.


About the Northeast Wilderness Trust

Founded in 2002, the Northeast Wilderness Trust conserves forever-wild landscapes for nature and people across New England and the Adirondacks. The Wilderness Trust owns Wilderness Preserves and Sanctuaries, and also protects land through legal means such as conservation easements. The organization currently safeguards more than 35,000 acres of wildlands in six states.

 

Wilderness Rebounds in the Heart of Kingston

 

For more information, contact:

For immediate release: January 20, 2020

Kingston, MA – In the center of the suburbs, Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve is offering a wild refuge for nature, wildlife, and people. The Northeast Wilderness Trust established the Preserve in 2018, and has been working to re-wild the land and connect students and residents with wilderness.

The Preserve sits at the northern reaches of the Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens. This forest type is globally rare, and found only in New Jersey, Long Island, and Southeastern Massachusetts and its islands. The Pine Barrens are dominated by pitch pine and black, white, and red oak trees. While Massachusetts’ Pine Barrens survived European settlement because their nutrient-poor soils were not suitable for agriculture, they are now very rare due to suburban development. Several species live only in the unique Coastal Plain Ponds of Southeast Massachusetts, and are critically endangered or threatened. 

Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve is home to a rare ecosystem that is home to diverse flora and fauna.

Looking Back

As locals know well, suburban sprawl has boomed south of Boston since the 1980s. Most of the original Pine Barrens have since been destroyed or broken up into fragments.

 “Plymouth County has lost most of its large, un-fragmented open spaces in my lifetime,” said Joe Falconeiri, the Southern New England Land Steward for Northeast Wilderness Trust. “In only a few decades, much of this globally rare ecosystem in our backyards has been forever altered and lost due to residential and commercial development.”

In 1995, Kingston was home to a stretch of unbroken forest totaling more than 2,000 acres. In the mid-90s, large developments began to eat away at its edges. And in 2004, Route 44 was built, splitting the forest in two.

South of the highway, the 322-acre Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve is one of the remaining pieces of that original forest. It is owned by Northeast Wilderness Trust, and is open for low-impact recreation like hiking, bird-watching, and nature study.

Although safe from development, the Preserve is only bordered by 200 acres of forest. Some is state and town land and some is protected by The Wildlands Trust. Yet the rest is private land under threat of development. The Preserve’s only connection to 775 acres of woodlands opposite the highway (including Camp Nekon and the Kingston Town Forest) is one concrete tunnel under Route 44.

Decades of construction have added up. Today, the Pine Barrens are small, separated pieces of diminished habitat. As the forest disappears, so do the opportunities to connect with nature and experience the native landscape.

Moving Forward

The Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve offers a redeeming glimmer of hope in that patches of these forests do still exist; they are not yet gone forever. Within the Preserve, the nearby hum of traffic is muffled by songs of frogs, birds, or crickets. In early spring, amphibians lay their eggs, wildflowers blossom, and turtles dig nests. Through the summer, rare and endangered plants found only in this kind of ecosystem emerge from the waters of Muddy Pond. They bloom as fall sets in, while birds stop by for a rest as they migrate south.

New England Boneset is an endangered species found only Southeast Massachusetts. It thrives at Muddy Pond and its population is being closely monitored.

Re-wilding is the practice of letting nature take charge. Joe Falconeiri is working with local schools and organizations to jumpstart the re-wilding process while teaching about wilderness values.

“When people visit Muddy Pond, they immediately decompress and become reconnected and centered within themselves,” said Falconeiri. “The social, political and environmental lessons Muddy Pond provide are profound for the community and region and these lessons will now be protected for future generations to come.”

Falconeiri works with residents to haul out trash, shut down old trails, and hang signs. More than 75 students have joined Northeast Wilderness Trust to lend a hand and enjoy the outdoors. Teenagers are becoming familiar with this native habitat as they gather data for biology class. Dozens of adults have joined hikes and volunteer days, too.

Volunteers help clean up litter in the forest surrounding Muddy Pond, in collaboration with the Wildlands Trust and Northeast Wilderness Trust.

These citizens are redefining the relationship between people and the environment. Rather than treating the land as a resource to be used and extracted, they approach it as a source of knowledge, excitement, and beauty.

Your Guide to Muddy Pond

Parking is located on Bishop’s Highway, one mile west of Route 80. To protect this precious landscape, visitors are asked to respect the Preserve’s rules: Hikers please stay on the designated trails, and keep dogs on-leash. Vehicles, bicycles, radios, fires, camping, hunting, fishing, and trapping are not permitted.

To learn more or inquire about volunteer opportunities and events, visit www.newildernesstrust.org or contact Joe Falconieri at joe@newildernesstrust.org


About Northeast Wilderness Trust

Founded in 2002, the Northeast Wilderness Trust conserves forever-wild landscapes for nature and people across New England and the Adirondacks. The Wilderness Trust owns Wilderness Preserves and Sanctuaries, and also protects land through legal means such as conservation easements. The organization currently safeguards more than 35,000 acres of wildlands in six states.

 

Eagle Mountain Success

 

A century-old tradition continues in New York’s Adirondack Park to solve the ecological crises of today and give us hope.

By Jon Leibowitz

Originally appeared in the Rewilding Earth blog at rewilding.org 

Old Forest

With the slap of her tail, the beaver formally welcomed us to her domain. She dipped back under the tannin-brown water, reemerged, slapped again, and zigzagged around her lodge.  This river was her home, not ours; we were interlopers in her wild place.

We were six or so miles into a canoe trip up and down the Oswegatchie River within the Five Ponds Wilderness in the western Adirondacks.  The Five Ponds landscape looks and feels different from most places across the northeastern United States, and for good reason.  Within this New York State-designated forever-wild landscape remain approximately 50,000 acres of ancient forest.  This expanse is recognized as the largest uncut forest in the Northeast.  The river itself is lined with countless stately Eastern White Pines towering above 100 feet.  The forests beyond host larger and older trees, everywhere, than I ever find, anywhere, in my home state of Vermont.

A few days into the trip we turned off the Oswegatchie and paddled up an unnamed tributary.  We made our way over beaver dams submerged under swollen spring waters, just barely passable without portage.  As we meandered further up the watershed, schools of trout darted beneath my canoe through clear water bounded by sandy riverbeds.  Eventually, the local engineers proved too successful and we parked our canoes just below a series of higher dams and headed off into the forest.

Paddling the Oswegatchie River

We began our walk amongst beautiful, old hardwoods.  We passed the largest black cherry I have ever seen.  Soon followed the largest yellow birch.  What left me in awe was not the superlatives but the regularity and commonality of large trees—everywhere.  Old growth, ancient, virgin, primary, primeval, pre-European; whatever one chooses to call it—looks and feels different from most forests across the Northeast.  By some estimates, 99% of the forest across the vast Northern Forest has been logged—the remaining one percent is what’s left of the forest that stood before European arrival and the subsequent warfare upon forests.

After a snack, we left the hardwoods behind and crested an esker that stood between ponds.  This heap of sediment and boulders, left behind by some ancient glacial event, afforded us a view in all directions.  What lay before me was a forest that rivaled the “park-like” appearance of this continent’s stately western ponderosa forests (my former home) and California’s redwood groves.  Towering white pines dotted the terrain in every direction, with many over 125’ by our estimation.  One was too large for three grown men to wrap our arms around.  Yes, it felt juvenile to hug the tree.  Yes, it also felt thrilling, hopeful, and joyous.

Elder giants strewn across the forest floor by old age or tremendous storms created wide, clear walkways.  It brought me right back to a college ramble through the redwoods many years ago, where giant round red bridges punctuated towering trunks reaching for the sky and lush green ferns carpeting the earth.

Walking this forest was the first time in the Northeast that an experience in the woods evoked in me that feeling of wild magnificence, of old, grand, original forest; the same way I used to often feel tramping through wilderness areas out West.  There is a definition for what constitutes old growth.  It’s scientific and it likely makes sense to someone.  I don’t know the precise point at which a secondary forest can be formally defined as old growth, nor do I care to know.  What I do know, is that to me, ancient forests are self-apparent; I can feel it in my bones when I’m in one.

I left the Five Ponds with a full soul, a rejuvenated spirit, and an optimistic outlook on my work.

Ecological Amnesia

It wasn’t so long ago that most of the Northern Forest resembled the Five Ponds and rivaled western forests in splendor and size.  It was not so long ago that witnessing a smooth-barked beech was the rule, not the exception; that flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the skies above the forest canopy; that catamounts stalked prey in a forest that stretched a third of the way across the continent.  Nor was it so long ago that these rivers were the highways for annual migrations of millions of Atlantic salmon, American eel, and other diadromous species – a phenomenon that thankfully still continues in places like the Great Bear Rainforest of the Pacific Northwest.

Today the passenger pigeon—once accounting for 40% of the entire bird population of North America—is extinct.  Catamounts have been extirpated from the Northeast. The cyclical, life-giving transfer of ocean nutrients hundreds of miles inland thanks to the migratory salmon and eels has functionally halted. The only sizeable Atlantic salmon populations today are raised in enormous, industrial offshore nets.  Many of the regal Eastern White Pines like those along the Oswegatchie were cut for the Crown’s Navy centuries ago and a majority of the forest that stood upon European arrival was cut altogether by the late 1800s.  Those original natural wonders brought richness to human life and great beauty and diversity to life itself.  The absence of those missing denizens and grand eastern forests has become our collective baseline; the great forgetting.  We all suffer from this ecological amnesia.

Before European “settlement”—read conquest–of America, there was no such thing as “old-growth,” no such thing as “native forest,” no such thing as “ancient forest,” because all of the forests were mixed old growth, they were all native, they were all diverse, ancient communities.  Difficult as all of this may be to imagine, living as we do in this time of extraordinary ecological impoverishment, all of these images of fecundity are from near-contemporary accounts easy enough to find, if only we bother to look.

 

Derrick Jenson, Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests
White pine and hemlock reach staggering size in the Five Ponds Wilderness Area

The Northern Forest has changed and it continues to do so, both of natural and not so natural causes.  We are born into an environment lacking apex predators, large trees, and landscapes with multi-generational communities of life. We lack deep understanding of and direct connection with the rhythms and laws of nature. It’s easy to accept that what surrounds us is normal.  It isn’t.

The diminished has become our baseline; the empty, our cognitive reality, and the implications are drastic.  With each generation that unwittingly accepts a less diverse planet as natural and normal, we collectively become more detached from the full diversity of life.  As our original memory diminishes, it becomes ever harder to reimagine what the wild world should look like and what steps should be taken to rebalance our species with the planet; emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

A coral reef ravaged by climate change, bleached stone-dead as far as the eye can see, is unsurprisingly less inspiring than a reef overflowing with the psychedelic technicolor spectacle of thousands of species.  Likewise, a northern hardwood forest of young spindly trees of the same age and diameter, devoid of stalking big cats and the full diversity of the land community, inspires one less than an old forest full of life.  Less inspiration means greater apathy.

This ecological amnesia, or shifting baseline syndrome, may be one of the greatest threats to rebalancing our coexistence with natural systems.  It’s predictable that fewer wander in and wonder at the natural world.  It’s no surprise that more choose to escape into the digital world rather than the natural one.  Those living today have been wholesale ripped off by those that preceded us!  And, the cycle could continue in an endless negative feedback loop of more losses, more amnesia.  But it doesn’t have to. There is a clear path to a more hopeful future.

Taking Stock of Where We Are

The Adirondacks are perhaps the world’s greatest experiment in ecological recovery, a place hard used a century ago and now slowly recovering, slowly proving that where humanity backs off, nature rebounds.

 

Bill McKibben

Over the past 100+ years, the Northern Forest has returned.  These tenacious woods have proven their resilience.  This recovery has followed two parallel tracks: the intentional and the accidental. The intentional track includes watershed moments like the creation of the Adirondack Park and the inclusion of forever-wild language in the New York Constitution in 1892; the creation of the White and Green Mountain National Forests in 1918 and 1932, respectively; the donation of land that became Baxter State Park in 1932; the passage of the Federal Wilderness Act in 1964 and subsequent Federal actions in 1975, 1984, and 2006 that designated significant portions of the Greens and Whites as Wilderness.

Those intentional efforts are laudable, but as a region that is approximately 90% privately owned, arguably the more widespread occurrence has been the “accidental” rewilding of the region. This most fortuitous recovery resulted from the exodus of the dairy and wool markets in the late 1800s, as farmers fled west to gentler, more fertile ground. This economic shift was furthered by the abandonment of the charcoal industry, which petered out with the diminishing timber supply.  With a sheer lack of humans, much of New England and the Adirondacks had a chance to rest and heal.  As Mr. McKibben so aptly states, when we back off, nature rebounds.

The report from Harvard Forest, Wildlands and Woodlands, calls for 70% of New England (30 million acres) to be preserved as forest, and 10%of that (3 million acres) to be preserved as Wildlands. (New York is not included in the report.)  We can celebrate the fact that the Northern Forest has largely recovered from its decimated state a hundred years ago. Thanks to the tireless work of the conservation movement, we are lucky that more than 25% of the region’s natural terrain has some sort of legal protection, largely from development.  However, only about 3-4% of the Northeast is legally protected as forever-wild.  Only such places—those with permanent forever-wild legal protections—are guaranteed to continue rewilding, growing old, and more complex. This is not nearly enough, and we have a long way to go before we reach 3 million forever-wild acres across New England

We are between two forested worlds–the natural forest of pre-settlement North America and the recovered forest of the future…The earlier forested world is not dead. We are studying and struggling to preserve its living remnants. And we do not believe that the future forest is powerless to be born. These remnants–with our help–will become the seeds from which a renewed forest spreads.

 

Mary Byrd Davis, Eastern Old-Growth Forests: Prospects for Rediscovery and Recovery

Most protected forests in the Northeast have been preserved for people: for natural resource extraction, recreation, or motorized vehicle access.  And that’s OK!  However, it is within our power to change the ratio towards a more nature-centered future. The act of rewilding is to give land back to wildlife and wildlife back to the land. The Five Ponds Wilderness is a blueprint of a more hopeful future, not a relic of a distant past never to return.

Rewilding Forests and Imaginations by Reimagining Wilderness

Henry David Thorough wrote more than 200 years ago that, “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.”

Today, in wildness is the tonic to our many modern ecological dilemmas.  Wild places simply have a right to exist, but, let’s also acknowledge that rewilding and wilderness conservation in its historic context has been sidelined by the assumption that it is not relevant to vast segments of society.  Today, that argument no longer holds water and a reimagining of what wilderness means provides tangible and measurable hope in an otherwise bleak state of ecological affairs.

Only through more forever-wild conservation can we unleash the full potential of our region’s carbon sequestering forests.  Only through landscape-scale rewilding efforts can we stave off the biodiversity crisis.  And, only through the humble act of setting aside vast and connected places that are left to their own devices will wonder and amazement be accessible to more people.  Through rewilding, we can flip the script of ecological amnesia and create a positive feedback loop where more people connect with and care for wild places.

“You have to love something before you are moved to save it!”

Sylvia Earle

In the 21st century, conserving the recovered woodlands of the Northern Forest as forever-wild is the most cost effective, scalable, and efficient tool in our arsenal to combat the interconnected crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.  Such a new wilderness builds on the foundational ideas of the wilderness movement.  When Howard Zahniser conjured up the language for the Wilderness Act in 1964, he knew that wilderness could grow as well as shrink, and he consciously used the obscure word “untrammeled” in the law’s definition of wilderness. The Wilderness Act does not contain the words “pristine” or “untouched.”  Something that is trammeled is bound or caught; something untrammeled is free or unimpeded.

Wilderness is Relevant; Wilderness is Hope

As we consider the implications of a new wilderness for the 21st century and the hopeful reawakening of our collective connection with Wild Earth, places like Eagle Mountain can help lead the way.  The property was purchased not for people, but for nature.  It was protected so the forest could regain its original foothold and be self-willed, in every sense of the term.  And in doing so, the benefits to people will be both measurable and immeasurable.  Measurably, it will store carbon and provide safe harbor to wildlife.  Immeasurably, it will rekindle imagination and wonder for generations of people to come.   That in and of itself fills me with hope.

Find more great wilderness articles on the Rewilding Earth blog!