Sunday, June 20, 2010

20 June 1898: Conservation Landmark, as Massachusetts Establishes its First State Park at Mount Greylock (and lessons for conservationists)

On this day in 1898, Mass Moments tells us: 1898, the legislature established the first state park in Massachusetts on Mount Greylock. The tallest peak in the state, at almost 3500 feet, Greylock is like an island, different in geology, climate and ecology from its Berkshire County surroundings. But its isolation did not protect it. By the late 1800s, unregulated logging threatened to deforest its slopes. In 1885 a group of concerned citizens bought 400 acres around the summit. In 1898 they turned the land over to the state to protect it forever. In the years since then, the Commonwealth has added 285,000 acres to the state park system, 12,500 of them on Mt. Greylock, making the Massachusetts state park system the ninth largest in the country. (read the rest)
As the essay tells us, concern over preservation of the environment or natural landscape is nothing new, at least by the average person's time scale (for historians, this is still relatively recent).

Clear-cutting of one side of the mountain by loggers prompted local businessmen to form an association to purchase the land at the peak and attempt to maintain it by charging fees for recreational access, thus combining preservation and profit. (One also thinks of related civic efforts of the era, such as our own Amherst Village Improvement Society and Ornamental Tree association). When the profits failed to materialize, the businessmen (helped by new environmental lobbying efforts) persuaded the state to purchase the site and surrounding area. Sound familiar?

Most of Massachusetts had been stripped of trees by the 1830s, the land cleared for agriculture and the wood used for construction and fuel.  After farming declined in the second half of the nineteenth century, the resultant second growth pine forest came to appear as a valuable source of lumber, and other , leading to irresponsible clearance.  By the end of the twentieth century, forest area in Massachusetts was actually greater than it had been in the Colonial era, but just around that time, according to a new report from the Harvard Forest, it began another downward turn, due to pressures from development.  It is ironic:  the early settlers and their descendants at times acted as if resources were unlimited and took few if any deliberate steps to replenish them, and in a sense one can hardly blame them. To them, the lush greenness and low population density of New England must have seemed a paradise of inexhaustible materials in comparison with a crowded and deforested Europe. The virgin forests of the Americas were said to be so dense that a squirrel could walk across the tops of the trees from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. The oft-cited statement is untrue, but it thus all the more accurately highlights the mentality.  We today are much more aware of the fragility of the environment and finitude of resources, and yet the problem today is that the ecological threats are both more serious and more enduring. Ironically, the threat is not from foresters, who today both hold onto land and replant it (another salutary warning for those who leap to conclusions based on stereotypes). Instead, it comes from developers in real estate and other commercial endeavors, who purchase land for short periods of time and then resell it.  And, whereas abandoned farms of the era 1830-50 easily reverted to woodland, shopping malls and housing subdivisions do not.

As Harvard Forest Director David Foster said,
Though today’s forests are predominantly second growth and different in character from the region’s original forests, researchers said area residents have a second chance to decide their forests’ fate. The first Colonial-era settlers decided to cut them down, but now that the forests have re-grown, it’s our turn to make a similar choice.
Now, as in the days when Greylock was saved, conservation groups are mobilizing, but that's not enough:
The group called for cooperation across the region, in both the public and private sectors, to bring the report’s vision to reality. . . . While cooperation is needed, increased public funding also will be important, since many property owners in rural areas are “land rich” but not wealthy and so can’t turn over land or development rights without compensation.
Plus ça change.

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