Monday, April 9, 2018

The 1675 Grove: A Virgin White Pine Forest

What better lesson in American history than natural history, of which intact virgin forest systems bear few close competitors. Hidden, scattered vestiges of old-growth groves offer a living glimpse into pre-European America, largely untouched by the ax or plow. They survived the industrial revolution, the hurricane of 1938, the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the saw mill and all its men. Such areas are sparse and kept secrete and protected often only by a good family deed passed down generations. They make up less than 1% of their original area in the northeast, with only some forest types represented. For those that remain, they are diamonds in the ruff - true national treasures.

In the small town of Brighton, NY in Franklin County, a stand known as Elder's Grove or 1675 Grove (aptly named after the date of germination) is all that remains of a once expansive northern hardwood forest. Here, stately white pine (Pinus strobus) - one of the rarest old-growth tree species - tower above surrounding second-growth pole size forest like tropic emergent trees, making a nostalgic natural cathedral.


As a vegetation ecologist with a deep love for forests, I expect a virgin stand to consist of trees of all ages, or "uneven aged," but this tract is different. Eldner's Grove was studied and age-class distributions were created by forest ecologists who wanted to know its structure and composition. They found that the brunt of old-growth pine was approximately the same age, ~347 years old this year, hence the name 1675 Grove. This suggests that a natural disturbance likely occurred prior to germination such as a micro-burst like the one that devastated the region in 1995. What resulted is a grove consisting of a lot of monstrous trees fairly close together.



P. strobus shoots high above the shade tolerant red spruce (Picea pungens), with one tree over close to 160 feet tall and 13 feet in circumference, making it nearly the tallest tree in New York state! Large black cherry (Prunus serotina), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), yellow birch (Betula allegheniensis) are some of the more dominant associates. I was surprised to find little to no evidence of pine seedlings and saplings, hinting at the possibility of a changing forest.


The bark has a much different appearance than younger pines, even mature pines that are near 200 years old. Virgin pine has deeply furrowed bark with deep fissures and a disproportionately small crown in relation to its overall size, reminding me of giant sequoia trees. There is some crown shyness offering protection to limbs of this relatively soft-wood species. Expansive buttresses help anchor the advantageous root system into the sandy, well-drained soil they prefer. They are straight as an arrow with self pruned lower branches, and they are seldom plum to the ground, giving an appearance of a sort-of "drunken" permafrost forest.


As an ecologist, I also know that big trees are not all that make up a true virgin forest system. Old-growth stands characteristically have unkempt signs of natural disturbance such as tip-up mounds left by roots that create uneven ground, or large standing dead trees that died of old age. It's hard to believe a tree so massive could be supported by such underwhelming shallow roots.


In this forest, many trees snapped near the base, likely from the micro-blast of 1995 that downed thousands of acres of old-growth forest in the Adirondacks. Natural disturbances like this open up the canopy for regeneration of other trees, and the dead and decaying wood adds nutrients to the soil. 


Virgin forests in the northeast have all but disappeared, and many paint an accurate picture of what the Native Americans, first pioneers, and sawyers saw. They offer a pathway back in time, a spiritual connection, and a laboratory to scientists. But with humans aside, they are simply an intrinsic beauty to behold if not only for their rarity today. Some land is just meant to be preserved - like this tract - free from direct large-scale human disturbance. I hope that after reading this post, you will agree.

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