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By September 17, 2015 Read More →

Our Region’s Forests

It’s exciting to be in the Monadnock Region! Whether you live here all the time, seasonally, or are just passing through, sensing the vibrancy of this area is unavoidable. We are rich in culture: artists, musicians, actors, writers, craftspeople, with numerous and eclectic venues and organizations for all of those. Innovative industries abound. There are strong business and community leaders, effective social service agencies, and dynamic communities. Our forests too, possess unique and dynamic qualities.


The first settlers coming to this area would have noticed changes in vegetation reflecting a transition from the southern New England forests, populated by oak, chestnut, hickory, hemlock, and stands of white pine, to the northern forests of yellow birch, beech, maples, red spruce and balsam fir. This created a dense forest that is inclusive of the species of both forest types, offering a breadth of sylvan diversity.

Coming to the New World from deforested England, settlers were awe struck with what they viewed as an endless supply of wood. Pine trees larger than 24” in diameter were automatically designated for “The Crown”, to provide masts for ships. While there are dramatic accounts of pine stands with trees five feet in diameter and towering to 250 feet high, these (and less dramatic stands) tended to be scattered, having grown up where fire had cleared specific areas. Fire was also in deliberate use by the native population to clear small areas for farming. The charred remains provided fertile ground for what was usually about an 8 – 10 year cycle of growth before the depleted soils forced abandonment. The natives also used fire to some extent to keep forests open for ease of travel (think of it as an early interstate highway system). Throughout coastal regions, where of course settlers first set foot, open areas were more prevalent. So the pre-settlement forest, while seemingly “virgin” by modern standards, was indeed influenced by human population, as well as fire, hurricanes, tornadoes, and temperature fluctuations –  all factors that caused the forest to be perpetually evolving. The “snapshot” that early settlers experienced would have been both inspiring and intimidating.
Trees were felled to build homes, to keep them warm (a large New England home could consume 30 – 40 cords of firewood in one winter), and of course to create farmland. But it was not until sheep arrived on the scene, around 1820, that the landscape was practically stripped. By the mid eighteen hundreds the New Hampshire landscape was about 80% cleared. Then, several events conspired to allow the return of forest: The viability of sheep farming subsided. The railroad facilitated an exodus of people who were tempted by the more easily tilled soils of the Midwest, leaving farms abandoned.  Oil and coal provided alternatives to wood for heat. Though New Hampshire cities continued to grow, the rural areas were quickly taken over by trees.

The regrowth of New England’s forests experienced a set back as a result of the hurricane of 1938 which, in these parts, took down up to 25% of the trees. From a nature perspective, this was simply the way in which, every 50 – 150 years, the composition of the forest would be adjusted. For humans, the impact was rather devastating, but it also precipitated extensive research that greatly enhanced our understanding of eco-systems, and giving us the tools, which are useful in the management of forests today.

Until the late 1980s, New Hampshire’s forests continued to expand, achieving about 80% of land-share (an inverse proportion to the peak of the sheep era). Since then there has been a modest reduction in forest area as a result of both commercial and residential development. While this has been more prevalent in the eastern part of the state, the Monadnock Region has not been immune to this. And whereas the tree loss of the 19th century was just a blip on the ecological screen, with reforestation occurring fairly rapidly, now we are seeing more “hard” harvests, where the land is (a) less likely to be abandoned and (b) is covered with concrete or asphalt.

But there is good news! While everyone agrees that trees are nice to look at and its fun to have forest-focused recreational opportunities, the ecological and economic benefits of preserving forests are gaining recognition. There are at least 10 “official”  town forests (that is, forests which have been officially adopted by a vote of the towns people), several state forests, and numerous parcels of privately owned land, which is protected by conservation easements. What’s more, there are ongoing efforts to expand the preservation of local forests.

The kinds of trees we have here today are much the same as what our forebears found here, with the notable exception of chestnuts (which had been very prominent) and elms (less so). The composition is somewhat altered – we are likely seeing more pine and maple, but overall we still enjoy a diverse palette of species. We do not stand out drastically from the rest of New England, but there are subtleties in the landscape that resonate within us, and inform our sense of community.

Come and visit our exhibit, TIMBER!, to learn more about the history and vitality of our forests.