By October of 1630 the tadpole-shaped peninsula called Boston
English-speaking residents. Led by John Winthrop, the colony's
governor, these Puritan emigrants virtually began the historical
in which large numbers of recent European arrivals settled and
Massachusetts Bay and the North American environment during the
With each austere-living family constructing a wooden home and fencing an adjacent garden, Bostonians by the 1640s already were traversing the Charles River to gather firewood and building materials as precious timber close at hand virtually had been erased. As early as the winter of 1637-38, Winthrop noted, Boston was "almost ready to break up for want of wood."
Peter Dunwiddie, a plant ecologist with the Nature Conservancy in Washington state, has studied core samples of bogs and swamps on Cape Cod, looking at microscopic pollen to determine what was growing there and on the proximate islands about the time the Pilgrims landed in nearby Plymouth, Mass. His research shows the development of English settlements.
"Literally in a matter of decades the forest was cleared," Dunwiddie says. "There is no more oak pollen, and all of a sudden lots of grass pollen. That persisted throughout much of the following couple of hundred years" as Europeans transformed most of the area into a giant sheep pasture. The cleric Timothy Dwight wrote in 1821 that "almost all the original forests of [southern New England] had long since been cut down."
Dwight also reported that the 240-mile journey from Boston to New York City passed through no more than 20 miles of forest. Surveying the changes wrought by farmers and loggers miles upstream from the coast near Dover, N.H., Dwight wrote, "The forests are not only cut down, but there appears little reason to hope that they will ever grow again."
One easily can see evidence today of that deforestation throughout most areas of New England with a short walk in what once more are woods. The ubiquitous rock walls of New England's currently wooded areas mark the edges of erstwhile farms abandoned years ago.
The widespread deforestation centuries ago was due to farming and wood being used for virtually everything — home construction, of course, but mostly for heating and cooking. According to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the amount of forested land in Massachusetts drastically decreased from 4.63 million acres in 1630 to 2 million acres in 1907. Maryland went from 5.73 million acres to 2.2 million acres, Rhode Island from 650,000 acres to 250,000 acres and Delaware from 1.13 million acres to 350,000 acres.
And with the stripping of the forests and increased hunting came a depopulation of the animals that lived among the trees. The environment as a whole was changing radically.
But it was not only the new arrivals from European shores that altered the landscape. American Indians prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims also had a great effect on the land, though not as much on a per capita basis as the new Europeans. Human destruction of the forests did not start with the English, Spanish or French, as the Indian natives affected tens-of-millions of acres. The American forests first seen by the new English colonists in the 17th century were far from primordial.
Doug MacCleery of the USFS in Washington says the American Indians "burned forests to grow crops and create grasslands and prairies to increase the numbers of the game they hunted." Indians also burned down trees to make it easier to travel, create open space around their villages to hinder sneak attacks from their enemies and as a hunting method to drive animals into enclosures, MacCleery says. "There was lots of grassland in Ohio and along the eastern coast as a result of Indian burning."
Indeed, the names given to venues by Indians often had to do with the area's agricultural purposes, which meant clearing trees. According to William Cronon, author of Changes in the Land, "Mittineag, in Hampden County, Mass., meant 'abandoned fields,' probably a place where the soil had lost its fertility and a village had moved to its summer encampment elsewhere."
But there was fluctuation. MacCleery adds that because large numbers of Indians tragically died from foreign diseases after the new Europeans first came, many areas of the American environment then were returned to more of a "wilderness" state after most of them perished.
As the European population of the newly formed United States increased from the founding of the colonies, the deforestation of the eastern United States reached a peak in the mid-19th century. But it was then that nature demonstrated, once again, just how truly resilient she is. Consider just one small but highly indicative example of it in 1996:
On June 14 of that year a 7-foot, 1,000-pound, young female moose paraded along the major thoroughfare of Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, in proximity to Boston University and Boston College, and just a short subway ride to the spot where the Puritans first landed. Once abundant, the forces set in motion by European colonization erased moose from Massachusetts by the turn of the century. But now the commonwealth has between 50 and 100 moose, with a population breeding in the Boston suburb of Acton. For her sexy, attention-gathering catwalk, Miss Moose was, as surely as John Winthrop, a pioneer.
But what Miss Moose represents is much more than just a large personable ruminant reclaiming her native territory among the cars, factories and apartment buildings of Boston — it demonstrates the most important environmental story of the 20th century. The key event in recent American environmental history is not the Exxon Valdez or the spotted owl, but the vast reforestation of the eastern side of the North American continent. The American East Coast has exploded in green.
In the last few decades, as 19th century farms have been abandoned, the forest cover in the eastern United States has returned abundantly despite its much larger population and increased development of suburban and rural areas. Bill McKibben, author of several environmental books, writes that the forest cover of the eastern United States today is as extensive as it was before the American Revolution. This renewal of the eastern forest largely is the result of economic accident and generally unremarked.
Tom French, of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, says the state reached its peak of deforestation about the time of the Civil War, when approximately 70 percent of the forest had been cleared. Virtually the only trees left standing were on precipitous slopes, venues difficult for farming.
Since agriculture no longer dominates either the Massachusetts economy or that of the eastern United States, abandoned farms once again have become forested. French says 62 percent of Massachusetts land now is wooded, a precipitous increase that occurred despite a sixfold growth in the human population. And, according to Dunwiddie's bog cores, "the pollen is now beginning to resemble the pre-European." MacCleery says that the land in Vermont in 1850 was 35 percent forested, whereas today it is 80 percent forested.
A USFS Website states that the amount of forest in Pennsylvania grew from 9.2 million acres in 1907 to 16.9 million acres in 1997. New York state jumped from 12 million acres to 18.58 million acres, Rhode Island from 250,000 acres to 409,000 acres and Illinois from 2.5 million acres to 4.29 million acres, all within what could be someone's lifetime.
"Nationally, forest growth rates have exceeded harvest rates since the 1940s," MacCleery states. "The United States in total has about the same area of forests as it did in 1920. The [predicted] timber famine never came." In the Northeast United States, the country's most populous region, MacCleery says the land was less than 50 percent forested in 1900. Today, he says, the region is more than two-thirds forested, an increase of 26 million acres.
The nation's 20th-century environmental progress goes way beyond numbers of trees, for the animals that live in [northeastern] woods are pouncing forward after taking a severe beating. The almost complete elimination of the East Coast forests in past centuries resulted, among other environmental difficulties, in severely depleting or eliminating many species of animals indigenous to the wooded lands, including white-tailed deer, wolves, fishers, bears, bobcats, beavers and mountain lions. In 1694, Massachusetts established its first closed season on deer hunting, a mere 64 years after Winthrop first landed. And the bears eventually moved out of state.
But after all the Massachusetts bear population had vanished, within just the last 11 years state wildlife officials say their numbers have increased from 725 to almost 2,000, with occasional backyard sightings that greatly excite (or scare) homeowners, sometimes within 45 minutes of the Boston Stone at the heart of the old city. Bear numbers in Massachusetts now are equal to those in the 1700s.
Beavers were hunted in colonial Massachusetts for their fur and were disappearing from its coast as early as 1640. They were erased utterly from the commonwealth by 1764 until the early 1900s. But now there are 70,000 of the workaholic rodents laboriously constructing menacing dams throughout the state.
One beaver enjoyed a sunny spring day floating along the Merrimack River in downtown Lowell, adjacent to the Boott Cotton Mills where the American industrial revolution began in the early 1800s. The beaver's neighbors now include Atlantic salmon, which had stopped swimming in the Merrimack years ago when the river became one of the most soiled in the nation. Salmon also now live in the Connecticut River, where just 152 once were estimated.
Although a few animals have not returned from the days of deforestation, many indigenous Massachusetts species are undergoing a startling renaissance. Coyotes now live in virtually every town. They crossed the Cape Cod Canal in the 1970s and started breeding on the Cape. Being good swimmers they recently have made the short ocean crossing to the Elizabeth Islands.
"Today we kill twice as many deer on the highways of America than existed in the entire eastern United States in 1890," says Doug MacCleery of the United States Forest Service in Washington. "In 1890, Pennsylvania, Ohio and the lower part of Michigan did not have any deer." Officials estimate Pennsylvania's deer population today is 1.5 million.
"Many species which would likely have been on the endangered species list — had one existed in 1900 — are today abundant," MacCleery says, "including wild turkey, beaver, egrets, herons and many other wading birds, wood ducks, whistling swans, Rocky Mountain elk, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, black bear and white-tailed deer." He says, "Many other species, although not on the brink of extinction in 1900, are today both more abundant and more widespread than they were back then."
In addition to the added forest area of the eastern United States, the resurgence of many species of animals throughout the last few decades also can directly be attributed to changes in levels of pollution that affect, among other aspects, the manifold varieties of foods animals consume. Here again the news is almost all positive.
Unfortunately, few ideas are more deeply entrenched in our political culture than that of impending ecological doom. Mostly beginning in the early 1960s when warnings from Rachel Carson and others began to emerge that pollution was a threat to all forms of life, pessimistic appraisals of the health of the environment have been issued with increasing urgency. Doomsday warnings led to the first Earth Day demonstrations in 1970, and three significant environmental laws were passed during the Republican administration of Richard Nixon: the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973).
And what a success the environmental cleanup has been. "The Clean Air and Clean Water acts led to actions that resulted in substantial environmental gains," MacCleery states in a USFS publication. "Air quality has been steadily improving in U.S. cities. Sulfur-dioxide emissions are down over 30 percent and lead emissions are down over 95 percent since 1970." The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Website states that "since 1970 aggregate emissions of the six principal pollutants have been reduced by 29 percent. During this same period the U.S. gross domestic product increased 158 percent, energy consumption increased by 45 percent and vehicle miles traveled have increased by 143 percent."
Smog nationally has declined by about one-third, say environmental officials, despite an increase in the number of cars. The number of days in which the health standard for smog is violated has decreased significantly during the last 15 years. The use of unleaded gas has contributed to our cleaner air. Smokestacks belching black smoke in the United States have been eliminated save for when a burner malfunctions.
During the 19th century, respiratory problems were common with the burning of coal and coke and the emission of ammonia. Robert Boisselle, of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, says, "Massachusetts no longer experiences an occasional dark brown haze due to smog as it did years ago. … We can still see some haze occasionally, but nothing like it used to be."
So much for doomsday statements by radical environmentalists who continually bark out predictions of increasingly darkened and smelly American skies. What about the rivers?
"Most U.S. rivers and lakes are measurably cleaner than they were two decades ago," MacCleery observes. "Improved air and water quality have benefited both the human and nonhuman inhabitants of the planet, as evidenced by the improving populations of fish and aquatic wildlife in U.S. rivers and lakes. Fish and wildlife have staged significant comebacks in many rivers and lakes that were severely degraded or even biologically dead two decades ago. There have been increases in the populations of egrets, herons, ospreys, geese, largemouth bass and other fish and wildlife associated with the improved water quality of countless rivers and lakes across the country."
American rivers once were used as sewers. Downstream from 19th century New England textile mills, rivers would change color according to the particular dye being used that day. Poisons and raw sewage commonly were dumped into the rivers. No more. According to the EPA, there now are more than 11,000 miles of streams and rivers in which it again is safe to swim. There are almost 13,000 additional fishable bodies of water and 5,400 added places suitable for boating.
Massachusetts is indicative of the rest of the East Coast, and French says that overall, in terms of what most people believe pollution is, the commonwealth hit a peak of pollution sometime in the first half of the 20th century. Boston Harbor, among the first heavily used harbors in the United States — and attacked by Republicans (unfairly) during the presidential campaign of then-governor Michael Dukakis as being very dirty — has undergone a startling renaissance. "Overall, the water quality of Boston Harbor has greatly improved since the year 1900," says Russell Isaac of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. "The ability to swim in the harbor has significantly improved" and there is less disease-causing wastewater. "We have made a lot of progress in the overall environment, but more needs to be done," Isaac says.
Nor will the animals we care about need to hightail it to the Canadian border to escape a perceived onslaught of relaxed environmental laws. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House whom many on the left consider to be the reptilian soul of the Republican Party, is an outspoken environmentalist and says of preserving U.S. wildlife, "This is not just about large vertebrates. … This is also about the fungi and the various things that produce the medicine of the future." Environmentalism has become a core American political value, close to unassailable even among the most febrile conservatives.
So if the overall environment greatly has improved in the 20th century, and continually gets better, why all the pessimistic assessments of the environment blaring from the media? According to one U.S. environmental official who requested anonymity, "In many cases you have advocacy groups that make money creating the perception of a crisis. It is a conflict industry."
While researching this article, your reporter regularly telephoned the EPA for weeks requesting to speak with someone, anyone, who could highlight the achievements of the agency during the last few decades, all to no avail. And MacCleery has a thought about that too: "Some people" at the EPA, he says, "do not view good news as a positive because it jeopardizes future funding." And with that I will leave you to ponder your clean environment, among the happy deer and bears that have joined you in the back yard of your city apartment.
We must not resist the good news.
John Pike is a free-lance writer for Insight.