Today, more than two-thirds of the populous Northeast United
States is covered in forest.
By October of 1630 the tadpole-shaped peninsula called Boston had 150
English-speaking residents. Led by John Winthrop, the colony's first
governor, these Puritan emigrants virtually began the historical process
in which large numbers of recent European arrivals settled and subdued
Massachusetts Bay and the North American environment during the next
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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,"
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
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.