Of Forests and Floodplains

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Jane Roy Brown is a member of The Trustees who lives in the Highlands.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Special Places, The Trustees' member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

For centuries, people have sought out the rich soils of river valleys for farming, and Massachusetts, once blanketed in forest from Cape Cod to the Berkshires, is no exception.

By Jane Roy Brown

Between 1830 and 1885, when farmland covered half of the commonwealth, farmers often cleared right up to the riverbanks to use every square foot of fertile land they could find. Even as trees gradually reclaimed much of the state's former farmland, many deforested riverfront acres either stayed in argiculture or became sites for factories.

But the loss of these floodplain forests is a problem, says Julie Richburg, Western Region Ecologist for The Trustees: “The uniquely adapted trees that grow in these forests act as buffers, absorbing and slowing the water that spills over the banks, allowing silt and sediment to settle out of floodwaters.” The absence of these forests, especially along the Connecticut and Housatonic rivers, was among the causes of the destruction of riverbanks in Vermont and western Massachusetts during Hurricane Irene last fall, Richburg explains.

The canopies of floodplain forest plants – red and silver maple, black willow, American elm, and cottonwood trees – shade a sparse shrub layer and a lush groundcover of ostrich fern, wood nettle, and other non-woody plants, which all share the rare ability to survive while submerged and also when the soil dries out.

Flood control, and the habitat for the rare species of plants and animals that these forest communities provide, are two of the reasons that Richburg is leading a restoration of floodplain forests at The Trustees’ Land of Providence and Bartholomew’s Cobble reservations in western Massachusetts. Beyond the ecological benefits, though, says Richburg, the multi-year project has also provided the chance to involve the public in this critical work as volunteers. In addition, The Trustees’ youngest staff members, the Holyoke Youth Conservation Corps, have been instrumental in the actual on-the-ground work.

At Land of Providence in Holyoke, which extends a half mile alongside the Connecticut River, the goal is to widen the existing stand of forest by about 100 feet, on a shelf of soil called a terrace. The slightly higher elevation of the terrace above the river allows some upland trees – sugar maple, red oak, and hickory, for example – to grow alongside the elm, pin oak, and silver maple typical of the wetter lowlands.

The project began two years ago, when “30 volunteers planted 113 trees,” says Richburg. “Today, the trees are doing really well.” This year, The Trustees continued their work, planting 25 blight-resistant American elms, donated by The Nature Conservancy, and 10 silver maples collected from Bartholomew’s Cobble in 2011.

The Cobble, in Sheffield, borders the Housatonic River. Here Richburg aims to transform 10 acres of hayfield back to the original floodplain forest, which will eventually require about 1,500 trees. “That’s a lot of trees!” she says, adding that more than 40 acres of grasslands remain at the reservation. To mimic the existing floodplain forest at Bartholomew’s Cobble, Richburg decided to replant silver maple, along with a smaller number of other species such as sycamore and cottonwood.

The effort is funded in part by the Housatonic River Natural Resource Damage and Assessment Program, which is working to clean up and restore the entire river after decades of pollution from PCBs, which were released into its waters in Pittsfield by General Electric from the 1930s to 1970s.

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