An ancient jewel: Florence forest features old-growth characteristics

NORTHAMPTON — It’s no secret that Northampton is home to large swaths of preserved woodlands, conservation areas and other pockets of land where people can hike, stroll and otherwise bask in nature.

Yet in addition to Fitzgerald Lake and Mineral Hills conservation areas in the city — well-known tracts of land protected forever — there are other areas of seldom-traveled terrain that remain largely unknown to the public and are devoid of such formal protections.

Such is the case in a corner of Florence, where a unique patch of forest is located less than a mile from Morningside Drive. The area, which abuts Broad Brook, contains evidence of old growth characteristics — meaning it contains trees of exceptional age and has been nature-managed for many years. 

That’s unique because most of the  wooded areas in the city used to be agricultural land and, as in much of the rest of New England, most of the old trees were felled to clear the way for farming.

Robert Leverett, a longtime lover and champion of trees, noted the importance of preserving old forests, saying that it is important to see what a forest looks like when not influenced by humans.

“It’s a living connection (to history),” said Levertt, of old forests. “I think that’s important.”

Leverett, whose home is located nearby, said he became aware of the area after his son Rob took a walk up there and informed him of the large number of mature trees.

“It seemed to me that we had something pretty special,” said Leverett.

Leverett co-founded the Native Tree Society, an online-based community that documents, records and celebrates trees and forests that have exceptional height, age and characteristics. Originally called the Eastern Native Tree Society when it was established in 1996, and focused on trees in the Eastern United States, it has now expanded to include trees around the world, although its focus is still primarily North American.

“I’ve always been a nature nut at the base,” said Leverett, although he also noted that he’s not opposed to all tree cutting.

The Native Tree Society does extensive work identifying and measuring trees for age and height, including those that aren’t of interest for timber. 

Leverett has also discovered indisputable old growth in Massachusetts — where trees older than 300 years can be seen — in Mohawak Trail State Forest in the towns of Florida and Savoy in the Berkshires, and his efforts resulted in this area being preserved by the state.

Hiking the land

Leverett and his wife, Monica Jakuc Leverett, recently agreed to hike the area with the Gazette.

The uneven terrain leading to this small Florence forest is well-known by Leverett, who stopped frequently to give intimate accounting of the trees and woods from his home to the edge of the old growth characteristic area.

Tulip trees, which are at the northernmost part of their range in this area; hickory, black birches, northern red oaks and white pines are just some of the trees that Leverett pointed out and explained their history. A number of the trees he pointed to were more than 100 years old.

The land covered in the hike included three distinct designations — second growth forest, mature second growth forest and forest with old growth characteristics. But what exactly does that mean?

“Second growth really means regrowth,” said Leverett, saying that it’s what comes back after significant human disturbance.

Mature second growth forests, Leverett said, have a high number of trees that are mature, which he characterized as ranging from 75 to 100 years old. Then there is old growth.

“Old growth is a confusing term,” Leverett said. “What we really mean by old growth is nature-managed over several centuries.”

And while the area in question has seen activity from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School forestry students, he notes that it still has notable characteristics of an old growth forest. Leverett said that includes woody debris on the forest floor in various states of decay, signifying where trees have blown over and rotted in the past; species of trees that persist for long periods of time, and a heterogeneous community of trees. Jakuc Leverett also noted the presence of a heavy duff layer in old growth areas, and Levertt said that another characteristic is the presence of moss, lichens and liverworts.

And of course, old growth areas have a number of old trees in them. Schubirch, named after composer Franz Schubert, is one such tree in the Florence forest. At around 160-years-old, it is one of the 10 or 15 tallest black birch in the commonwealth and stands at 108 feet tall, according to Leverett.

Schubirch is located at the edge of the old growth characteristic area, and Leverett said that it is part of a group of trees that are 160 to 200 years old. Leverett estimated that the oldest trees in this old growth characteristic area are more than 200 years old.

“Not that I’ve seen,” said Leverett, when asked if any other place in Northampton has the amount of old growth characteristics that he’s seen in this area.

Leverett has expressed the desire for the area to be protected.

“I’d like to see it preserved,” he said.

Northampton Director of Planning Sustainability Wayne Feiden said that some of the trees are located in the Broad Brook Greenway, which is under permanent protection. The rest, however, are located on land owned by Smith Vocational, and are part of its forestry property.

Feiden said that after Leverett contacted Smith Vocational they ended their planned cutting of the trees in the area. He also said that a swap was proposed a few years ago in which Smith Vocational would get the right to cut on city-owned land where timber rights have been reserved, specifically in the so-called Girl Scout property, in exchange for putting a conservation restriction on the old trees in the Broad Brook area.

“As far as I know nothing’s happening,” said Feiden, of that offer.

However, because the school is currently preserving the land he said he is not presently worried, although he is still interested in a long-term solution.

“I think it’s great,” said Feiden, of Leverett’s work.

Leverett’s background is as an electrical engineer. Having grown up in Tennessee, he had a career in the Air Force that took him to western Massachusetts. He then went into the management consulting business and before becoming a software developer.

“The only thing that crosses is the math,” said Leverett, on the overlap between his passion for trees and his professional life.

Currently, Leverett is putting that math background to use, working with collaborators on a process that shows how older trees sequester carbon relative to their younger counterparts.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

Author: Going Green

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