If you take a drive through your town, or Tompkins County, or New York State, you will be hard-pressed to find land that is not altered in some way by humans. We clear land, graze land, farm land, mine land, allot land, build on land. Very rarely, if ever, do we leave land alone. Most anything can be done to private land. Our State Forests and New York’s one National Forest have roads through them, they can be camped and hunted on, logged, or grazed. Even the gorges that Ithacans love have stairways and bridges, constructed and regulated for us to walk upon. Humans use land. It’s what we do.
Tompkins County government is currently in a unique position to do something different. The County owns about 550 acres of forest land in the Towns of Caroline and Newfield, and has a plan to log about 160 acres in Newfield.
What I propose to my fellow residents is that we set this land aside as a model for the future, as a forest that will mature into old-growth. We may have as little as 60 acres of old-growth in Tompkins County; it is the rarest of habitats in New York State. There are many characteristics of old-growth forests: they have trees that are at least 120 years old; standing dead trees and branches and fallen trees on the ground; small gaps in the canopy where light breaks in, and a mix of trees, young and old, of many species. While our forest in Newfield is not there yet, with many trees pushing 100 years old, it ticks most of those boxes.
This forest is not untouched by human hands. It was once farmed, then replanted, and has been logged several times since. The land has not yet healed from those disturbances, but neither is it being infested by invasives like honeysuckle, grape vine, or Russian olive. I have walked the land twice over the past six months (once with the County-hired professional forester), and I saw a mix of maple and pine, oak and spruce, of varying sizes and ages. There are soggy wet patches, a few creeks and hills, and fallen pines covered in luscious green moss. It’s not perfect, by human-centered forestry management standards, but over time, if we let it, it will evolve through the natural process of succession into a balanced, old-growth forest.
Don’t get me wrong, I love paper! I live in a house made of wood. I burn wood in a wood stove for warmth. Like all of us, my life depends on forest products. Maybe more than some because my husband is a contractor and builds homes for a living. Without wood products, he wouldn’t have a business. I am not suggesting we stop all logging everywhere.
I’m suggesting balance. We need thoughtful, sustainable forestry and a caretaking of land that we log and replant and log again. But we also need forests that grow unmolested by humanity. Where animals and plants live freely. Where the normal cycles of nature pass by without our intervention.
There is no reason why the County must log this land now; we haven’t touched it in decades and we aren’t planning to harvest timber on a regular basis. We don’t intend to develop housing or infrastructure there. There are no risks, such as wildfires or trees falling on homes or hikers, in leaving the land alone (there are no homes or trails in this forest). The income we will earn from the timber will be nominal, whereas the cost of leaving the land alone is zero.
Aldo Leopold, a writer, forester, and philosopher and known as one of the most influential voices of the twentieth century on wilderness conservation and land ethics wrote, “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
I encourage every resident to spend an afternoon visiting these woods. Take a deep breath, listen to the sounds, ponder Leopold’s suggestion as you consider what we ought to do with this land. When I was there, I thought about how if we are strong enough, if we step back with respect, if we can take our egos out of the picture for just a moment, then we could maybe see the rare opportunity we have right now. For if we don’t make the choice to leave some land alone, who will?
For more information visit tompkinsoldgrowth.org, or Facebook page Cultivating Old Growth Forests in Tompkins County @tompkinsoldgrowth.
Tompkins County Legislator District 12