The Second Clearing

by Conrad Vispo

A version of this was published in the Plough and Star


One hundred and fifty years ago, the landscape of our county would have looked only vaguely familiar to us. True, land form – the hills and valleys – would have been little different, but the covering draped over those contours would have been radically different. Where trees now block our vista, views that we can hardly imagine would have spread out before us. The antique landscape was around ¾’s open with less than ¼ in forest. It was the product of about 100 years of extensive clearing for agriculture and other uses such as charcoal manufacture, hide tanning, and potash production, what I dub the First Clearing. (European settlement began earlier, and indigenous people also cleared some lands, but prior to about 1750, human clearing was likely minor.)

The First Clearing was a profound and rapid change. It ensured that European settlers could grow food, hastened the demise of the indigenous peoples, and no doubt caused substantial changes in local ecology, accompanied as it was not only by clearing but by increased hunting, trapping, draining, and other resource use. The First Clearing largely went unchronicled because few of those who knew the landscape prior to this wave of settlement spent time documenting its nature. The end point (i.e., the mid 19th century) however finds better documentation, and we can safely surmise the disappearance (or looming disappearance) of such species as wolf, mountain lion, beaver, passenger pigeon, fisher, bobcat, turkey and other less conspicuous members of our flora and fauna. These disappearances were mirrored, in part, by the spread of openland- or disturbance-favoring species, such as our grassland birds, ground hogs, and certain butterflies. Obviously, such vast ecological changes were due not only to the land use changes that occurred here in our county, but also to the similar changes occurring throughout our region.

The next chapter of the story is enshrined in the Northeast’s ecological and environmental mystique: between about 1850 and the present extensive reforestation has occurred. Currently, for example, the surface of our county is roughly ¾’s forested and ¼ open, the reverse of conditions 150 years ago. Such reforestation extended throughout the Northeast as farming moved west or “downhill” to the industrializing centers and as extensive logging swept through and then was largely curtailed. This reforestation has hidden many of the most conspicuous traces of our past clearing, has heralded the return of such species as beaver, turkey and bobcat (coyotes, interestingly enough, were not native here prior to European arrival; to some degree they may take the wolf’s ecological niche), and has deeply flavored environmental debate in our region. Granted it has not been an untarnished path to ecological glory, with water and air pollution providing sharp reminders of our tread, but we have, almost uniquely on this globe, witnessed a forest resurgence that in many ways makes our homeland a greener place than it was a century and half ago. This fact has perhaps made us somewhat complacent when considering the future of our landscape.

As the above narrative already suggests, we cannot discuss ecological change without discussing human socio-economic change. The biological change sketched above is the by-product of change in human economics. In particular, it largely reflects the rise and fall of regional agriculture and, subsequently, of regional industry. While we may pat ourselves on the back for having lived in a greening landscape, to a large degree that reshaping was not the result of a conscious ecological ethic, but rather of profound economic change, no doubt tainted by painful individual struggles to make ends meet. Powerful economic forces are again beginning to reformulate our landscape, and, I believe, they herald a Second Clearing, perhaps less immediately conspicuous, but no less ecologically intrusive than the First.

Several economic conditions are the precursors of this Second Clearing. Wildly fluctuating milk prices have battered dairy farming the most recent mainstay of our agriculture; recent Wall-Street driven urban affluence has created a young, well-moneyed class; the gradual extension of high speed road and rail service has favored commuting; the advent of the Internet has created the possibility of ‘telecommuting’; and 9/11 and its aftermath have driven some to leave cities and move to the nearby countryside. While these factors have probably influenced much of the Northeast, they are particularly powerful in counties such as ours where failing farms are making lands available within a convenient distance for urban dwellers just as they, with thick wallets, are looking to settle in the country. A service economy where real estate sales, construction, and landscaping are major engines is replacing the agricultural and semi-industrial economies, and is helping to push development.

Notably missing from this narrative is increased human populations, a factor that was central to the First Clearing. Regional population has increased much more slowly than housing, a pattern accounted for by the rise of second homes and, over the longer term, perhaps also by shrinking family sizes (meaning that the same number of people now spreads out over more households or houses).

I believe that the beginnings of this Second Clearing are largely hidden from us, and that our history of reforestation lulls us to overlook them. The signs are inconspicuous for several reasons. First, the Second Clearing is incipient; while much of the groundwork is already laid, most of the effects are yet to come. Second, to the human eye, the change is perhaps subtle, many of the new houses are surrounded by trees, leaving a landscape where the density of settlement is more evident on a winter’s night when house lights shine through than on a summer day when much is hidden by foliage (unfortunately, the ecological effects such as fragmentation are less subtle than the scenic ones). And finally, much ecological change occurs with a lag – most species spread into new areas only slowly as they build demographic momentum; they likewise disappear gradually as the delicate balance between births and deaths tips into the red. Using the presence of conspicuous plants and animals to gauge landscape changes is rather like looking out the window in winter and trying to judge current temperature solely from snow depth – there’s a relation, but snow depth is not a thermometer.

Evidence that a Second Clearing is underway comes from a variety of sources. Perhaps most telling are recent statistics on forested area in the Northeastern States. While such statistics are estimates open to interpretation, seven of the eleven states are showing downturns in forested area after, in most cases, almost 75 years of reforestation. This new drop in forest is not due to agricultural clearing but rather to non-agricultural development. In addition, as we learn more about the demographics of native species, it is becoming evident that clearing the land of wild organisms can happen in a variety of ways short of complete denudation. (See figure below)

Average Forest Cover

When we picture our surroundings, we think first perhaps of the trees. They are, however, only part of a much bigger ecological picture. A multitude of animals and less conspicuous plants share the landscape. Published research has shown that changes in a forest can effectively clear the land of some of these organisms while leaving many trees standing. For example, roadway or driveway construction may fill in inconspicuous forest puddles thus excluding vernal pool amphibians; pet cats may roam the woods preying on baby birds; attracted by the fruits of forest-edges and protected from hunting, deer may destroy smaller forest plants through browsing and Brown Cowbirds may decimate forest bird populations through nest parasitism; increasing traffic on regional roads may cause increased turtle and frog mortality during migration – there is a sad litany of effects which mean that a forest may become a relative biological desert long before the last tree falls. Some plants and animals may survive but they are likely to be the least picky, generalist species, those able to survive and even flourish in the human-altered habitats. Ecologically, a forest is an entire community evidenced most prominently by trees but, in reality, much more than just the isolated trunks or groves which may impart a forested impression. In a real way, we sometimes cannot see the lack of forest for the trees.

Not only are forest organisms being excluded from the land, but so too are “forest people”. By “forest people” I do not mean only the indigenous people who disappeared in the immediate wake of European settlement, nor only people who like forests. Rather, I mean those who are on the land as farmers, hunters, foresters, wanderers. The effects of the Second Clearing are being exacerbated by social conditions, and this, in turn, is further eroding our natural landscape. People are losing contact with their surroundings. In part, perhaps, this is due to technology’s draw on the young, but it also derives from a culture that does not value public access. As second homes proliferate, POSTED signs appear to also. Year-around residents are disappearing from the woods not only because they own less of the land outright, but because neighbors may be less willing to tolerate trespassers, or, at the least, it may be more difficult to ask for access. Simultaneously, fewer and fewer residents of our area make their living in a manner that requires day to day contact with the land (e.g., farming and forestry). Hence, both leisure and professional activities may be less connected to the land. If this is true, how can we expect such people (and the children of such people) to care about conservation? In defining the overall ecology of our landscape, we need to consider not only the ecology of the wild plants and animals, but also the people – where do they feel they live? Which places do they care about?

If one looks at an aerial view of Wisconsin, a dark green, suspiciously square patch of land is visible in the west central portion. The Menominee Indian Reservation has been spared the clearcuts that have pockmarked much of the remaining forestland. Instead, the tribe has tended the forest based on a long-term, selective harvesting plan that recognizes that patch as the only forest they’ve got and may ever have. The story is more complex, the tribal decisions have not always been popular nor profitable, and yet here is a story worth heeding. If we love our landscape, a love which the promise of mobility may dilute, then we need to ask not how much can I make from the land today, but how can my descendents live here tomorrow?

As outlined above, the landscape of the County is facing threats but it should also count its blessings. Our county covers beautiful land from the Hudson to the Hills; accommodates both farmland and forest; is within marketing distance of NYC – a boon for farming; physically if not economically, still has plenty of soil for farming; and is a place where urban affluence and business acumen coexist side by side with a practical, rural knowledge of the land. There is an identity and a potential here which a lack of foresight can make us miss and a lack of connection can sabotage.

Solutions are not easy for they will only come if people work together, always a messy activity. This is hindered by the threat of polarization based in part on differences in social background and economic status. Relatively well-to-do urbanites tend to approach the landscape with relief and fear, finding the solitude and space they have sought but carrying with them a concern for personal security and sometimes ‘sharp elbows’ derived from their lives in the City. Many long-term residents see the prices of houses (see figure below), taxes and services rise beyond their means, and so are encountering in-your-face relegation to a second economic tier. At the same time, some residents who own land see an opportunity to sell for a good price, niche farmers see new markets, and those servicing the new arrivals find new possibilities of surviving. Still others who neither live here nor plan to, are riding the moving wave of money-making possibilities formed by the urbanizing frontier (e.g. real estate speculators). Finally, in the background, there is a majority group of residents whose work is often detached from the land and may even be, physically, outside of the County. Many of these people lack day-to-day contact with the landscape and, consumed by the rush of everyday life, are passive spectators of the Second Clearing. The result of this juxtaposition is a land where the most powerful voices are imprinting, not always consciously, a more urban face on the landscape in both attitudes and structures.

Salaries and House Prices

Individual attitudes run a spectrum and attempts at categorization, such as those presented above, will always fail to honor that diversity. And yet, differences in attitude, income, and experience are real, and we need to recognize them, not as cause for anger, but so that we know ourselves and can work together more consciously.

Oddly enough, this all reminds me of bottled water. The bottled water craze in this country has occurred because a populous with honest if ill-informed concerns about personal health is being exploited by corporations looking to make a buck in a manner facilitated by retailers willing to sell whatever the market says it wants. Instead of devoting the time and effort needed to ensure that our land’s waters maintain their quality, we settle for using water from elsewhere in a process which can only damage our environment overall (through lack of environmental concern and the by-products of packaging and pumping).This year the New York State Department of Health issued advisories that no one should eat more than one meal per month of fish caught in any NY waters and not more than two meals per month of waterfowl. Certainly this is evidence, albeit at a large scale, of the Second Clearing. And yet more citizen thought has surely gone into considering what brand of bottled water to buy than has gone into considering the implications of such a stark warning. Will our landscape be bottled and sold to those who can afford it (and who may buy it with the best of intentions), or will it be seen as a common resource that needs to be safeguarded for the appreciation and use of us all?