Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Treeless in Maynard

Clearing for the Assabet River Rail Trail involved cutting
hundreds of trees, some more than a foot in diameter. This
photo of section behind Cumberland Farms gas station.
Instead of “Sleepless in Seattle,” how about “Treeless in Maynard?”  From either Google’s satellite map or casual driving around, there is a first-glance sense that Maynard is adequately treed, but arborist history tells a different and continually changing story. The de-treeing of our town is a consequence of deliberate deforestation, species-specific diseases, invasive insect species, invasive plant species, uncompensated storm damage, deferred maintenance, and even the consequences of the return of deer and beaver to eastern Massachusetts.  

The colonists’ approach to a wooded New England was “The first thing we do, let's cut down all the trees." The resultant landscape was farmland and pasture. Massachusetts gradually became rewooded after the mid-nineteenth century as farms were abandoned, people either shifted toward factory jobs in cities or relocated to the fertile, flatter lands of western Pennsylvania and Ohio. Demand for wood for fuel was superseded by coal and oil.

Abandoned farm land reforested naturally, but a conscious decision was necessary for industrial era towns – trees or no trees? In that era of people not having cars or air conditioning, trees provided shade for sidewalks and homes. There are studies showing that in urban and suburban environments, more trees per square mile leads to cooler, cleaner air, happier people, and even lower medical expenses for treatment of physical and mental ailments.

Two tree diseases caused dramatic changes to public-space plantings. Chestnut blight, an airborne fungus accidentally introduced to the United States around 1904, killed as estimated three billion trees from Mississippi to Maine within 50 years. Subsequently, many cities, towns and college campuses were planted with rows of elm trees – note streets named Elm or Elmwood – but in 1928 a shipment of logs from the Netherlands that was infested with elm bark beetles led to a fungal plague that killed between 75 and 100 million trees.

Hurricane damage, Sept 1938
Invasive insect species had a massive impact. The caterpillars of Gypsy, Brown-tail and Winter moths (plus native tent caterpillars) can completely defoliate trees. If this happens for several years in a row the trees become weakened and suspect to disease. The larvae of Emerald Ash Borer and Asian Longhorned beetles have a more directly fatal impact on ash and other deciduous trees, as does the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid on hemlocks. The impact of invasive plant species is subtle, but still considerable. Oriental bittersweet vines grow into the tops of mature trees, overshadowing the trees’ leaves and breaking branches with weight, until the trees die. Japanese Barberry and Garlic Mustard release chemicals into the soil that hinder the growth of other plants.

Eastern Massachusetts suffered extensive tree damage from a September 1938 hurricane. Maynard’s annual report for that year mentions 900 trees blown down in streets, parks, cemeteries and on houses, and an additional 800 trees severely damaged. The report goes on to mention that 780 trees were planted to replace what was lost. Closer to now, creating the Assabet River Rail Trail caused the cutting of more than 600 trees four or more inches in diameter, with replacement plantings of smaller trees perhaps one-fifth that number.

Hurricane damage, Sept 1938. Photos courtesy of
Maynard Historical Society. Click to enlarge.
Deer browse on small trees. The result is a forest of mature and old trees, but no replacement trees in the understory. Beaver have returned to the Assabet River and are killing many of the trees bordering the river and millpond.          

Lastly, the Town of Maynard will need to decide how to manage what had once been scores of trees planted along Nason and Main Streets and other public places. Most of these are either long-dead, stumps cut flush with the ground, or standing dead, or standing sickly. Consequently, the streets are becoming shade-free zones, the sidewalks punctuated by squares of dirt from which nothing is growing.

How to combat the treeless trend? Have a program to promote trees on town property and giveaways for plantings on private property. As new buildings are proposed, have a master plan that preserves greenspace, providing for both recreational parks and nature reserves. The City of New York posts an Approved Species List for urban plantings, with division into large, medium intermediate and small trees: Trees rule!

Not in article: Norway maple was a popular urban and suburban tree choice in the second half of the twentieth century, but was designated by Commonwealth of Massachusetts as an invasive species in 2006, sales banned. Removal of existing trees not required. 

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