A Catskill Catalog: Sept. 23, 2009
First-growth forest is forest that has never been cleared, cut, bark-peeled, burnt, or quarried by people. We still have some in the Catskills. This old-growth forest can give us a glimpse of what our mountains must have been like before human habitation made its impact on the Catskills.
Michael Kudish has studied the Catskill forest pretty much all his life. Now Professor of Forestry at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks, Dr. Kudish began his analysis with a 1971 dissertation, “Vegetational History of the Catskill High Peaks,” and capped it with his authoritative book The Catskill Forest, A History (Fleischmanns, Purple Mountain Press, 2000).
That book comes equipped with a map that shows the variation of forest types throughout the region. Since human habitation and settlement occurs in the valleys, old-growth forests tend to be up on the ridgelines and summits of the mountains.
When I came to the Catskills, much of the lower elevations of the mountains had been cleared for pasture and hayfield. Our Catskills looked different 30 or 40 years ago: more agricultural, more tended, less wild. But those pastures and hayfields only went up so far on the slopes. An elevation of 2,900 feet marks the extent of that human interference in forestation. Hence, old-growth forests are on the summits, above 2,900 feet.
Old-growth Catskill Mountain forests contain abundant beech, sugar maple, yellow birch, red maple, hemlock, spruce, fir, and black cherry. These first growth forests contain no evidence of agriculture or timbering: no stumps or roads, no charred trees or charcoal from fires caused by people.
After a piece of land has been disturbed by fire, or timber-cutting, or some other traumatic interference, the first species of vegetation to colonize that area are called pioneer species. In the Catskills, pioneer species include ash, oak, pine, aspen and hickory. The presence of these trees indicates second-, third-, or fourth-growth forests, the majority of Catskill woodlands today.
The Dry Brook Ridge is covered in old-growth forest. So is the ridge above Millbrook, around Balsam Lake Mountain. Also first-growth, forest-covered are Panther Mountain and Giant Ledge, as well as Eagle, Big Indian, and Fir mountains, the ridges on either side of the Oliverea Valley. Old growth covers Slide Mountain and the ridges running south and west from Slide.
To the north, Halcott Mountain and the ridge running from Balsam Mountain through North Dome and West Kill are first growth. To the east, Plateau Mountain, Sugar Loaf and Indian Head mountains up Mink Hollow out of Woodstock present old-growth forest. And up on The Mountaintop, near Hunter, Thomas Cole, Black Dome, and Windham High Peak are all covered in first growth.
The entire northeast was covered in glacial ice for several thousand years. Around 13,000 years ago, temperatures increased, the ice melted, the glacier receded northward. As it did, the glacier left till: sediments, scours, pulverized rock, and the like on the ground behind the glacial retreat. These materials became the basis for Catskill soil.
As temperatures rose, streams began to trickle, then flow in the valley bottoms. These streams carried sand, clay, gravel, silt, and other sediments, adding their deposits to the soil composition process. Early plants sprouted, grew, and died, adding organic decomposition to the soil mix. Peat and muck spiced the soil stew. Over a period of centuries, Catskill bedrock became covered with a thin layer of soil, maybe 30-inches deep, most commonly, about 60 percent sand, 30 percent silt, and 10 percent clay.
From that soil grew vegetation. The earliest plants to invade the Catskills after the Ice Age were arctic tundra species: small plants, shrubs and herbs. These probably cropped up 13,000 years ago. Boreal Forest followed the arctic tundra, probably covering the entire Catskills and Hudson Valley region to about 9,000 years ago. The Boreal Forest is a conifer dominated cold-weather forest like the woods of Canada, Alaska, Sweden, and Finland, containing white and black spruce, balsam fir, tamarack, jack pine, and other evergreens.
This Boreal Forest began to be replaced by the Northern Hardwood Forest about 8,000 years ago. That was when beech, black cherry, yellow birch, and red maple migrated into the Catskills. Around 7,000 years ago, the sugar maple moved in, becoming a dominant tree. Eastern hemlock came in about the same time. This is our first growth forest.
So, a hike up Dry Brook Ridge, or Giant Ledge, or up West Kill is more than a day trip into a different kind of space, the wilderness. It is also a trip into a different time, a look at the way our mountains were before humans walked the woods.
Our old-growth forests are protected by the New York State Constitution. As long as that constitution stays in place, the forests will remain, perhaps, if we are lucky, and smart, another 7,000 years.