Sunday, May 27, 2007

Old Growth

This weekend, I rode my bike on the Youghiogheny River Trail up to
Confluence (67 miles) and back. Along the way, below Ohiopyle, there was an interpretive sign that got me thinking.

The sign talked about settlers to the area and about how the "old growth forest" they found provided for their homes. The forest is coming back and while I rode on, I wondered how long it would take for it to become old growth again.

While words like "pristine" and "virgin forest" are often used to describe these ancient woodlands, the Native Americans who lived here before the coming of Europeans actively managed the woods. They did not use clear cut logging but they did regularly use fire to clear away undergrowth and shape the environment to their particular agricultural needs.

That all changed when Europeans came to the so-called New World in the early 1500s and brought disease with them. In short order, smallpox ravaged the native population, by some estimated killing off as much as 80% of the residents, so that when the Pilgrims came a century later, North America seemed a vast, empty forest.

It was said that a squirrel could travel the width of Penn's Woods without every touching the ground. It was into this land that the settlers came over the Alleghenies after the French & Indian War in the later half of the 1700s. This was the "old growth" forest, left fallow for only a few centuries, that they immediately began clear cutting. And by the end of the next century, it was pretty much gone. The turn of the 20th Century was the beginning of the end, or rather the beginning of the beginning. The lumber was gone so there was less need for the railroads to stop at some of these logging towns along the corridor. The change from steam to diesel killed the coal patch towns as the trains just rolled on through without having to stop. The spaces between began to become wild again.

A few hundred years. That's what it will take for the narrow strip of land along the Youghiogheny River to become "old growth" forest again. My eight-times-great grandchildren may enjoy something that I have never seen and what my eight-times-great grandparents had a part in destroying.

Of course, that will only happen if we can leave it alone. I fear that commercial and consumer pressures will prevent that from ever happening. How long will it be before the railroads rebound from their collapse of a century ago to reclaim the corridor in the name of commerce? Will our highway infrastructure become so overburdened that government forces will demand a new 2-lane highway along the river? Will this generation be the only one to appreciate what we lost enough to rebuild it, sandwiched between a dozen generations of shortsighted, selfish destruction?

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