Finding the First Forests
by Mary Thill
Michael Kudish says nobody knows how much virgin forest the Adirondack Park contains. And if anyone knew, it would be him.
Kudish is working on a project to identify and tally Adirondack first-growth forest. If it’s anything like his previous work the effort will be definitive, if not exhaustive. Kudish is the author of a 903-page, three-volume series on Adirondack railroads, abandoned and extant. He also wrote four books on local vegetation, including the essential Adirondack Upland Flora.
I sometimes wondered how the forest historian could master two apparently divergent subjects: railroads and plants. But, he explained recently at a lecture in his former classroom at Paul Smith’s College, the studies are complementary. “Knowing where logging companies and railroads went is an enormous boon to figuring out where first growth isn’t,” he said. “In order to know an area well you have to know something about the industrial history.”
First-growth, primeval, virgin, original: all are terms for woods untouched by people. Kudish explains that these forests are identified by what is absent: roads, buildings, stumps, and railroad beds that carried wood out for charcoal, lumber and pulp.
By studying aerial photographs, reading historical records, and by walking the land to look for sign of human activity, Kudish has determined that 60,000 acres of New York’s Catskills are first-growth. Now he’s trying to use the same techniques to determine how much remains of the original Adirondack forest.
His mentor, Edwin Ketchledge, thought the Adirondack Park encompassed 200,000 acres of untouched cover (about 3 percent of its 6-million-acre area). Self-taught botanist, historian and Adirondack scholar Barbara McMartin estimated that there might be 500,000 acres (8–9 percent) of “almost virgin” Adirondack territory.
Kudish expects to find that somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the Adirondack Park has never been logged.
First, though, he clarifies: old-growth is not necessarily first-growth, and first-growth is not always old. For example, the krummholz fir and other stunted trees on mountaintops are clearly first-growth; nobody has ever logged them because they’re not worth the effort. Still, they’re not very old. Trees at that elevation are stressed by wind and cold and rarely live more than a few decades. Kudish calls those forests “perpetually young.” The threshold for old-growth in the Northeast is generally 150 years.
On the other hand, a lot of people map big old trees without distinguishing between forests that have been logged and those that haven’t.
Around the periphery of the park, hemlocks were stripped to supply tanneries. And you can pretty much forget about finding first-growth in the Champlain Valley, on the eastern side of the Adirondack Park, Kudish says. The region was settled by Europeans beginning in the late 17th century and is still farmed. The oaks and hickories common in the valley are a sign of human-set fire over a long period of time (by Abenakis and Europeans), and the area was heavily cut to provide charcoal for late-19th century iron-making.
Settlement of the interior began in the 19th century, but the territory is so vast and remote much of it was never logged. Kudish gives examples of Adirondack stands that have been verified as first-growth forest:
- The Tongue, a peninsula on Lower St. Regis Lake, across from Paul Smith’s College.
- The 1675 Grove, near Easy Street in the town of Brighton.
- Much of the McKenzie Mountain Range between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.
- Much of the St. Regis Canoe Area.
- The woods between Forest Home Road and Shingle Bay on Lower Saranac Lake.
- The Five Ponds Wilderness.
- The Kildare Club, north of Tupper Lake (private).
- Both sides of Route 28 near Eighth Lake, toward Inlet.
- Outside Lewey Lake Campground, between Indian Lake and Speculator.
Many small stands in the southern Adirondacks have been reported as old-growth, notably by Barbara McMartin in her 1994 book The Great Forest of the Adirondacks. They need to be field-checked to see if they are first-growth, Kudish says. If nothing more, he hopes his next book might be a manual others can use to do that painstaking work.
“Most of it [first-growth] is in the central or southern part of the park,” he says. “And in the southern part of the park? Guess what: An absence of railroads.”