Forest History

A Short History of Logging and Other
Forest Practices in Western Massachusetts

Native American Land Use
Early Anglo-European Settlement
Agricultural Era
Industrial Era
Modern Era
Post-Industrial Era

Native American Land Use

Anglo-Europeans have been influencing our forests for only the past 300 years. Native Americans were here at least 10,000 years before that and had totally different attitudes toward their forests. What were forests like under the Native Americans' stewardship? The accounts of early explorers describe savannah-like areas near villages with trees spaced far apart.  Most of the trees were nut trees: chestnut, oak and hickory.  There were lots of berry bushes underneath.

Native American dwellings were not made of timber. They didn't need timber for ships. But fuelwood was important in the winter, as were tree nuts and fruits in the fall and winter.  Some parts of certain trees had important medicinal uses.  The forests were also "pastures" for the deer and other wildlife that they hunted.

Native American forestry practices consisted of fuelwood harvesting and periodic controlled burning. The burning would kill the thin-barked maples, birches, beech and softwoods and give more space to the thick-barked chestnuts, oaks and hickories--which produced nuts for the people and the wildlife they hunted (deer, bear, turkey).  Periodic burning would also keep the forest more open and recycle nutrients more rapidly for the benefit of trees and grasses. 

Native Americans also practiced shifting cultivation for their agricultural production.  They would crop areas until the nutrients were depleted and then they would abandon them temporarily and allow trees to reclaim the fields.  After the forest had restored the nutrients, they would come back and clear the land again for crop production. 

Early Anglo-European Settlement

When the British first arrived in Massachusetts, the Native Americans in the Boston area asked them if they had run out of wood in England.  This was because the Natives had already cut most of the forest around Boston for fuelwood and were experiencing shortages themselves. Other areas of the state were not so densely populated and therefore hadn't been cut so heavily.

There were in fact timber shortages in Great Britain, and the colonists were interested in timber as well as agricultural crops for export. They were especially interested in the big white pines of New England. This was because the British Empire was totally dependent upon its Navy, which was totally dependent upon tall mast timbers. So soon after settlement, British agents went through the forests blazing tall pine trees with the King's mark.

When Anglo-European colonists arrived here, they brought with them their lifestyles and land use practices.  There was greater demand for timber and wood for houses and heating, and there was a need for cleared land for livestock and agricultural crops.  Nevertheless, much timber on the "frontier" was simply cut and burned (or girdled) to make way for pastures, mowings and fields. Sometimes the ashes were used to make potash which was used to make glass, soap and gunpowder.

The stonewalls that criss-cross our forests were constructed during this time of agricultural land clearing. These walls helped confine livestock to pastures and keep them out of fields before the advent of barbed-wire fencing in the late 1800s. They also were repositories for all the stones that emerged from the ground due to frost heaving and plowing.

Near towns and villages there would often be upland wooded areas unsuited to agriculture.  These areas were divided into small woodlots or "heater pieces" that would be periodically cut for fuelwood.  Where chestnut was the predominant species, these woodlots could be harvested every 20 years because this species sprouted vigorously from stumps and grew rapidly.

Agricultural Era

High quality hardwoods from farm woodlots were used for tool handles, farm implements, furniture and flooring. Pine was used for sheathing, clapboards and shingles.  Hemlock timber was used for structural timbers; the bark was used for tanning leathers. Chestnut was used for fence rails and framing timbers; the bark was used for tanning. Oak was used for barrel staves, ship timbers and many other products.

Some species had very specialized uses.  Elm was used for barn and stable floors because of its tolerance of moisture.  Elm and hornbeam were used for wagon wheel hubs because of their strength and durability. Hornbeam was also used for oxen yokes. Basswood was used for carriage floors because of its light weight.

Some areas of Berkshire County had iron works that used large amounts of charcoal for smelting.  The charcoal was produced by building little earth-covered kilns right in the woods where the trees were cut. The flat circles constructed for these kilns are still visible today. Other areas near railroads were cut heavily for fuel for steam locomotives--until coal replaced wood for fuel.

Maple sugaring was very extensive in western Massachusetts in the early and mid-1800s. You can still find the old foundations for boiling pans on many forest properties.  Maple sugar products substitued for cane sugar products which were produced by slave labor in the West Indies.  So there was a political as well as an economic motivation for maple sugar production.

Given all the demands on our forests for such a wide variety of products, one would expect that some properties would have been managed for high value products. This may have been the case for a few landowners, but the evidence indicates that the common practice was to simply go in and cut when the markets were good for a particular species, or when there was a financial need in the family.  Farmers often regarded their woodlots as reserve accounts for financial emergencies.

Even without careful management, our forests produced tremendous value for landowners, loggers and sawmill owners.  Local water-powered mills would often be quite specialized, producing high value products such as rakes, tool handles, carriages and sleds.  Much of the production was used locally.  This process produced wealth and tied communities together. 

There were also mills that produced building materials: timbers, boards and shingles.  Old houses typically have hemlock and chestnut framing timbers with pine sheathing and clapboards. They also have maple, oak or pine flooring.

The American industrial revolution was born in these small, water-powered mills where local entrepreneurs and engineers learned skills and techniques by trial and error, and which they later applied on much larger scales at much larger mills in Greenfield, Holyoke and other big mill towns.

Industrial Era

With all the land clearing for pastures and mowings, cutting for construction materials and manufactured products, plus cutting for fuelwood, there arose shortages of timber and wood in the late 1800's.  But around the same time, many farmers were moving west to work the deep, fertile, stone-free soils of the Midwest.

Furthermore, the equipment being developed at this time for plowing, cultivating and harvesting didn't work well on the steep, rocky fields of western Massachusetts. This was particularly the case with mowing machinery.  Many mowings that were formerly harvested with hand scythes could no longer be economically harvested. So they reverted to pastures or woodlands. 

As mowing and grazing declined, the forest came back.  Mowings and pastures were abandoned and they reseeded to the species that happened to be along the fencerows. But many pastures were abandoned gradually and the cattle or sheep would browse the hardwoods and leave the pines.  By the early 1900's there were vast areas of pine forest on former agricultural land.  There was also a demand for pine boxes for shipping produce and all manner of manufactured products.

By this time timber harvesting technologies had also changed.  Logging was still done with teams of oxen or horses and cross-cut saws. But logs were often milled by portable steam sawmills instead of stationary water-powered mills. These mills could be moved around a woodlot to shorten skidding distances.

The result was often heavier cutting because it made economic sense to cut and mill everything when skidding distances were shorter.  With the old, stationary water-powered mills, the cost of transporting logs was such that often only the biggest and best would pay their way out of the woods.  Old lithographs and photos show this process with the horse-drawn sleds carrying large logs to the mills in winter.

With the advent of the internal combustion engine in the early 1900's, the need for mowings and pasture declined further as the society switched from animal power to engine power.  Even more land was abandoned from agricultural production and reverted to forest cover.

Modern Era

Many of today's forests, particularly those east of the Connecticut River, grew up after heavy cutting of pine around the turn of the century.  Some have been cut once or twice since then.  West of the Connecticut River there was less pine in abandoned pastures because hardwoods have an advantage on the heavier soils here, and subsequent cuttings have been more random. There is more of a history of high-grading here, where only the biggest and best were cut periodically.

By the time World War II was over, many forests had grown back from the heavy cutting earlier in the century; as the process of agricultural abandonment continued, other forests had grown up in former mowings and pastures.  Starting in the late 1940s, there was considerable demand for housing for all the veterans. Demand remained strong right through the 1950s and 1960s.

Crawler tractors (bulldozers) were replacing oxen and horses during this time, and chainsaws were replacing cross-cut saws.  There were diesel-powered portable mills. Cutting was heavy for softwoods and hardwoods. The remains of old sawdust piles are still visible in many woodlots, as are the narrow skid trails made by the crawlers.  In older stands that weren't cut during this era, narrow, single-track horse skid trails are still visible.

The next technological change in the woods was the advent of the rubber-wheeled skidder during the 1960's. These powerful machines had high ground clearances which made it unnecessary to move portable mills around to accommodate crawlers which were slow and had problems with rocks. Logs could now be skidded further over rougher terrain.  At the same time, specifications for finished lumber became tighter.  So fixed, diesel or electric powered mills became the norm.

Skidders are capable of removing much more timber than oxen, horses or crawlers. Big mills are capable of processing much more timber. Nevertheless, we are only removing about 25% of the annual growth in Massachusetts. But of that 25%, roughly 80-90% is removed in highgrading operations.  The percentage of high-grading corresponds to the percentage of unmanaged forest land in the state: 85%.

Oxen and horses could do farm work in the summers. The same applied for crawlers if they had blades.  Skidders are much more specialized. Tracked harvesters are likewise quite specialized. The high cost of financing these equipment systems dictates that they be used year-round. In some cases, it dictates that they be used with too great an emphasis on production and not enough on caring for forest soils and residual trees.

Post-Industrial Era

During the 1970's markets shifted again. There was demand for high-grade hardwood lumber in Europe and Japan. These export markets have continued to grow through the 1980's and 1990's and there is demand for our high grade hardwoods all around the world. Prices for timber went up at much faster rates than the 2-3% per year (net of inflation) that had been the historical trend.

We all see log trucks on their way to local mills. We also see trailer trucks loaded with logs heading north on Route 91.  Some of the best logs are exported from Montreal to veneer mills and sawmills all around the world. Other logs are milled in Canada or New England and the lumber is maufactured into products that come back here to our furniture stores.

Harvesting technologies are now shifting again.  Landowner and forester concerns about skidders rutting forest soils and damaging residual stands are driving a switch to wide-wheeled forwarders and tracked harvesters. Climate change and consequent wetter, warmer weather are also driving this change.

With aging forests and relatively low levels of cutting, some species of wildlife are coming back. We see bear, turkey, coyotes and moose now where we didn't just 20 years ago. Wildlife biologists advocate small clearcuts to create more diverse wildlife habitats.  They also advocate restoration of abandoned fields for the same reason.

More and more people own forest properties primarily for aesthetic and recreational uses.  Their incomes derive from work that is not related to agricultural or industrial production.  The motivation to do management comes from land tax concerns and increasing aesthetic and recreational values.