The Fight for Urban Forests

article image
image by Steve Guttman

Bruce Kershner has made a career out of finding the most impressive trees in New York state. He’s found them in or near the places most people are least likely to look–our cities.

The cofounder of the Western New York Old Growth Forest Survey and vice president of the New York Old Growth Forest Association, Kershner has found ancient oaks in a grove behind a school in North Syracuse, a 400-year-old tulip tree in Queens, and trees he calls “living skyscrapers” in the 25 acres of old-growth forest at Inwood Hill Park on the northern tip of Manhattan Island.

One of the reasons for so much old growth in urban areas is that wealthy families such as the Rockefellers, who held land like Inwood Hill privately, didn’t need the income from logging and could afford to appreciate the forest’s scenic value. Then they deeded the properties to the public for parks. Left alone for centuries, the trees in these forests all over New York state have grown to what Kershner calls “mega flora.” He says they are “the huggable trees,” with trunks so large your arms can’t reach around them–but that shouldn’t stop you from trying.

Kershner is on a campaign to end what he calls “institutional denial” of the old-growth status of urban forests, many of which are endangered, and he has fought developers, land owners, and even the state Department of Conservation to prove that such places exist and that they deserve protection.

As part of his campaign for public awareness of old-growth forests, Kershner has written nine guidebooks. His most recent, The Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient Forests of the Northeast, gives detailed instructions for reaching each of these properties, instructions sometimes resembling those for an urban walking tour. “Take the A train to 207th street station,” he writes. “Walk west two blocks. Turn right on Seaman Avenue, go four blocks to its end, and turn left on 218th Street. Enter the park here.”

People make the mistake, Kershner says, of assuming that once European settlers arrived, the ancient forests disappeared as a result of logging and agricultural clearing.  It’s true that 80 percent or more of the Northeast’s forests were cut down, and most of what we see today is second growth. But he maintains that approximately 400,000 acres of old growth remain in the region.

Practiced at making his case, he enumerates the reasons to value even the smallest old-growth forests. They harbor the country’s oldest, largest, and tallest living things. They are “living laboratories” for studying a forest’s natural processes. Old-growth forests are concentrated habitats for endangered species. They are “genetic banks” for the strongest and most valuable genes of a species. They have commercial value for ecotourism. They are precious examples of our historic heritage, places to glimpse what North America looked like prior to the arrival of European settlers.

Most important, perhaps, to Kershner, they provide the intangible quality of inspiration. “Inspiration is what I’m after,” he says.

Bruce Kershner died in 2007, after this passage was written. Adapted from The Way of the Woods: Journeys Through American Forests (Oregon State University Press, 2009), which explores woodlands from the hemlocks of Appalachia to the giant sequoias of Northern California.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.