By Matthew Wills
The dense, resin-saturated, rot-resistant timber of the longleaf pine helped build up U.S. cities. But most of the native stands have already been logged.
If you’ve ever been to Brooklyn Bridge Park, you may have seen the sturdy, wooden-beamed benches facing the harbor. The wood for the benches was salvaged from the old National Cold Storage Warehouse complex, which was demolished for the construction of the park. It timber comes from the longleaf pine, Pinus palustris, some of which was cut in the decades before 1900. The trees themselves might have been up to five centuries old when they were felled.
The Brooklyn Bridge itself had caissons—essentially enormous, upside down boxes—made of longleaf pine. The foundations of the bridge’s two towers were excavated by men working inside these caissons on the bottom of the East River. Once the excavation was done—at terrible human cost, due to caisson’s disease, AKA decompression sickness—the caissons were filled in to form the frames of the foundations of the bridge.
Even dead, the dense, resin-saturated, rot-resistant timber of longleaf pine survives a very long time. Many cities in the U.S. have nineteenth-century buildings that were built with the “good bones” of longleaf pine. They’re harvested to this day, but not in the volume they once were. There’s a simple reason for that: There just aren’t that many of them anymore.
Geographers Garrett C. Smith, Mark W. Patterson, and Harold R. Trendell track the demise of the longleaf ecosystem. When Europeans arrived in the southeast, the pines covered the coast plain from what is now the Virginia/North Carolina border into Florida and along the Gulf Coast. Estimates of the total size of this pine savannah range from 60 to 147 million acres. There are far fewer of the trees now, and only a tiny proportion of the remnant is old growth. An example: in 1607, there was an estimated one million acres of longleaf pine in Virginia alone; in 2005, there were some 200 individual trees.
By Sonja Dümpelmann
Many cities, in recent years, have initiated tree planting campaigns to offset carbon dioxide emissions and improve urban microclimates. In 2007, New York City launched MillionTrees NYC, a program designed to plant 1 million new trees along streets, in parks and on private and public properties by 2017. They hit their goal two years ahead of time.
These programs are popular for a reason: Not only do trees improve the city’s appearance, but they also mitigate the urban heat island effect – the tendency for dense cities to be hotter than surrounding areas. Studies have shown that trees reduce pollutants in the air, and even the mere sight of trees and the availability of green spaces in cities can decrease stress.
But as I show in my new book, “Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York City and Berlin,” trees weren’t always a part of the urban landscape. It took a systematic, coordinated effort to get the first ones planted.
By Robert Beanblossom
Nestled in a mountainous valley known as the Pink Beds is the Cradle of Forestry in America, a national historic site. This spot in the heart of the Pisgah National Forest is aptly named for it is the birthplace of scientific forestry in the United States.
This story begins in early 1888. That year a wealthy young man, George Washington Vanderbilt, traveled to the nearby town of Asheville along with his mother, who sought relief from malarial-like symptoms. Dr. S. Westray Battle, a retired U.S. Navy surgeon and a highly respected pulmonary specialist with a practice there, subsequently provided Mrs. Vanderbilt’s medical treatment while she and her son stayed at the posh Battery Park Hotel.
The clean air, scenic mountains and natural beauty of the area quickly captivated Vanderbilt, a widely-traveled, well-read individual, who considered himself a poet at heart.
Consequently, he fell in love with this land and immediately decided to build a luxurious mansion, later named Biltmore, and to purchase property. By 1895 he could claim ownership to more than 125,000 acres of forest land; but much of it had been heavily damaged by fire, grazing and poor logging practices. There were, however, virgin stands of high quality trees especially in the coves and on North and east facing slopes of his holdings.
Vanderbilt employed the foremost architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt, to design his 255-room mansion but also hired an equally famous landscape architect, Fred-rick Law Olmsted, to design the grounds of the estate. Olmsted, known for designing New York’s Central Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds and other notable venues, suggested to Vanderbilt that a forester be hired to manage his newly-acquired holdings. There was one problem. Only two foresters were practicing in America at the time. One was a German forester, Bernard Fernow, who happened to be already working with the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. The other was a 27-year-old Pennsylvanian, Gifford Pinchot.
Pinchot, who came from a wealthy family himself, had graduated from Yale and had studied forestry, on the advice of his father, in France for 13 months. Anxious to get started in his chosen profession, he accepted Vande-rbilt’s offer of employment and came to the Biltmore Estate in early February, 1892. His plans for forest management included selection cutting for sustained yield. Stands not adequately stocked with trees were planted with hardwoods and pine.
Later, in writing of his experience, he stated, “… Thus, Biltmore became the beginning of practical forestry in America. It was the first piece of woodland to be put under a regular system of forest management whose object was to pay the owner while improving the forest.”
…Vanderbilt’s widow, Edith, sold the 87,500-acre Pink Beds tract to the U.S. Forest Service in 1914; it ultimately became part of the Pisgah National Forest. While all of those lands played a role in the origin of forestry, The Cradle of Forestry in America has special significance. Congress carved out and designated 6,500 acres as a national historic site in 1968. Here four firsts can be identified: the first trained American forester; the first managed forest; the first school of forestry in America and the first national forest created under the Weeks Act of 1911.
So that’s where your long-lost Bitterlich Averaging Instrument went.
It, or one just like it, is now in the repository of the National Museum of Forest Service History on Catlin Street (in Missoula, Montana).
In the small office at the Northern Region’s field service facility at 14th Street and Catlin are boxes and boxes of carefully archived papers, photos, and reports. The physical items – a portable radio developed in the late 1920s, an early computer, axes and Pulaskis, scaling sticks and a thousand other artifacts – take up the rest of the office and three rooms in an old streetcar barn across the way, which is now called the Forest Service Motor Pool and Equipment Inspection Facility.
Lisa Tate was hired as the National Forest Service Museum’s first executive director this summer and is in awe at the depth and breadth of the collection.
Gifford Pinchot, the first U.S. forest chief and founder of the Yale Forest School, doesn’t get enough credit, says historian Char Miller. In the early 20th century, Miller says, Pinchot helped shape our modern understanding of conservation, environmental education, and the very notion of “public lands.”