Upstate Gardener's Journal
Old Growth At Hemlock Lake
It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere… Nature was here something savage and awful., though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandseled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor wasteland. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever…
Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods, 1864
Trees are the largest plants on earth. Old growth trees are often the biggest, tallest and most ancient among them. How special then to have discovered in our own backyard an old growth forest on Hemlock Lake which is itself only a very small part of a pitifully small total—200ths of 1%—of remaining northeast pre-settlement, undisturbed, virgin old growth forest.
The recently discovered 2.5-mile tract of old growth forest on the steep terrain of the western shore of Hemlock Lake is tied with an equal sized ancient forest in Allegany State Park for the distinction of being the largest tract of old growth in upstate New York outside of the Adirondacks.
Covering some 774 acres on the southwest shore of Hemlock Lake about 25 miles south of Rochester, the old growth forest, on one of our most beautiful, unspoiled and pristine finger lakes, has been protected for years by its inaccessibility. The steeply sloped terrain, gorges and rocky ravines leading down to the water’s edge kept man away. Since 1895 the land has been owned by the City of Rochester as is part of Hemlock and Canadice Lake watershed system, the source of drinking water for city residents. Hemlock lake water has long been prized for its purity and wholesomeness, even so far as being promoted in television commercials and advertising slogans by a local brewery.
The discovery of the rare old trees was made last summer by a local resident, member of the local Sierra Club and two forest ecologists who’ve been mapping old growth forests in the northeast for 12 years.
Long-time local landowner Robert Piazza was concerned early last spring about a logging road being constructed by the city near his property close to the site he knew had some large old trees. Piazza contacted the Rochester Regional Group of Sierra Club whose chairman, Hugh Mitchell, called forest ecologist Bruce Kershner of Buffalo. .
Kershner has been researching, surveying and studying old growth forests in the northeast since 1972. For the past twelve years he has been a leader of the Western New York Old Growth Forest Survey. He and his group claim to have discovered over 200 ancient forests in the northeast, 58 of them in New York. Bruce Kershner knows his trees.
Kershner describes the spring day when he first descended into the Hemlock Lake forest: “Bob Piazza took us through his backyard which is at the top of a hill, and we walked down, first into a mature forest, then I came into an area that I immediately realized was old growth forest. When we got down to the steeper areas I realized we were in virgin old growth, the rarest of the rare, very impressive trees—hemlock, oak, and maple.”
Hugh Mitchell of the Sierra Club remembers, “ We found many, many old trees, we found groves or stands of old growth, hemlock and oak, American beech and ash. We measured many of the hemlocks between 165 and 350 years old. Some of them we’ve estimated are much older than 350 years.”
According to Kershner, “ Besides hemlock, the most common old growth trees in upstate New York are sugar maples, which get to be about 450 year old, red oak which also get to be 450, white pine, 450, white oak, 500, beech, 350 and yellow birch which sometimes reaches 500 years old. In northern Pennsylvania I personally have counted rings of hemlocks that were 600 years old. The oldest hemlock we have encountered in New York was 515 years old.
“ The hemlock is one of the six most common trees upstate. It is capable of attaining the greatest longevity of any tree other than the northern white cedar because it is able to live in the deepest shade and the most difficult growing conditions. The oldest hemlock ever reported grew in nearby northern Pennsylvania. It was 998 years old.”
If it’s difficult terrain where old hemlocks survive, the steep western slope of Hemlock Lake is a perfect explanation for why this ancient forest remains. Hugh Mitchell is an experienced climber and he admits he found rambling around the oldest sections of the forest a challenge. “The slope is over 35-degrrees,” he says, “ so it’s easy to get down to see [the old trees], but you have a devil of a time getting back up. The way the geology is, there’s these steep ravines that plunge right down the hill into the lake. Quite frankly, it’s not the best place to take a hike.”
Subsequent treks into the forest included biologists, ecologists, botanists and wildlife researchers. June Summers and the Genesee Valley Audubon Society are interested in learning more about the bird population in and around the forest. They know already about a breeding pair of bald eagles across the lake to the south. Audubon is very concerned that the city’s proposed logging operations in the area may disturb them. They’ve also discovered cerulean warblers in the forest, listed by the Audubon Society as a ‘species of concern’ –not yet threatened or endangered, but under stress from loss of habitat and sprawl.
Botanist and horticulturalist Carol Southby of Penfield walked the forest floor looking for rare or unusual plants growing in the under story. To her surprise, she found the absence of plants the most remarkable feature of the Hemlock Lake forest.
“ Interestingly,” she says, “ what I noticed, was what I did not see. I did not see any of the weedy introduced plants which elsewhere are still evident that time of year. I did not see garlic mustard, I did not see swallowwort, I didn’t see vinca--those kind of introduced, alien species. It appeared to me to be relatively undisturbed. It looked like a higher quality piece of woodland because it did not have some of the weedy species we find in opened areas.”
Since its discovery, logging of the Hemlock Lake tract has been a contentious issue between the city, local residents and a coalition of environmental groups that include the Western New York Old Growth Survey, Sierra Club, Audubon and the Federation of Monroe County Environmentalists.
The city claims it want to ‘treat’ the forest by removing some trees, especially the older hemlocks, to open the canopy and let in more light, which would encourage oaks to grow, thereby creating a more diverse forest which can be logged in the future as a source of revenue for the city. With their plan, the city claims they would establish a “younger, healthier and more vigorous forest.”
Opponents to the city’s plan are equally explicit in their views. Bruce Kershner, never one to rely on the subtleties of language to make his point says, “ It would be asinine to log in the Hemlock Lake watershed. I have personally walked over the land 4 times, 18 gullies, gorges, filled with water from snow melt, they are going to be logging along those slopes and in those ravines, they will increase mud flowing down to the lake, polluting the very place that provides drinking water for the city of Rochester. It’s like pissing in your own pool. It makes no sense.”
The Sierra Club position is a bit more tempered. “ The Rochester Regional Group is aware that a forest can be managed and selectively cut without long term damage, but we are more impressed with the fact this area contains one of the most significant stands of old growth trees in Western New York. Logging and forest trimming are not necessary for the continued viability of this part of the watershed. We oppose…logging in this area of the Hemlock Lake… and demand there be no cutting of, or near, old growth trees.”
Of the estimated $35-thousand logging road the city has already constructed the Sierra Club says, “We…recommend that the new city road be opened to the public to use for access to the old growth area and that trails to these sections be developed so citizens can experience the untouched beauty of a primary New York forest.”
The national Audubon Society has long classified the entire Hemlock - Canadice Lake watershed an “important bird area” because of the neo tropical migrates which pass through and the species they suspect breed there. June Summer says, “ We know that by managing the forest properly we can preserve and even increase biodiversity. We’ve asked the city to give us a year, starting this spring, to research what’s there.” An environmental audit and site analysis of wildlife, flora and fauna, has not yet been done. Opponents to the city’s logging plan insist one be conducted before the area is disturbed any further.
Sometime later this spring, probably around mid-March, the Genesee Valley Audubon organization and New York Wild, will begin Webcasting via a “critter cam” overlooking the breeding pair of Bald Eagles in their nest south of the old growth area. June Summers believes the once endangered bald eagles have made their home on Hemlock Lake since the 1950s, and through the 60s and early 70s, when birds were devastated by DDT, were the only bald eagles known to survive in the state. When the cameras are patched on the Internet, the Hemlock Lake eagle’s nest will be viewable at: www.nywild.org.
“ Any logging of steep watershed slopes will cause silting-- intense muddiness of the lake,” Kershner says. “The pristineness of the lake is why the eagles are there; the pristineness of the lake gives it the fish population that the eagles feed on. If you deteriorate the lake the eagles will not have the fish and they will have to leave. So you’re endangering the eagles in an indirect way but…in the same way that the city’s drinking water is endangered. You don’t want to send lots and lots of mud down into the lake.”
Not all old growth has the stature that attracts the attention of the public or of naturalists and conservationists. Take for example the cliff dwelling, diminutive cedar trees that line the Niagara Gorge above the falls. Some of these cedars along the 7-mile gorge are 1,500 years old. The cedars grow on the cliffs and fallen boulders below along the 300-foot deep gorge carved out over the millennia by the crushing water of the falls.
Consider too, the holly forests that grow on the sand dunes and sandy soil on the eastern Atlantic coast. Along with pitch pine, black gum trees and sassafras, the popular decorative Christmas holly thrives on land few other trees can bear. The oldest hardwood forest in the northeast is a holly forest known as Bear Swamp in New Jersey. Some of the holly, pines and twisted, contorted 20- foot black gum trees found there are 600 years old.
On New York’s Fire Island a similar holly forest, is but a youthful 250-years-old. It makes up a large part of the 1,200 -acre Sunken Meadow State Park which stretches along 3-miles of the Atlantic Ocean. .
These two examples of the oldest of the old forests and trees in the northeast owe their survival almost totally to the lack of commercial value of the dominant trees found in them. In general, those trees that escaped the saw in the first two centuries of North American settlement were either of no value, protected by circumstance, i.e. being in churchyards, village squares, along hedge rows, etc., or were overlooked or passed by because they were in such remote areas or grew in such difficult terrain that they were too hard to log.
Those few old growth trees that remain no doubt have some commercial value. But they have an even greater value, one that cannot be expressed in dollars. Hugh Mitchell: “Under the canopy, so thick it has kept the under story open, no shrubs, not a lot of bushes, it’s wonderful hiking there There’s a wonderful emotional and spiritual feeling of walking in an old, undisturbed forest.”