New England's Trees and Forests

Faculty insight with Donald Pfister

Donald Pfister, Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany at Harvard, talks with Jenny Attiyeh of ThoughtCast about how European settlers made a lasting impact on New England’s trees and the evolution of New England’s landscape.

Video interview with Donald Pfister on New England’s trees and forests

Donald Pfister is the Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany at Harvard University, curator of the Farlow Library and Herbarium, and dean of Harvard Summer School. Pfister retains a passion for New England’s trees and forests. He has taught the Harvard Extension course Trees and Forests in New England. 

On display at Harvard Forest’s Fisher Museum are dioramas that show the change over time to New England’s trees, forests, and landscape. The first major change to the forest was the domestication of the land by European settlers. The trees became confined to smaller areas and the forest changed into a different ecosystem.

As the farms in New England opened up, technology was starting to bloom in the west. The Erie Canal provided a connection between the east and the west and this slowly led to the abandonment of the farms in the northeast. A new habitat was created and it supported trees that could grow in direct sunlight. The abandonment also meant a reestablishment of the forest and an upsurge in the growth of white pine trees.

People noticed that the white pine trees had value and moved to cut them down. Other trees had been growing under the protection of white pine, and this process is known as second growth. Underneath the white pine were saplings of hardwood trees, and when the white pine trees were cut down the hardwood trees could thrive and grow.

The New England forest today is a success story and about 80 percent of the landscape is now forested. New England trees serve as carbon sinks, where carbon from the atmosphere is being stored in the wood, and this has contributed greatly to the balance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

Donald Pfister’s research and book

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Leslie, editor replied:

Thank you, Greg, for pointing out the typo. We have corrected it. Indeed the Erie Canal can be eerie!

Anonymous replied:
Wonderful interview tracing the history of our local forests...makes me want to take Prof. Pfister's courseand get out there! Two suggestions: first, could you supply short bibliography related to history of forests? And second, while travelling on a canal may at times be frightening, check text above and your spelling of the watery link twixt NE and the West... Greg Cope current HES student (finance)