How old is the Green Lakes Forest? Unpacking the million dollar question for the park’s oldest trees
On a hot day last July, under skies dulled by smoke from wildfires raging in Canada, Neil Pederson, 55, a senior forest ecologist at Harvard Forest University, searched Green Lakes State Park for old-growth trees. Even its core.
Supported by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Pederson and his team have excavated thousands of trees in pockets of ancient forests throughout the Northeast, from Maine to New Jersey, and from Pennsylvania to New York.
Pederson’s three-year study, now completing its second year, aims to reconstruct the history of a landscape that has all but disappeared. He hoped Green Lakes would provide a small piece of the puzzle.
Pedersen defines old-growth trees as those that escaped the axes of European colonizers, which in New York are about 300 years old. Many authorities, including the state Department of Environmental Conservation, claim that the Green Lakes area contains old-growth forest.
But as far as Pederson knows, no one has ever drilled trees in the Green Lakes area to determine whether they are in fact old growth. It was a mystery hiding in plain sight.
His team dug up about 30 trees that day. Last month, he began analyzing nuclei in his lab. The initial results surprised him.
“There are a good percentage of old trees, older than I expected, and whether it’s old growth or not doesn’t matter,” he wrote in a recent email.
Old growth haven
Nearly two million people visited Green Lakes last year, making it the most popular state park in central New York. It has a beautiful beach, well-maintained trails, and other turquoise waters that give the park its name.
But most visitors probably don’t realize that the Green Lakes District is really special in less obvious ways.
The park’s crown jewels, Green Lake and Round Lake, are two of only six succulent lakes in the state. Because their upper and lower layers do not mix, they serve as rare time capsules for scientists searching for clues to environmental changes dating back to the last ice age.
Green Lakes is also one of the few state parks outside the Adirondacks that contains an old-growth forest, according to the Old Growth Forest Network, which classifies 1,000 acres of the park — roughly half its size — as old-growth.
As Pederson’s team descended the road to Round Lake, they marveled at the unusually diverse array of large hardwoods inhabiting the slopes: basswood and beech; Hornbeam and hickory nut.
A sign on the beach says the nearby grove of 90-foot-tall eastern hemlocks is 400 years old. Not far away, another sign announced the lake’s 1973 listing as a National Natural Landmark, along with “100 acres of surrounding ancient forest.”
Pederson, who visited Green Lakes several times while growing up in Fulton, wasn’t convinced Green Lakes was an old-growth retreat.
“Old growth” is a technical term, he said, with many definitions usually linking size to age. The larger the tree, the older it is supposed to be.
Pederson said it’s difficult to tell how old a tree is just by looking at it. You need to turn it over and count the loops.
“This is a really great place to plant trees,” he added. “It’s wonderful. It should be protected. It’s beautiful. But is it old? I don’t know.”
Not a single inch of forest cover in the Northeast has been left untouched by humans. After hundreds of years of extensive logging, plowing, grazing and paving, less than one percent of it is now old growth.
“We’ve seen cut-off places that are hard to believe,” Pederson said.
He expressed his hope that the Green Lakes area would be a “sacred” historical place. Sacred to the Haudenosaunee tribe, and sacred to the European settlers who later claimed it for themselves. They may have preserved part of it long before it became a state park in 1928.
If so, Pederson and his team only had one day to find that sacred relic, because they had to be in Fredonia the next day to cut trees in the Zoar Valley.
During the trip, Pedersen compared his observations with those of his colleague, senior forest ecologist Dave Orwig. Despite 60 years of field experience between them, the secrets of the forest eluded them.
Orwig wandered through the bushes, calling out his findings: raspberries, bloodroot, blue cohosh.
“We’re seeing all these things that point to what we kind of know is, it’s a rich site,” Orwig said.
waste of time
Halfway around Round Lake, Pederson had yet to find a stand of trees old enough to overturn, and he began to wonder if Green Lakes was a waste of his time.
He said there were a lot of large, impressive trees here, but the entire site was essentially a tree nursery with ideal growing conditions. All types became huge quickly.
Old trees — really old trees — often grow slowly over decades, even centuries, Pederson explained. They struggle to survive in poor soil, or in the shade of tall trees, where their trunks twist and lean toward gaps in the canopy.
Thorny trees with tough bark and jagged crowns – that’s what Pedersen was looking for.
In a moment of serendipity, the team found a chainsaw-cut hemlock tree located right next to the trail. Pederson leaned down to examine him.
“Well, look at this,” he shouted. “Very nice of them to cut this for us. It’s slow growth from the inside.”
Orwig estimated it to be about 200 years old. Promising, but middle-aged for a hemlock. They pressed forward.
If there’s one place in Green Lakes that looks like an old-growth forest, it’s the Tuliptree Cathedral in the southwest corner of Round Lake. Here, tulip poplars with trunks as thick as Gothic columns soar up to 140 feet into the sky, supporting huge, arching canopies.
But while some imagine a natural cathedral, Pedersen and Orwig saw possible evidence of logging that had created a hole in the original forest colonized by tulip poplars. They estimated the grove’s age at about 130 years, during the era of industrial-scale logging.
“I think this side of the lake is a bust,” Pederson sighed.
After debating whether they should bother digging up any trees in the Green Lakes area, the team decided to do just one plot instead of the standard two. but where?
Pederson stared into the airy green canopy of Tuliptree Cathedral, scratching his beard.
“It’s a great location, it’s beautiful. I would love to spend some time here, but as far as the older trees go, we have a better chance there,” he said, pointing to a spot near a 200-year-old hemlock trunk.
“This is the only truth known to us,” he said.
Orwig knelt next to the trunk of the hemlock tree, carving marks into the cut end with his little thumb in 100-year increments.
“It’s definitely older than we think,” Orwig said excitedly. “Maybe it’s 250.”
Laura Smith, a research assistant, estimated the number to be closer to 300 based on a “magic inch” of paper-thin rings that could easily contain 100 years of slow growth, likely when the tree was in the understory.
“If that’s true, there weren’t many Europeans around, maybe fur trappers,” Pederson said. “This was Haudenosaunee. This is really special.”
After this discovery revived, the team unloaded its equipment and began work.
Using a laser rangefinder, Pedersen traced a 20-meter circle and squeezed as many species into it as he could: yellow birch, sugar maple, basswood and ash. Even the dead hemlock log.
Meanwhile, other team members scrambled up and down steep slopes, hacking through thickets of buckthorn, twisting around poison ivy vines, measuring, digging, and slipping in the soft soil, occasionally falling on their buttocks.
Many tree ring studies focus on a few softwood conifer species such as spruce, pine and hemlock, Pederson said. One unusual aspect of his study is the sheer diversity of hardwoods it includes – 37 species so far.
The problem is that hardwoods are hard. His team literally burned the equipment.
At some point, while digging into a slender hornbeam tree — also known as ironwood — Pederson’s cordless switch started smoking. The bolts shook out of the chuck and fell to the ground.
Jordan Sharp, a graduate student from Kentucky, barely dug two inches into a massive sugar maple tree before her wrench gave out. She turned to the growing rig, a T-shaped device that she twisted by hand like a giant wrench.
The loud screech of additional excavators and the hammering of wrenches echoed across the lake for hours. At the end of the day, they had extracted 19 trees inside the plot of land, and about ten more trees outside it.
The cores will return to Pederson’s lab where they will be assembled, polished and ultimately studied. But that was months away. As the team headed to the parking lot, all they cared about was where they would eat dinner before hitting the road.
Old growth in the future
After conducting a preliminary analysis of seven samples from the Green Lakes region, Pedersen says he is happy with the ages of the trees his team chose. There were some surprises too.
For example, Laura Smith’s field estimate of a 300-year-old hemlock log was right on the money. The giant tulip poplar, which Pederson guessed was only 120 years old, turned out to be about 190 years old. Moreover, he could see evidence of past droughts in his rings.
Despite being just a third the size of a tulip tree, the ironwood tree that made Pederson’s switch start smoking is about 150 years old, 40 years older than first thought. The proof of this, he says, is that size does not always equal age.
But none of these ages “fully support the idea of an old-growth forest,” Pedersen says, adding that he has consistently found older trees in the area.
Ben Morse, director of Green Lakes Park, admits that although Pederson’s initial findings suggest that some park signs may be off in terms of tree ages, the data is “pretty impressive,” and he hopes Pederson’s team will come back to do more work. Research.
“The data they collect and share with us is beneficial to both parties,” Morse says. “The more we know about our natural resources, the better we can protect them.”
As a scientist, Pederson is careful to use terms like “old growth,” which are often laden with romantic sentiment. However, he appreciates the feelings behind the feeling, even if it has no basis in reality.
Because the truth is that everyone loves big, old trees. Calling them old growth is a way to celebrate that. That’s why Pederson calls the Green Lakes area “future old growth.”
“It’s a beautiful, impressive forest now,” he says. “In 100 years it will be even more impressive.”
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Steve Featherstone covers the outdoors for The Post Standard, syracuse.com And NYUP.com. Call him on firstname.lastname@example.org Or on Twitter @featheroutdoors. You can also follow all our external content on newyorkupstate.com/outdoors/ Or follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/upstatenewdoors.