by Daniel B. Botkin, GSNB '68
When I was working on my Ph.D. in ecology at Rutgers, I was fortunate to serve as caretaker of Hutcheson Memorial Forest (HMF), ecologically famous as the last remaining uncut oak and hickory forest in New Jersey. Its original European settlers, a Dutch family, the Mettlers, had owned the land since the mid-1700s. In the 1950s, Professor Murray Buell, a botanist and plant ecologist, led a successful effort to purchase the forest and make it the center of a nature preserve.
Murray also raised funds for a caretaker's house, which I occupied as a graduate student in 1966 and 1967. My duties as caretaker included guiding weekend nature walks, patrolling the forest and keeping hunters and other harvesters out. This wasn't the easiest of jobs, since the hunters I sometimes encountered dragging freshly-killed deer through the woods, and messing up the understory vegetation, also toted big guns. (One of my predecessors got himself deputized and could arrest trespassers, but I wasn't that adventuresome). You can imagine what the hunters had to say when I approached them and told them I was the caretaker of New Jersey's only virgin forest.
Other than that, it was a dream job. The caretaker's house sat in the midst of recently abandoned farm fields, with a grand view of the old forest and surrounding countryside.
In 1954, Life magazine ran a cover story about the preserve, stating that the woodland "stands as a 'climax' forest community, which means that it has approached a state of equilibrium with its environment, perpetuating itself year after year essentially without change, secure against the invasions of all other forest types that might seek to displace it."
By the time I became HMF's caretaker in 1966 and 1967, it was clear to me that the forest wasn?t staying all that constant. The evidence was this: In 1749, Swedish botanist Peter Kalm passed through this area and wrote that the forest was "composed of large oaks, hickories, and chestnuts, so free of underbrush that one could drive a horse and carriage through the woods." When I walked the forest, I saw some of the giant old oaks, but they were relatively few, scattered, or dying. I searched the ground as I hiked the woods and found very few young oaks beneath the dying giants. Waiting to take their place, instead, were seedlings and saplings of sugar maples. They were everywhere.
It struck me: HMF was changing from a forest of grand old oaks and hickories to a dense thicket of young sugar maples. In Life magazine's terms, it was being invaded.
Studies by Prof. Buell's students revealed why. Before the Mettlers and other European settlers, Indians set fires at the forest on average every ten years. Oaks and hickories are resilient to fire, and sprout readily afterwards, Once the burning stopped with the arrival of the Mettlers, however, sugar maples - which are sensitive to and don't do well with frequent fires - began to thrive. So, what was originally thought to be the handiwork of nature was in fact a human act: Indian-lit fires creating the beautiful open woodlands. (See my book, Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the 21st Century, for more on this).
This discovery makes Hutcheson Forest all the more important. If we want to learn how to save and conserve our forests (or any ecosystem, for that matter), we need to understand the process of natural change.
Fast forward to the summer of 2007. I visited Hutcheson Memorial Forest for the first time since I graduated almost 40 years ago. It was still fascinating - though in some ways very different. For example, the farm fields that surrounded the caretaker's house had grown up to become young forests, obscuring the open landscape that I had remembered. But within the uncut forest, the processes that I and others had observed in the 1960s continued: there were fewer and fewer great old oaks, leaving a more open canopy and more densely wooded understory. Many exotic plants grew abundantly, part of the "invasion" that had once seemed impossible. The forest continued to metamorphose into a woodlands no one had quite seen before, less and less like the mythical virgin forest.
Fortunately, Rutgers has been able to purchase much more land around the uncut forest to protect it. Not so fortunately, though, HMF never became part of any long-term ecological research program, and still lacks a quantitative baseline survey and periodic monitoring. Ironically, the kind of basic information so important to tracking nature isn't being gathered here. With increasing concerns about global warming and its effects on natural areas, such information is becoming more and more valuable.
My visit this past summer reinforced the belief that HMF is a vital laboratory as we struggle to solve environmental problems. Rutgers certainly deserves credit for supporting this great natural preserve over the years. My fervent hope is that someday a program will be launched to provide valuable baseline information essential to its conservation.
See our feature article on Dr. Botkin and the environmental and ecological trails he has blazed in the current issue of 1766.
Visit his websites at www.naturestudy.org and at www.danielbbotkin.com