Department of Environmental Conservation

D E C banner

History Of State Forest Program

A History of Human Impact

From the time of European settlement in North American until the middle of the 19th century, forests had been viewed primarily by the settlers as an obstacle to civilization; they were something to be cleared out of the way for agriculture, or to be unsustainably cut and exploited for profit. By the 1880s, less than 25% of New York State remained forested.

At the turn of the 20th century, New York State's remaining forests were spread thin and losing stock. The New York Forest, Fish and Game Conservation Commission warned that the state would run out of timber within 50 years. The commission had reason to be alarmed. Timber companies were cutting the remaining trees at an alarming rate, leaving bare hillsides to be stripped of soil by erosion.

Leaders of a New Era

Archival photo of a large field full of seedlings
Tree seedlings planted on reforestation areas
which were previously sandy abandoned farms.

Forests in all the northeastern states were disappearing fast, but New York was the first to reverse this seemingly inexorable process by beginning to plant seedlings to replace trees that had been cut. The commission believed in using the latest science: sustainable forestry, the concept of managing forests for long-term productivity rather than short term profitability. Franklin B. Hough (1822-1885) of Lowville, NY was a scientist, historian, and forest conservationist. He was the first chief of the United States Division of Forestry, the predecessor of the United States Forest Service. He called attention to the depletion of forests in New York State and advocated for the 1885 legislation which established the Forest Preserve. He has been called the "father of American forestry". In 1901, the commission planted the first two tree plantations on state land in the Catskills to replace trees that had been logged.

The commission founded New York State's tree nursery system in 1902, the first state tree nurseries in the nation. In their early years, the nurseries supplied seedlings for planting on state land in the Catskills and Adirondacks. Hundreds of millions of seedlings of Norway spruce, white pine, red pine and Scotch pine were planted on State Forests as windbreaks and forest plantations.

In 1911, the Conservation Department, predecessor of today's Department of Environmental Conservation, was created by legislation to consolidate the functions of the Forest, Fish and Game Commission, the Forest Preserve Board, the Water Supply Commission and the Water Power Commission. By combining these commissions into a single department, the state greatly enhanced its ability to protect the environment and respond to new environmental challenges, such as the rapid abandonment of farmland that began in the 1920s. Many of the farms in New York were on marginal land, and as better land became available out west, agriculture began to decline in New York. When the Great Depression hit, many farmers could no longer make a living on their worn out, unproductive land.

Establishment of State Forests

The 1929 State Reforestation Act, and the 1931 Hewitt Amendment, authorized the Conservation Department to acquire land outside the Forest Preserve to be used for reforestation. These State Reforestation Areas, consisting of not less than 500 acres of contiguous land, were to be "forever devoted to reforestation and the establishment and maintenance thereon of forests for watershed protection, the production of timber and for recreation and kindred purposes" (Article 9, Title 5, Environmental Conservation Law). The State Reforestation Areas were the beginning of today's State Forest system. Many of the early reforestation areas were established on some of the least productive land in the state.

A majority were abandoned farm lands with depleted soils and significant erosion issues. The Conservation Department began a massive tree planting program to restore these lands for watershed protection, flood prevention and future timber production. Today, these areas are covered with healthy forests.

FDR meets with officials while seated in a convertible car
NYS Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt on
Reforestation Tour at Pleasant Brook and Cherry
Valley, Otsego County

State funding for tree planting fell victim to the Depression, but the federal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, rescued the tree planting program in New York. Millions of tree seedlings were planted on the barren soil of the new state reforestation areas, work that provided employment for thousands of young men. FDR was especially interested in reforestation work, having begun planting his own estate with seedlings from the state Tree Nursery in 1912. During the war years of 1941-1945, very little was accomplished on the reforestation areas. Plans for further planting, construction, facility maintenance and similar tasks had to be curtailed. After World War II, there was a resurgence of tree planting as more farmland fell vacant. Through postwar funding, conservation projects once again received needed attention.

The Park and Recreation Land Acquisition Act of 1960, as well as the Environmental Quality Bond Acts of 1972 and 1986, provided funds for the acquisition of additional State Forest lands, including inholdings and parcels adjacent to existing State Forests. All of these lands were acquired for the conservation and development of natural resources, including the preservation of scenic areas, watershed protection, forestry and recreation.

New York Forests Today

Past land use practices have left a legacy of impacts on the land and soils, which have influenced later forest development. Much of NY forest today is post-agricultural forest that has grown on abandoned farmland. During the maximum expansion of agriculture, even very poor land was used for farming. When these marginal farms were abandoned, they were sometimes in such poor condition that almost nothing could grow on the ruined soil. After the state acquired these lands, the first step in restoration was to stabilize the eroding soil by planting trees. Early photos of some State Reforestation Areas show expanses of raw blowing sand studded with tiny conifer seedlings. These seedlings were the beginning of the conifer plantations that were to be widely planted on reforestation areas.

Open field of white pine seedlings, with brush scattered over the bare ground
Early plantations; brush was scattered among
seedlings to hold drifting sand for the first few
years after planting

Although these orderly plantations of Red Pine, Norway Spruce or Scotch Pine may look artificial to us today, they represent an era when establishment of conifer plantations was the best and most appropriate management practice. Conifer seedlings were able to grow on the damaged soil of abandoned farms, thriving in conditions too poor to support hardwood forest regeneration. The conifer plantations were literally the fastest way to get forest on the land. They stabilized erosion, improved watershed protection and slowly restored the depleted organic nutrients in the soil with their fallen needles and branches.

Today the restoration effort continues. The plantations of Red Pine and Scotch Pine are now reaching the end of their natural or biological life. While these were the correct species to use on the former depleted soils, over the years the soils have been replenished and can now support a more natural forest. The old plantations are now being removed in managed stages, to allow natural regeneration of native hardwood and softwood species.

Forest management today is a complex process that involves ecosystem management, habitat enhancement, biodiversity management, landscape ecology, carbon sequestration, ecosystem services, and traditional uses.

Geologic History

The topography of New York has been shaped by a complex and turbulent geologic history, including multiple tectonic plate collisions, uplift and erosion of several mountain ranges, volcanic activity, earthquakes, igneous intrusions, regional metamorphism, advancing and retreating sea levels, deposition and erosion of huge deltas, and even a huge meteor strike 350 million years ago. Against this changing backdrop, plants and animals evolved, first in the ocean and later on land. New York has one of the world's best fossil records of the Devonian Period (408 to 360 million years ago), with remarkably well preserved marine sequences, and also non-marine fossils that show the transition to land. Most of the bedrock in New York is more than 250 million years old, younger rocks having been almost completely removed by erosion.

Impacts of Glaciation

90-foot waterfall descending from a shelf of exposed bedrock
Upper Carpenter Falls, in
Carpenter Falls Unique Area,
Cayuga County

New York's present landscape is dominated by the impacts of the last ice age. Only a small area of the southwestern part of the state escaped glaciation (the southwest corner of the High Allegany Plateau Ecoregion). Glaciers shaped the high peaks in the Catskills and Adirondacks, changed hydrology, formed huge lakes, and covered much of the state with a layer of glacial till. Where huge glacial lakes once held melt-water, there are now thick sand and clay deposits such as those in the Hudson Valley and parts of Central New York. Remnants of ice age features, such as sand dunes, river sand and gravel deposits, and muck-filled bogs can be found in many parts of the state. But the most ubiquitous material is glacial till, the rough mixture of rocks, sand and clay scraped up and bulldozed by the glacier's ice. This layer of raw debris was left behind as the ice retreated, sometimes in oriented hills called drumlins, more often as an uneven layer over the underlying bedrock. Glaciers erased the existing forests and landforms of New York so thoroughly that there is almost no trace of the pre-glacial ecology.

Glaciation resets the ecosystem clock. Everything has to start over again, beginning with pioneer plant species that colonize the raw rock and sterile mineral debris. New soils began to develop as organic matter accumulated with subsequent plant successions. Tree species, led by spruce about 11,000 years ago, migrated back north from their glacial refuges. As species migrated, they formed many forest types, some of which are no longer found today. Trees migrated as individual species, and moved at different rates depending on successfully they dispersed their seeds. Some of the early trees arriving soon after white spruce included black spruce, elm and black ash. One of the last major species to arrive was chestnut, reaching New York about 2,000 years ago.

Soils and Bedrock

State Forests are often on some of the poorest farmland in the state, land that has been little softened by soil since the retreat of the glaciers. For example, some of the sandy soils in northern NY had only a thin organic layer which was quickly destroyed by farming. The result was sand drifts, which can be seen in early photographs of State Forest lands acquired in the 1930s. Hills with very thin rocky soils, sometimes only a few inches above bedrock, also proved to be difficult sites for farming. Today, these sites are forested and slowly regaining organic matter lost to erosion.

Bedrock geology forms the framework for the landscape, influencing the drainage patterns, the elevation, shape and orientation of much of the topography, and also the local climate. For example, some of the topography of New York shows a strong northeast-southwest orientation that is derived from underlying bedrock structures. Bedrock also influences soil and water chemistry. Most of the bedrock in New York, including shale, sandstone and most metamorphic rock, produces acidic soils. Where the bedrock is limestone or marble, soils are high in calcium. The difference between forest types growing on acid and calcareous soils can be dramatic. Where sandstone bedrock is next to limestone bedrock, the change in vegetation is often abrupt. Pitch pines, chestnut oaks, blueberries and other acid-loving plants will not grow on limestone. Other species are more tolerant, notably red cedar which grows well on rocky sites of any type. For red cedar, lack of shade from competition is a more important factor than soil chemistry.

Creating Healthy Forests

Location and topography is critical for a tree because, unlike an animal, it cannot physically move to another site. Many elements of a site affect a tree, including aspect, elevation, moisture availability, soil thickness and rooting depth, wind exposure, frost effects and soil chemistry. Different species have different site requirements, and the health and vigor of a tree ultimately depends on where it grows. Encouraging the growth of tree species on sites with optimal conditions is one of the important benefits of forest management. For example, sugar maple growing on a south-facing dry slope is likely to be stressed by drought and heat, and more susceptible to insects and disease. However, many oak species would thrive on such a site, since they prefer warm well drained conditions.

Foresters must rely on their knowledge of the site requirements for each tree species and forest community, so their management efforts emulate natural systems as closely as possible, and result in resilient and healthy forests. In the example above, a harvest on a south-facing dry slope would focus on removing species which would be stressed, such as sugar maples, and perpetuating species which do best under those conditions, such as oaks. This purposefully parallels the natural successional changes nature would follow and contributes to the overall ecological health of the area.

  • Find on this Page
  • Contact for this Page
    Lands and Forests
    625 Broadway
    Albany, NY 12233
    Send us an email
  • This Page Covers
  • Page applies to all NYS regions