This is a new file opened February 13, 2013, for a Kaatskill Life summer 2013 article.
THREE MAJOR JUST-DISCOVERED FIRST GROWTH TRACTS IN DELAWARE COUNTY by Michael Kudish
First growth forest in Delaware County? When one thinks of first growth in the Catskills, one thinks of the extensive tracts in Ulster and Greene Counties. When one thinks of Delaware County, one usually visualizes farms, abandoned pastures, and second growth forests (i.e. logged woodlots) to the very tops of the hills. There are a few first growth tracts in Delaware County, however, the largest being a portion - about two square miles - of Dry Brook Ridge and the second largest on Barkaboom Mountain - about 0.4 square mile. There are several small tracts of a few acres each that occur in some remote swamps, on cliffs, and in steep gorges throughout the county.
First growth forest is original pre-settlement forest, also known as virgin timber. It has never been cleared for pasture, burned over, or cut over (see Kaatskill Life, volume 23, number 4, winter 2008, pages 14 through 19 for more detail on first growth forest). Last summer, I discovered three more first growth tracts in Delaware County, located along the range south of the Pepacton Reservoir. When combined, the area of these tracts - 2.53 square miles (1620 acres) - is the largest in the county. I estimate 1.29 square miles (825 acres) on Mary Smith Hill, 0.64 square mile (410 acres) on Middle Mountain, and 0.60 square mile (385 acres) on Cabot Mountain. There is still some fine-tuning to do in the mapping so that the 2.53-square-mile value may eventually be adjusted slightly either up or down.
A correction of a misinterpretation -
In 1987, I had explored this range by hiking the trail which changes name every few miles: Touch-me-not Trail at the east end over Cabot Mountain, Middle Mountain Trail in the middle, and Mary Smith Trail at the west end. All of the forest I saw along the ridgelines I had initially misinterpreted as second growth, i.e. logged over at least once.
I decided in July 2012, after a lapse of a quarter century, that it was time to re-examine the forest along this trail. When I descended Middle Mountain’s west flank, heading towards Mary Smith Hill Road, I became aware of large, old trees of a number of species: sugar maple, red maple, beech, yellow birch, black cherry, white ash, basswood, and northern red oak. There were no stumps and no log roads. It dawned on me. I was in first growth.
From Mary Smith Hill Road, I looked back east across an open field at Middle Mountain’s west flank from where I had just descended. Sure enough, from roughly one-quarter to three-quarters of the way up the mountainside, I could see scattered immense spreading crowns of the old monarchs, including some dead sugar maples that had been defoliated during the 2007-2008 forest tent caterpillar epidemic.
Then, on my return to the Beech Hill Road trailhead where I began the hike, I realized that the entire crest of Middle Mountain, and its neighbor Beech Hill, is still in first growth. A few days later, a re-examination of Cabot Mountain and its northwest peak turned out ot be likewise. And so is Mary Smith Hill and the nameless peak to its southeast, a peak which I call “Hill 2942” after its elevation.
Remarkable symmetry -
There is remarkable symmetry in forest history belts along this trail because not only are the mountaintop elevations very similar (Cabot 2970 feet, Middle 2975, and “Hill 2942”), but so are the elevations of the notches through which the roads pass (Beech Hill Road 2320 feet, Mary Smith Hill Road 2230, Holliday-Berry Brook Road 2160). The average elevation of the roads in the notches is about 2240 feet.
The east end of the trail which I hiked is in the valley of Little Pond (elevation 1992), and the west end is marked by the notch through which Holliday-Berry Brook Road passes. In between, Beech Hill Road and Mary Smith Hill Road divide the range and its trail into the three sections.
On either side of each road, for a distance of about 0.1 to 0.2 mile, the trail passes through a belt of young forest which has grown up in abandoned pastureland. This belt spans only about 90 feet in elevation on the average and is on a gentle slope.
As one continues to climb, one notices that the grade on the trail becomes moderate. Young forest on abandonded pasture is left behind at an average elevation of 2330 feet. One enters second growth forest, forest that had been logged many decades ago, before New York State acquired the land into forest preserve. White ash, northern red oak, and red maple are abundant and there are some scattered basswood. The second growth forest spans an elevation belt averaging about 235 feet high.
Enter first growth forest
The belt of second growth forest climbs to an average elevation of 2565 feet above which high ledges, numerous huge boulders, and steep talus create a challenge for the hiker. Above this point is first growth forest. An elevation of 2565 feet is unusually low for the Catskills as whole; first growth normally begins at an elevation averaging begween 2800 and 2900 feet. Because the elevation of the three highest summits (Cabot, Middle, “Hill 2942”) is 2962 feet, the first growth forms a belt across the top of the range about 400 feet thick (2962 less 2565).
There is a distinct change in the forest where the hiker enters first growth. Not only are there more large and more old trees, but the forest composition changes, too. There are far fewer ash, basswood, oak, and red maple. Instead, much of the gently-sloping to flat ridgeline forest above the high ledges consists of beech, black cherry, and yellow birch with a scattering of sugar and red maple. I measured dozens of larger trees of several species in the first growth along the trail and found that they commonly reach 24 to 30 inches in diameter, with a few as great as 36. From ring counts from stumps of fallen trees cut to clear the trail, and from broken limbs, I was able to determine that many trees exceed 100 years, with some between 150 and 200 years old – typical of first growth stands.
Off the trail –
But I had seen first growth only while hiking along the trail, noting the elevation where I entered each tract and where I left it. How far off the trail do the first growth tracts extend down the slopes on the sides of the mountains? That question was largely answered by a series of bushwhacks, including a “Lark-in-the-Park” hike, each down a spur of a peak from until I ran out of first growth. I recorded the elevation where second growth began, bushwhacked back up to the trail, and followed the trail until I reached the top of the next spur. Then the process started all over again – down to second growth, record the elevation, and return up to the trail – as many times as necessary to get a better idea of the full extent of each of the three tracts.
Why is the first growth still here?
Why are these tracts still here? How did they escape being cut over? David and Carol White’s Catskill Day Hikes (published by the Adirondack Mountain Club, 2002, page 151) gives us a clue: “---the Mary Smith Trail offers surprisingly steep ascents for this ‘hill’ country---.” Indeed.
Hike the trail and see for yourself, especially at those six points where the first growth enters. The incline almost matches the steepest pitches in the High Peaks where some of the summits are one thousand feet higher. The high ledges, boulders, and talus slopes on these Delaware County hills at unexpectedly low elevations provide far too rough a terrain to build logging roads up or down with horses and oxen.
And even if a haul road could have been built up the high ledges, the trees on the top along the ridgeline would hardly have been worth the harvest – stunted, gnarled, twisted, and contorted.
Go see for yourself -
Closely-spaced trailheads make it possible to do the nine-plus miles from Little Pond to Holliday-Berry Brook Road over a period of a few days if one wants to, not all in a single day. A more leisurely pace permits more careful observation of the topography, geology, soils, vegetation, wildlife, and local human history than a speed-hike. Get out and explore! If you’ve seen this range already, you may realize that your earlier interpretation of it requires correction, too. You will see something new in each visit. There is absolute joy in initial landscape discovery and in its re-interpretation.
[[[[[[[[ A trail description follows, perhaps unlike any other trail description you’ve ever read, emphasizing forest history. We start at Little Pond State Canoground and end at Holliday-Berry Brook Road.]]]]]]]]