Old growth-Hdw.—That hand-written inscription on the corner of a 1934 land survey of Mt. Sunapee caught Chris Kane’s attention. It was the mid-1990s, and Kane was a graduate student in environmental studies at Antioch University.
Kane’s graduate-school research on old-growth forests on state lands in New Hampshire had led him to that survey, and he followed that lead to Mt. Sunapee. What he discovered there—or actually rediscovered there—were extraordinary Eastern old-growth forest areas.
Kane describes the Mt. Sunapee old-growth as a precious and rare “extreme example of wildness”—one made the rarer for its location in a substantially developed area of central New Hampshire. In fact, when Kane rediscovered these old-growth areas within Mt. Sunapee State Park, the state was in negotiations to lease parts of the forgotten old-growth areas to a company that ran the ski slopes on the mountain.
Kane and conservation-minded colleagues immediately advocated at the state level for the preservation of the area from further development for skiing. And groups like Friends of Mt. Sunapee continue that advocacy today.
“This was virgin old-growth forest that had never been cut,” Kane said.
Kane describes how his discovery of the old-growth acres on Mt. Sunapee was actually a rediscovery. The first reference to old-growth forest there was in 1909, and conservationists at the time worked with logging companies to leave those hard-to-reach portions uncut. But over the decades, the existence of the extraordinary old-growth areas on Mt. Sunapee faded from consciousness, according to Kane.
The short film “The Forgotten Forest Primeval—Rediscovering Mt. Sunapee’s Old Growth” provides details of the voracious clear-cutting on Mt. Sunapee, and the eventual conservation efforts as well as Kane’s rediscovery. The film also details some of the features of the forest.
The film credits several factors with the continued preservation of this old-growth forest. Partly, these areas are “steep and boulder-strewn” so they were difficult for loggers to reach. This provided support to the original conservation efforts early in the 20th century. And when the hurricane of 1938 tore up so much central New Hampshire and the Mt. Sunapee area, the mountain itself protected some of the old-growth areas from the worst of the winds.
World War II started shortly after the hurricane. With men gone to fight and the world focused on war, the trails and other incursions near the old-growth areas quickly returned to nature and a sort of blessed obscurity.
Kane, who appears in the film, said that he had hiked through that old-growth area prior to his graduate research, and he hadn’t seen the signs originally. He said that he had noticed big trees here and there, but the totality of what he was seeing hadn’t fixed in his mind yet.
When he returned to the area noted as old-growth hardwood on that 1934 survey, he began to understand and recognize the extraordinary nature of what he was witnessing.
“I was hiking. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was looking for, but I had a vague idea based on the topography and the survey, which was very limiting and hard to figure exactly what area it was referring to,” Kane said. “I climbed up onto the ridge and noticed some interesting trees on the way up, but I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to them. Honestly, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for…. I had seen large trees up there and had not recognized their significance. My awareness hadn’t caught up with my observations.”
The first jaw-dropping moment for Kane was seeing a stand of red spruce.
“It was a patch of large spruces that I saw down below the ridge—these are the first trees I looked at,” he said. “They were larger than any spruces I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe how large they were. I cored one, and it was 250 years old.”
Kane said he was struck immediately by the very existence of such a stand of big old red spruce on a heavily logged mountain. He explained that red spruce would have been tremendously valuable to loggers in the early part of the 20th century. This lumber was prized because it was perfect for piano soundboards, and pianos were in high demand at the time. Kane deduced that if these big old red spruce hadn’t been logged, then the area had not been logged. And equally amazing was that the hurricane of 1938 hadn’t destroyed them.
Kane shared his discovery with professionals at the New Hampshire Division of Forest and Lands and with other conservationists and old-growth experts in the region. Word spread among the conservation community and state agencies like the Natural Heritage Bureau in the NH Division of Forests and Lands. Professionals in the field confirmed the discovery, and they worked to encourage decision-makers to prioritize the protection of rare old-growth forest on Mt. Sunapee to the extent possible.
Kane said the 450 acres of old-growth on Mt. Sunapee is a “miraculously large area.” In New Hampshire as a whole, only 2,500 acres—or .05 of one percent of forest in NH—is old-growth forest, Kane said.
Kane still speaks with awe about what the old-growth areas on Mt. Sunapee offer. He said some of the big old trees are “magnificent” but that it’s the overall forest structure of an Eastern old-growth forest—in contrast to second-growth forests--that stands out even more than individual trees.
“There are trees of all different sizes. A lot of trees are old enough that they died of natural processes. They aged out basically, and they’re either standing dead or have fallen over, allowing light for some of the saplings to respond,” Kane said. “It’s a very complex forest structure with a lot of woody debris on the ground. Lots of patchiness—dense shrub undergrowth. But then less where you have larger trees where there is sparse ground canopy.”
Kane described that diversity of ages and types of trees as a central feature of Eastern old-growth forests: “There are very large trees here and there—not constant—because for a variety of reasons trees grow at the rate they grow and probably will be outcompeted and not make it to the top of the canopy. But some will. And some will outlast others. It’s a very complicated diverse forest structure.”
Kane will share his knowledge of this old-growth forest when he leads a field trip to Mt. Sunapee on Saturday, Sept. 23, during the Eastern Old-Growth Forest Conference . He said the field-trip participants will see firsthand the power of hundreds and thousands of years. In fact, in the film about old-growth forest on Mt Sunapee, he calls time “the fourth dimension.”
“The biggest thing is the time element,” he said. “It’s really time—the time that has allowed the forest to develop completely on its own without human influence. It takes a long time for these forests to develop. In this case, the forest may have been flattened from time to time over several thousand years, and then it sort of responded again. It’s a natural system that hasn’t been influenced by logging or anything like that.”
He said that field-trip participants will visit two or three different fundamental old-growth forest types on the mountain to get a sense of the range of natural forest systems in NH. This will include not only large trees, but also the “messiness” of old-growth forests that is a key feature of their development. He also said participants will have some great views from locations like White Ledges above Lake Solitude.
Interestingly, Kane noted his own interest in trees and conservation practices grew partly out of his experiences in the NH Community Tree Stewards class (known today as the Natural Resources Stewards). Kane was teaching classical guitar at colleges and universities when he took the class, and it led him to deeper involvement with things like the Big Tree Program, the Forest Society, and easement stewardship. Eventually, it became his career here in New Hampshire.
Kane continues to find time to work on researching and enjoying old-growth forests in New Hampshire. In addition to the trees and the forest systems, Kane enjoys learning about the history and the backstories of these remarkably wild places that still exist close to home.
“There is a lot of interesting history [in every old-growth forest]—the uniqueness and rarity of these places. Also, the idea that there aren’t too many places like this--being in an area where in some cases maybe no one has ever walked there,” he said. “It’s an extreme example of wildness that is captivating for people. We may not be able to go to the Amazon Rainforest, but this is maybe the closest thing we have.”
Learn more about old-growth in NH and around the world! Click here to learn more about and register for the Old-Growth Conference happening in Moultonborough, NH on September 21-23, 2023.