The forests of southern New England are being chopped down to make room for subdivisions, strip malls and highways, and this loss of natural landscape has been particularly rapid in the last 30 years, according to the report, "Wildlands and Woodlands," the work of nearly 20 pre-eminent professors from Yale, Harvard, Brandeis, Cornell and other prominent schools in the Northeast.
Released last week, "Wildlands and Woodlands" is intended to be a "vision for the New England landscape," which advocates that at least 70 percent of New England remain forested, while at the same time, some development would actually be encouraged.
"Sprawl has become even more of a factor than it was even in the 1950s because of our appetite for larger home lots, bigger malls and wider highways," said Yale professor Lloyd Irland, a senior research scientist with the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Strip malls, parking lots, big box stores and other features of our motor vehicle-centered society have taken their toll on the landscape, too, he said.
"This is not an anti-development proposal -- rather, it's in favor of rational development," said Irland, who said that he hopes that the Wildland and Woodlands report will be seen as a "manifesto' that guides future land use decisions.
He notes that development that has taken place since the 1950s has been mostly in the form of high-cost housing that was built with little regard for mass transit routes and existing infrastructure, resulting in a huge cost to society for many decades to come. "Roads, sewer lines, water lines and other utilities were extended largely to benefit the wealthy," he notes. "Development has taken big gouges out of the forest. We have huge lots for rich people and slums for poor ones," Irland said.
The authors said that, unlike the development seen in the mid-1800s, in which thousands of acres were cleared for farms, today's sprawl is "hard" development, meaning it won't revert to woodland anytime soon.
"A lot of the pastures in the 1800s were turning back into forest even before the cows left," notes Brandeis professor Brian Donohue.
In 1600, when European colonists first began arriving, it's estimated that about 90 percent of the state was carpeted with trees. By 1860, only about 30 percent of Connecticut had forest cover, as land was cleared for farms, and timber was needed for construction and iron smelting operations.
But by 1950, as agriculture and timber operations moved to the West and Midwest, the forests rebounded -- with about 70 percent of the state covered by woodlands in the mid-20th century.
Since then, sprawl and development has taken its toll, and now just about 50 percent of the state is forested.
"We were given a second chance," said Bill Toomey, director of the Redding woodland preserve Highstead. "But now, it will be a lot harder for forests to recover from the loss that we're seeing today."