Hurricane expert to offer insight at Opacum Land Trust meeting
What insight could the author of the book Thirty-Eight: the Hurricane that Transformed New England give at the annual Opacum Land Trust meeting on Sept. 21, the anniversary of the hurricane?
Insight about how glimpsing at the land destroyed by the hurricane is a lot like looking at land destroyed by development — except that land destroyed by a hurricane can grow back.
“You can have a hurricane or tornado so devastating, but is in in fact a natural event from which the system will recover,” said Stephen Long, author of Thirty-Eight and expert on forests. “But the system will not recover from a mall plopped down on former agricultural land.” Opacum Executive Director J. Edward Hood said that’s exactly why land trusts exist.
“Natural destruction rebuilds,” said Opacum Executive Director J. Edward Hood. “Development, which is inevitable, is another thing.” Opacum Land Trust, a Sturbridge-based 13-town land-conservation organization, is charged with protecting some 2,000 acres of land. That’s 2,000 acres of land that, as long as it is preserved, will be able to rebuild itself forever. Long spent years studying the destruction of New England’s forests from the 1938 hurricane — and more importantly, their regrowth after the hurricane.
When Hood learned of Long’s book and research, he thought Long would be the perfect guest speaker for Opacum’s annual meeting. “It is fascinating how a whole region’s landscape can change from the hurricane of ’38 or Superstorm Sandy — or for Sturbridge, the tornado of 2011,” Hood said. “And then we think about how development will change our landscapes in the future.”
Long’s presentation speaks about why the 1938 hurricane hit some forests so much harder than others, and how those worst-hit areas have fared today.
Seeing how much of those forests have regrown after almost 70 years –like the beginnings of regrowth visible in the wooded areas leveled by the 2011 tornado — gives credibility to Opacum’s belief that as long as some land is preserved, the landscape will survive.
That protected land is vital to landscapes because once non-protected land is developed — especially into parking lots, box stores, buildings, malls, and other complexes surrounded by cement and pavement — that developed land will never see regrowth again, Long said, adding that the more development there is, the more necessary land trusts become.
Development today is much more invasive than buildings from earlier times, which left only a small footprint, Long said. “You’re in the woods and you find a rock foundation and cellar hole and think, ‘oh my gosh, there was a house here,’ but those building materials are long gone,” he said. “But when you put concrete down, you put pavement down, it’s a long time before its anything but that. Those things are not going anywhere.”
Opacum Land Trust
The Opacum Land Trust was formed in 2000 by volunteers, although now, because of the amount of property it manages and its desire to expand, has hired Hood as its first paid executive director. The fact that Opacum, which is a non-profit that relies on gifts, donations and bequeathments, has grown to that size shows how important preservation is to the community.
“Opacum and every other land trust is just trying to plan for a future in which there is more and more development pressure, and they are just trying to take care of and conserve these natural areas that will last,” Hood said.
One of Opacum’s primary purposes is to act as a watchdog for properties, particularly town- and state-owned properties, that are designated conservation land, like the 320 acres of so-called “Plimpton Property” on New Boston Road recently purchased by the town of Sturbridge. “We have easements on the property that are recorded with Registry of Deeds;” Hood said. “Because of those easements, the town can’t change its mind and put a fire department on the land or sell it. And someone can’t just come in and just clear-cut trees either.
Ideally, land trusts find a way to not only preserve the land, but to allow it to be fruitful — in ways that can still allow the land to regenerate, Hood said.
“If you get a crop of wood from the land every 15 years or so, or manage it for agriculture, those are really benign uses,” he said. “We need to get our food and wood from somewhere, and we might as well have it close by, if we possibly can.”
Some of Opacum’s property includes a working farm, which is one of the properties it owns outright.
“One of our biggest boosts came from a farmer in Southbridge, Maurice Morneau, who had a big farm — 140 acres — on Blackmer Road,” Hood said. “He loved his land, didn’t want it to ever be developed. When he died in 2008, he left everything — the farm, barns, house and their contents — to Opacum with the request that the farmer to whom Morneau had rented be able to continue using the land. That farmer has a 50-year lease on the land.
One of Opacum’s other biggest benefactors — and the reason Opacum formed — was the owner of the 256 acres adjacent to the Preserve on New Boston Road.
That property, now called Opacum Woods, is north of the tolls at Route 84 and the Massachusetts Turnpike. It, along with what is now the Preserve, was destined to become a golf course until it was discovered that an endangered species — the Opacum salamander, thus the land trust’s name — would have been disturbed by the development of the golf course, Hood said.
Instead, the property that was developed into houses was separated off, and the rest donated to what formed into the Opacum Land Trust.
Hurricane of 1938
One of the reasons that the recovery of the 1938 hurricane is so relevant today is that it was accompanied by flooding — flooding that was already a problem even before the hurricane hit, Long said. That’s something else relevant to today, he said.
“Flooding is a much bigger issue now, because of the amount of impervious material that has been put down,” Long said, referring to any surface that cannot absorb water, such as cement, pavement, roads and buildings.
The 1938 hurricane was a great indicator of why some places were more vulnerable to destruction and others weren’t, and why some places were leveled and others passed over, Long said. After crossing Long Island and coming ashore near New Haven, CT, the hurricane headed up through a 180-mile-wide swath of the Connecticut River Valley. The east side of the path, which includes the Sturbridge area, was struck by both wind and flooding, while the west side of the path suffered only from flooding.
The distinction of what landscape is most vulnerable to hurricanes was dependent on what direction hills faced. Those facing south and east were very vulnerable to the winds, which were coming counter-clockwise, Long said. North- and west-facing hills were protected.
Other distinctions were made by what type of trees were on the property, and how old the trees were. Particularly vulnerable were newly wooded areas created from former fields that grew into new forests when the Industrial Revolution caused so much of New England to cut down on its agricultural use, Long said.
“Chances are you had a lot of pine in there, and because pines grew really tall and are shallow-rooted, they were especially vulnerable,” he said. “Once the wind starts, it catches the crowns of those trees like a sail and it takes them down like dominoes.”
There are still many remnants from the 1938 hurricane. The trees that were knocked down left “pits and mounds,” meaning big holes were created where trees were uprooted, and new mounds appeared where the trees and roots have rotted and decomposed, Long said. Those pits and mounds still exist today.
With those indicators, it is easy to walk around and see what kind of destruction happened in any wooded area.
“If you see a lot of pits and mounds, all facing north and northwest, then you know it was from the hurricane,” he said. One of the values of Opacum and other land trusts is that they are preserving the forests and other natural resources so those resources can continue to provide for us, even through natural disasters like the 1938 hurricane, Hood said.
“That is one of the great parts of the story,” he said. “We are a tree-growing region, with trees and forests and fresh water, and as we go forward, conserving that is important, now more than ever.” Hood was happy to have Long as the speaker at Opacum’s annual meeting, which will be held at the Publick House, and will include cocktails, dinner, and Long’s presentation, he said.
“One of the board members saw Long’s book and said ‘that might be a good talk,’ and I thought ‘this would be more than a good talk, it would be great for Opacum’s Annual Meeting, and a great way for Opacum to introduce ourselves and explain ourselves to more of the community,” Hood said. “And it’s going to be a great program.”