The rewilding of the Northeast

By Razib Khan | November 4, 2012 9:52 pm

Lake Placid, credit: Wikimedia

If you accept the thesis reported by Charles C. Mann the great eastern forest which the American settlers turned into farmland was actually secondary growth. The consequence of the depopulation of vast swaths of North America of its indigenous population due to disease which preceded the expansion of Europeans (recall that until 1800 whites hugged the Atlantic coast, leaving the interior to indigenous people by and large). And yet by 1900 that great forest was gone. Now it’s back again. A piece in The Wall Street Journal highlights how incredibly robust the recovery has been, America Gone Wild:

…Since the 19th century, forests have grown back to cover 60% of the land within this area. In New England, an astonishing 86.7% of the land that was forested in 1630 had been reforested by 2007, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Not since the collapse of Mayan civilization 1,200 years ago has reforestation on this scale happened in the Americas, says David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest, an ecology research unit of Harvard University. In 2007, forests covered 63.2% of Massachusetts and 58% of Connecticut, the third and fourth most densely populated states in the country, not counting forested suburban and exurban sprawl (though a lot of sprawl has enough trees to be called a real forest if people and their infrastructure weren’t there).

Much of this is due to increased agricultural productivity in the Heartland. The article discusses at length the problem of suburban and exurban sprawl, and how it has resulted in an intersection between the wilds and the urban frontier. One way to mitigate this problem would be to refocus on the value of dense urban living, and perhaps the construction of genuine arcologies which were insulted from nature. This does not mean that people should avoid nature, but, they could experience it when they chose to experience it, instead of living within it. The example of the Western United States is I think instructive: many of these states are very urban, but they also foster an “outdoors lifestyle.”

MORE ABOUT: Wildlife

Comments (25)

  1. Urban coyotes, 2nd domestication of the dog?

    In general the urbanization, before our eyes, of many species is fascinating. Is anyone studying how it works, from an evolutionary perspective?

  2. no one who writes these articles ever mentions the possibility of restricting *human* population growth. i understand that too many deer can deplete resources needed by another animal but isn’t this all within the context of there being too many humans? they’ll mention the idea of sterilizing animals but never humans:) the last one i read besides this was about hunting wolves as if 400 or so wolves is too many (?) I’m pretty sure nature will be pretty fine sorting it out itself – imo we need to stop getting its way.

  3. Sandgroper

    “they’ll mention the idea of sterilizing animals but never humans”

    They did in Sweden.

  4. Cmdr. Awesome

    @David Boxenhorn
    Yes, at least to some extent. See, also look up Dmitri Belyaev (think that was his name – the gentleman who started the breeding experiment.) Not sure if anyone is continuing with experiments in recent years or not, though.

    Edit – A quick re-read and I realized that you’re asking more about urbanization than domestication. I wouldn’t be surprised to see if some level of domestication is involved in any urbanization process that occurs, though, so I’ll leave the comment as is.

  5. Karl Zimmerman

    Growing up in New England as a child, you become intimately aware of the second-growth nature of the forest, as seeming “virgin woodland” usually is peppered with stone walls, and in places old foundations.

    I do wonder if anywhere else on Earth has seen a similar rewilding in recent history. I know many places did for a time following major epidemics and the like, but I think most have had substantial population recovery since.

  6. Brett

    I remember seeing this when I visited Gettysburg. The guide described how the strategic hills in question – now completely covered in forest – were cleared farmland at the time.

    New England’s reforestation is the least shocking. Its soils were always the most marginal out of the earliest colonies.

  7. Isabel

    @5 I had a similar childhood experience…another cool thing was the youngish trees; I remember climbing to the top of maple and tulip trees, all probably too massive for kids to even get a foothold these days (if they were to venture outdoors that is). However the rewilding of CT, amazing as it is (the most forest cover for the population density in the country I believe) is distorted by the intense fragmentation (eg turtle species have gone extinct because of road hazards-I remember stopping the car to let turtles cross the road, but I guess people are in too much of a hurry these days). Fencing of properties is another problem. And the overpopulation of deer is a real problem for both other wildlife, esp. plants and the animals that depend on them, and people; and I don’t think wolves and mountain lions will be re-introduced to Connecticut any time soon. I played in the woods and fields every day as a kid and never once saw a tick (and rarely a deer). I remember the first deer I did see-I was blown away. By the time I was grown there was an overpopulation problem and everyone was sick of them. Fire suppression contributes to the problem, and the population is probably too dense to allow even controlled burns, which are more common out west.

  8. #8, i’m willing to bet that wolves in numbers will roam northern new york and northern new england within the next generation

    the great lakes populations are geographically somewhat isolated from northern new york, but once you have a toe hold there, barring proactive attempts at extirpation they’ll repopulate the viable range. further west the central idaho populations have already expanded to eastern oregon:

    when i was a kid growing up in eastern oregon the idea of wolf packs would seem really crazy. now they’re reality. OR7 (the oregon wolves are tagged) famously wandered to the southwest of the state, and he now ranges across northern california

  9. also, in case readers r curious, OR7 is kind of a big fucking deal on the west coast 😉

  10. AG

    Very good development for my taste of nature.

  11. Sandgroper

    #6 – Yes, more or less. It’s not that Sweden is the only country that has had forced sterilizations, but it struck me as kind of surprising when I found out about them.

    I’m told that these days in Australia, doctors only perform hysterectomies on little disabled girls with parental permission. Well, they know for a certainty that they’re going to be abused, so it’s better that way – at least they don’t get pregnant.

    It makes me proud – what an enlightened country I come from.

  12. this might sound bad but that sounds like a smart policy to me. Thanks for the info!

  13. Sandgroper

    Darkie – why not just abort when they get pregnant? Less invasive, much less risky procedure, no long term health consequences.

    Official reason given by the AMA – because an abortion can be ‘traumatic’ for the girl.


  14. Sandgroper

    Never mind that I’m doubled up in horror that this ‘enlightened’ society cannot find a way to protect disabled children from being sexually abused by their ‘carers’ and others, but thinks it’s OK to perform that kind of invasive surgery on young children – preferable to having to deal with the conscience-troubling and outrage-inducing business of abortion.

  15. @Darkseid: “I’m pretty sure nature will be pretty fine sorting it out itself – imo we need to stop getting its way.”

    So humans are not part of nature then? Fascinating.

  16. Sandgroper

    #5 – Karl, yes. Somewhere you might really not expect it. Sorry, I just read your comment.

    I’m not looking forward to tigers taking up residence again, though. But then, I guess Darkseid would say I should get out of the way and let the tigers go at it. And who am I to disagree? At least I guess they would do a better job of keeping the feral dog population down than the dog catchers do.

  17. #9 I agree. Glendale, Colorado (an urban village with about 4000 people and about one square mile, entirely surrounded by the City and County of Denver that has lots of high rise office and apartment buildings and strip malls) is host to a coyote pack large enough that they have warning signs up in their couple of parks – I’ve seen half a dozen of them frolicing in the evenings.

    I’ve seen bunnies and small herds of deer in small, urban central Denver parks (they make their way up the nature preserve riverbeds that run through the city).

    Lot of new development that increases the population in Colorado is quite high density (1000/sq mile and up, compared to 6/sq mile as the traditional definition of the frontier), leaving lots of room for open space, and most of our lottery money goes towards increasing the amount of undeveloped open space in the state.

    There is very little federally owned or managed wilderness (and almost no Indian Reservation land) in the Southeast (apart from Florida), so it would be interesting to see if the trend extends to that region of it state land management practices are sufficiently different from federal ones that the trend has been different there.

  18. Sandie – oh, abortion would be the best case scenario fo sho! Some might ask: “but how will you face the prospect of there possibly being fewer people like Gene Callahan in the world?” I guess that’s a chance im willing to take:)

  19. pconroy

    @5, Karl,

    I’d expect a few other location have re-wilded more thoroughly than New England, such as:
    1. The Sahara – post climate change
    2. Greenland – post Vikings/climate change
    3. Much of Northern Scotland – after the lairds evicted their crofters in the late 1800’s

  20. Dave R

    ” “they’ll mention the idea of sterilizing animals but never humans”

    They did in Sweden.”

    Not to mention pre-WWII eugenics in the US, when we not only mentioned them but carried them out, sometimes involuntarily with legal sanction. Oddly enough the custom got discredited post-war somehow.

  21. Sandgroper

    So you got Honey Boo Boo.

    Even worse, you let us export Rebel Wilson to you.

    Are we far enough off-topic yet?

  22. fsteele

    Oh, for goodness sakes. Any mention of human over-population goes straight to talk about forced sterilization. Why not just take off the current restrictions against VOLUNTARY contraception, and see what happens? (Hint: it worked in Brazil.)

  23. Sandgroper

    No. If people want to control over-population, all they need to do is let little girls go to school. That’s all you need to do – the girls do the rest.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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