History of the Northeastern Research Station —
1923 to 2005
Within a decade after the founding of the Forest Service (FS) in 1905, a nationally coordinated effort was underway to research and solve the problems of forest conservation in each of the major forest regions. By 1921, a total of 8 regional research stations had been established. However, in the Northeast, most forestry research was carried out by state organizations and academia. Despite these efforts and the great strides in forestry on western national forests, private forest lands in the Northeast were rapidly being depleted of their timber. By the 1920s, the heavily populated areas of the northeastern and middle-Atlantic states were able to supply only a fraction of their own lumber needs. Most of the forest lands in the Northeast were in small private ownerships and most of these owners could not afford, as the big forestry companies could, their own research organizations. Through the Department of Agriculture, the federal government took on the responsibility for research to help forest-land owners as it had for farmers. It also became obvious, as the gypsy moth made its way across New England, that research was needed on insect and disease control, as well as wood utilization, fire protection, watershed management, and wildlife habitat.
The Beginnings of Forest Service Research in the Northeast
The Forest Service recognized that research had to focus on conditions of each specific forest type. Thus, by the 1920s, FS research in the Northeast was composed of 3 stations—the Northeastern, the Allegheny or Middle-Atlantic, and the Lake States Experiment Stations. The first Northeastern Station, with headquarters at Amherst, Massachusetts, was established by Congress in 1923 to include New England and New York. The Allegheny Station, with headquarters in Philadelphia, was established in 1927 and included Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. In 1945, the new Northeastern Forest Experiment Station was created from these two stations plus West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky from the Lake States Station.
Before and During World War II
Research before World War II concentrated on silvicultural and management problems in many forest types: the spruce–fir and northern hardwood forests of New England plus the hardwood forests of the Allegheny Plateau, pine woods of the New Jersey Coastal Plain, and loblolly pine forests on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. These research programs resulted in the establishment of several experimental forests, notably the Bartlett EF (1937). Insect researchers studied the spruce budworm and white pine weevil. The hardships of the Depression led to economic and silvicultural studies to improve the productivity of small wood-lots. Tree improvement and watershed management studies were begun in the 1930s. Damage from the 1938 hurricane to New England forests led the stations to become involved in cooperative efforts to develop a region-wide forestry policy. The Depression and then World War II hit the stations very hard in terms of financing and personnel and led to location closures. During the war, research focused on timber for war use, fire control, rehabilitation of coal-mine spoil banks, and nursery techniques for improving seedling survival at out-planting.
Research After WWII
In 1946, the enlarged Northeastern Forest Experiment Station began work on peace-time forest needs, including research on topics such as flood control and watershed management, aerial-photography for inventorying, sugar maple sap production, wildlife habitat needs, and the effects of various harvesting techniques (for example, clearcutting versus selection tree cutting) on forest regeneration.
Pests and Diseases
When the USDA was reorganized in 1954, forest disease and insect research in the USDA Agricultural Research Service was transferred to Forest Service units in Hamden, CT; Delaware, OH; and Morgantown, WV. Pests and diseases studied during the fifties, sixties, and seventies included both native (spruce budworm and armillaria root rot) and non-native (gypsy moth, Dutch elm disease, white pine blister rust, chestnut blight, and beech bark disease). Dr. Alex Shigo’s research during this time led to a new understanding of the response of trees to wounding.
The Gypsy Moth Research and Development Program
In 1971, one million dollars of USDA funds were directed for research on the gypsy moth, which had been ravaging northeastern forests in a severe outbreak since 1968, and the station began the Gypsy Moth Research and Development (R&D) Program. In 1974, gypsy moth research was accelerated through the USDA’s Combined Forest Pest R&D Program, which focused on the gypsy moth, southern pine beetle, and tussock moth. In addition to developing models and procedures for analyzing and predicting out-breaks, station scientists registered a safe viral pesticide (and developed methods for its production), new strains of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), and two new chemical pesticides and also synthesized a more potent pheromone for use in monitoring. Running concurrently with the gypsy moth program, the CANUSA (Canada–USA) Spruce Budworm Program was studying methods for managing the serious outbreak that was occurring in the northern forests of New England and southern Canada.
Forest Products and Engineering
Forest engineering was formally made a regular part of the station’s program in 1964, when a research unit at Morgantown, WV, began to study problems in getting logs from the woods to the roads in a cost-effective yet environmentally friendly manner.
In 1959, the station began to survey the region’s most pressing recreation problems and went on to focus on campgrounds.
Ecosystem Hydrology and the Discovery of Acid Rain in North America
One of the Northeast station’s greatest scientific contributions began quietly in 1963, when watershed management research studies constructed stream gauges (or weirs) on 23 small watersheds—8 on the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (EF), 9 on the Fernow EF, and 6 in Pennsylvania (no longer extant). Two things are remarkable about the data from these studies— measurements of precipitation chemistry at the Hubbard Brook EF were the first to document the occurrence of acid rain in North America and this data set is the longest such record in the world. It has been invaluable in determining long-term variability and trends to emission controls initiated under the 1973 Clean Air Act. Since 1987, The Hubbard Brook EF has been part of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research Program. This summer (July 2005), the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.
Several research groups worked with cooperators to examine the effects of air pollution and acid deposition (aka acid rain or precipitation) on various forests, including eastern spruce-fir forests all along the Appalachians and hardwoods (especially sugar maples) in the northeast United States and Canada. Recently, NE researchers have identified the mechanism by which acid rain alters soil chemistry and in turn damages the cells of red spruce.
Forest Inventory and Survey
The first forest survey of the Northeast was made in 1946. In addition to the survey work itself, the station conducted research in forest survey methods. These forest surveys have expanded greatly to include measurement of other renewable resources as well as forest distribution, condition, health, biomass, and ownership patterns; and timber utilization. The unit is now called the Forest Inventory and Analysis Program. This program is the only organization to conduct extensive forest resource inventories and some of its data bases now span more than 30 years. Inventory frequencies have recently been changed so that 10 to 20 percent of all plots will be measured annually and reports prepared for states prepared every 5 years instead of every 10 years.
Global Climate Change Research
The Forest Global Change Program was established in response to the Global Climate Change Prevention Act of 1990, to examine how future physical and chemical changes will influence the structure, function, and productivity of forests and related ecosystems and how these systems will respond. The Forest Service’s NE research unit is located at the station’s headquarters office, with ecosystem and watershed research projects in many states.
Since 1973, wildlife research in the station, which is centered at the Amherst, MA, laboratory, has led to invaluable inventories of wildlife and their habitats as well as information on the interaction of various wildlife populations with changes in their habitats from fire, logging, forest regeneration, and development. Dr. Jack Ward Thomas, who became 13th chief of the Forest Service (1993 to 1996), began his Forest Service career in the Northeastern Station at Amherst.
NERS urban forestry research, which was consolidated in Syracuse, NY, in 1978, has developed valuable data on the effects and values of urban forests and their management on human health and environmental quality. The Forest Service partners with the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY, on the Baltimore Ecosystem study, which like the Hubbard Brook EF, is part of the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research Program.
For further details on the history of the Northeastern Research Station, consult the following books, available on our publications website:
- A History of the Northeastern Forest Experiment Station, 1923 to 1973. by Susan R. Schrepfer, Edwin H. Larson, and Elwood R. Maunder. USDA Forest Service GTR-NE-7.
- History of the Northeastern Research Station: 1973 to 1998. by Eldon W. Ross. USDA Forest Service GTR-NE-249.
- This history essay is a work in progress, and many programs of the modern era may not have been noted. Please contact Rebecca Nisley with any additions or corrections.