The Conservancy and volunteers are restoring the graceful American elm to its place in these rare riverside forests.
Bruce Lester leaned on his shovel, looked out across the baseball field as players switched innings and recalled the Glastonbury, Connecticut, of his youth.
“This was all tobacco fields and cow pastures,” Lester said, pointing across the town’s park and ball fields. “And down there, all along the Connecticut River and Salmon Brook, there were giant elms everywhere. Elms and silver maples. And elms were all along Main Street. It was quite a sight.”
From the 1950s through the ‘70s, Dutch elm disease ravaged the once stately and vase-like American elms that lined streets and rivers in Glastonbury and other towns throughout the Northeast. And while elms still grow along the rivers, they only reach a fraction of their former height before the disease kills them.
On this day, Lester and a group of volunteers in Glastonbury are working with The Nature Conservancy and partners to bring back the majestic American elms to the Connecticut River’s floodplains. Volunteers mobilized by the Conservancy and Glastonbury Partners in Planting planted dozens of elms that tolerate even the most virulent strains of Dutch elm disease.
Developed by the U.S. Forest Service, these five varieties of elms should approach heights of 100 feet and live more than 100 years if they survive the disease. That’s exactly what Christian Marks wants to see.
Marks is an ecologist with the Nature Conservancy who’s been studying elms and other trees that grow in the rare patches of floodplain forest scattered along the Connecticut River and its tributaries in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
“If we were right here 100 years ago, we’d see the floodplain forests that we’re trying to restore,” Marks said. “We’d see huge American elms all through here, as common as the silver maples are now.”
While you can see giant silver maples in floodplain forests, they’re relatively short-lived and don’t replace themselves over time. So, in the absence of giant elms, as silver maples die off, the floodplain forest would ultimately revert to a low, scrubby forest of sumac, vines and golden rod, Marks said. With elms in the mix, they maintain the classic floodplain forest structure, and along with it, an array of bird species and other plant life that rely on it.
Floodplain forests also have important benefits for people, according to Marks. For example, floodplain forests absorb flood waters and blunt the impact of ice-buildup, protecting communities from potentially expensive and dangerous flooding.
“Now, with the development of disease-tolerant American elms, we can restore elms to their former role in the floodplain forests,” he said.
So that’s what the Conservancy has been doing throughout the Connecticut River valley, starting last year by planting disease-tolerant elms in the Maidstone Bends section in northern Vermont and this year at two sites in Connecticut. Next year, Conservancy volunteers will plant elms at a dozen more sites along the Connecticut River and tributaries in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and in Connecticut.
Back in Glastonbury, Bruce Lester looked out across the ball fields and the river and reflected on the elms he just planted.
“I look forward to bringing my grandson down here in another 10 years to see these elms,” Lester said. “I’ll be able to say, ‘Hey, I helped plant these trees.’”September 28, 2011
Eric Aldrich is a marketing specialist for the Conservancy and writes about conservation projects throughout New England.