Forest Resilience: Nature Leads in Brimfield
After a devastating tornado, nature takes its course in this wild-designated forest.
When the Conservancy’s Andy Finton arrived at Brimfield State Forest days after a Category 3 tornado ripped through on June 1, 2011, he couldn’t believe what he saw.
He knew about the tragic human toll nearby: In the town of Brimfield alone, one woman lost her life and 42 homes were destroyed.
He didn’t know what to expect from the forest, though, and what he found was staggering. Trunks lay twisted and tangled; countless trees had fallen over, roots and all. Thousands of acres had been impacted.
“From a conservation perspective, I knew the Brimfield forest had the resilience to bounce back, and it would offer an opportunity to understand how wild forests regenerate,” says Finton, the Chapter’s director of conservation science. “The forest had taken a huge hit, but patches of severe disturbance have shaped New England forests for thousands of years.”
The Conservancy advocates protecting large, intact, resilient forests where natural processes dominate. These forests can absorb disturbances and recover from them.
Finton’s team immediately began watching Brimfield State Forest rebound. Later, partners from the University of Massachusetts, state and federal agencies and the Conservancy started studying the forest’s tornado zone in detail.
They wanted to know how native vegetation and breeding birds in the state forest and surrounding private lands recover. They saw trees re-sprouting and indigo buntings and warblers taking advantage of newly opened habitats.
Researchers’ findings will help us better understand how forests respond to natural disturbances, which are expected to increase with climate change.
The natural recovery is thanks in part to Conservancy science, which helped Brimfield State Forest gain designation as a forest reserve, where wild forests will be allowed to thrive as nature intended.
In a Massachusetts conservation milestone this year, the Commonwealth designated 111,000 acres of forest reserves, 123,000 acres of woodlands for sustainable timber production and 77,000 acres of recreation-focused parklands. Conservancy recommendations informed the state’s process of locating these various uses.
“Recovering forests as found in the Brimfield forest reserve provide unique habitats and support biodiversity,” Finton says. “This will be a different kind of forest — a wild forest.”
Today, the people of Brimfield and nearby towns are slowly rebuilding. Nature is, too.