[Scroll to bottom of page to read North Country School's Forest Management Plan.]
“Reading the Landscape” is a synopsis of a talk given by John Foppert and Director of Facilities & Sustainability John Culpepper at Friends’ Weekend 2016
To understand the forests growing on and around NCS-Treetops today, and to consider what these forests could be in the future, it is useful to look back over the history of the land. And that story, the story of the land here, is long and deeply layered.
An ancient granite bedrock remained flat for ten million centuries before being thrust up—rudely, but so beautifully—to form the Adirondack High Peaks just twenty million years ago. Again and again, mile-thick glaciers plowed through the land, grinding down mountains, filling in valleys, and then feeding shifting rivers and short-lived lakes as they retreated. Soon the first seeds blew in, adding shades of green to the newly exposed landscape.
In the past dozen or so millennia, since the last glaciers left, a growing cast of characters has fought for space here. Birches were joined by spruces and then hemlock, other hardwoods, and pines. As the climate warmed or cooled over the centuries, or as it grew wetter or drier, the mix of trees in the forest shifted, and with it the suite of other plants and animals. In places—at the base of Trouble Mountain, for one—the soil grew increasingly rich, as leaves and dirt tumbled down steep slopes. Elsewhere, layers of sour muck slowly built beneath swamp conifers growing on deep, wet sands or in abandoned, silted-in beaver ponds. To this ever-changing environment, add ice storms, hurricanes, landslides and windstorms, and a clear picture emerges of an ongoing ecological drama not bound for any concluding stasis.
There was, of course, one player who provided a plot twist. While Iroquois and Algonquin hunters, trappers and warriors, and those who came before them, must have had an intimate knowledge of the Adirondacks, their effect on this rugged borderland was far less than it was in the St. Lawrence and Mohawk valleys. Even the opening of early roads and the establishment of frontier industry in the early 19th century had only a limited impact. Substantial, landscape-scale change did not begin until the 1840s, when farm families began to settle the region in earnest and mines, forges and charcoal kilns popped up everywhere.
The stagecoach line from Westport, on Lake Champlain, to North Elba (Lake Placid) opened in 1858, running right in front of what would become Camp Treetops and North Country School. The Farmhouse, built around this time, still stands, having watched a century and a half of traffic pass by. The Big Barn, which now shelters the horses, was originally built to accommodate an impressive herd of dairy cows. Much of the land was cleared by the late 1800s, with the more easily worked bits cultivated for cropland and the rest—too steep or rocky to plow—kept as pasture. The fire that swept across much of the High Peaks in 1903 burned Porter, Cascade and Pitchoff Mountains, among others, and may have charred portions of what would become the NCS-Treetops property. Within ten or fifteen years of the fire, the property was heavily logged again, though most of the fields were allowed to grow back up with trees.
Mountains, glaciers, climate, soils; clearing, farming, fire, logging: these are the factors that had shaped the land when Camp Treetops acquired it in 1923. The young forest went mostly unmanaged, slowly growing and changing but largely unnoticed, other than as an attractive backdrop. The hurricane of 1950 and the ice storm of 1998 mostly missed the forest here, but the effects of acid rain, beech-bark disease and climate change have not.
Over time, a number of people have worked together to consider the challenges and opportunities of owning more than 150 acres of diverse forestland and to explore how thoughtful management can contribute to the well-being of the community. In the early 1990s, Director of Sustainability and Facilities John Culpepper put forth a plan to manage the forest in a more intentional, sustainable way. Board Member Sumner Parker led the board’s support of John’s conservation plan, which was made possible by the generous support of donors like Bob deCourcy (CTT staff 42, parent 55-65) and The Baldwin Foundation. Today, NCS-Treetops is recognized by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as a leader in the area of sustainable forestry.
This past year, a new forest management plan was developed, building off earlier efforts. It defined overarching goals for the forest—fostering ecological integrity, enhancing recreational and education opportunities, and sustainably producing wood and maple sap—and prescribed specific management activities to accomplish them.
At the heart of the management strategy is the recognition that the landscape is dynamic and always changing. With care, we can steer that change in a positive direction, working to keep the landscape healthy, biologically rich, ecologically dynamic, and naturally beautiful. The forest should be attractive, accessible and conducive to reflection and exploration, which is especially important for the curious children (and adults) of School and Camp. At the same time, we can garner wood for building projects, carbon neutral biomass energy for heat, and sweet maple syrup. When the forest can provide these things today without compromising its ability to provide them in the future, that's sustainability. When the forest becomes more diverse, complex and resilient, not in spite of but as a result of providing these things, that is true stewardship.