A wilderness comeback is underway across New England, one that has happened so incrementally that it’s easy to miss.
But step back and the evidence is overwhelming.
Today, 80 percent of New England is covered by forest or thick woods. That is a far cry from the mere 30 to 40 percent that remained forested in most parts of the region in the mid-1800s, after early waves of settlers got done with their vast logging, farming, and leveling operations.
According to Harvard research, New England is now the most heavily forested region in the United States — a recovery that the great naturalist Henry David Thoreau once thought impossible.
Meanwhile, some creatures of fur and feather have returned at astonishing speed — herds and flocks where there were just remnant populations; clear evidence of ecosystem revivals occurring over decades or even years, instead of centuries.
Native animals, such as beaver and moose — which the settlers shot out, trapped out, or drove to impenetrable thickets on the far fringes — are thriving again. Deer were down to several hundred in Massachusetts at the outset of the 20th century; today, the white-tailed population in the state tops 85,000.
Bears are back in business in a big way, too, their numbers hitting all-time records in some places. Also newly abundant are gray seals, eagles, and once-rare pileated woodpeckers that now rat-a-tat on old-growth trees right at the edge of Boston. Dive-bombing hawks are an almost ho-hum suburban spectacle.
The changes seem more dramatic and enduring in this region than anywhere else in the United States, say many biologists, conservationists, and other wildlife watchers.
“The forest recovery is especially breathtaking. New England is a supreme example of forest comeback,’’ said David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest, the university’s 106-year-old center for forestry research whose scientists work in 3,500 acres of wooded tracts and laboratories headquartered in Petersham.
The many hundreds of miles of stone fence that snake almost invisibly through thick woodlands offer testimony to how radically the region’s landscape has changed. The fences once delineated tilled fields, pruned orchards, and close-cropped pastures, bucolic, to be sure, but every bit as shaped by the human hand as any factory yard or elegant Beacon Hill block.
In 1850, when only about 28 percent of the land in Massachusetts remained in forest, the population of New England was about 4.8 million. The region’s population has since tripled, to about 14.4 million. But even as cities and suburbs swelled, rural regions were abandoned — and nature famously abhors a vacuum.
“It is very difficult to keep trees out of the New England landscape,’’ Foster said.
The natural revival carries a downside. Bears can be unruly neighbors. Gray seals devour cod, haddock, and other commercially valuable species — and may attract dangerous great white sharks. The knockdown of hydroelectric dams to clear way for spawning fish has required rejiggering of the power grid by upping electrical output at other generating stations.
Most alarming, a sharp rise in cases of Lyme disease, passed from wildlife to humans via ticks, is fast emerging as one of the region’s thorniest health challenges. Deer populations expanding into suburbs are partly responsible for spreading the ticks.
But by and large, this is a heady era for environmental advocates and ordinary nature lovers.
“It feels almost like we’re entering an age of miracles,’’ said John Banks, director of natural resources for the Penobscot Nation, a tribe in Maine whose fight to topple dams blocking the breeding grounds of migratory fish scored a major victory with July’s breaching of the hulking Veazie Dam near Bangor.
“New England is undoing many excesses of the industrial age,’’ he said in an interview. “Stagnant waters aren’t just stirring — they are finally starting to flow fast. Fish are swimming freely to their ancient spawning places. Great birds are again bold in the sky.’’
Wetlands throb and slither with rejuvenated life. Rivers are quickening even in notoriously compromised corners of the region — the herring run on the Acushnet River in southeastern Massachusetts, for example, has rocketed from a few hundred fish to many thousands.
And bald eagles are soaring in skies that have not borne eagles for decades.
“Until 10 years ago, there were zero bald eagles — none — nesting in Vermont,’’ said John Buck, migratory bird project leader for the Vermont Wildlife Department. “Now there are 14 nesting pairs, hatching about 24 chicks. That sounds small, but it’s a big jump.’’
Chalk it up to taller trees, cleaner water, and plenty of prey, according to biologists.
Sometimes it takes an old picture to tell a new story.
An 1889 lithograph of Barton — a typical, if somewhat tattered, town in northeastern Vermont — shows hillsides shorn as close as a Marine’s haircut. From the village green to the craggy top of May Hill, woodlands sprout relatively sparsely among mile after square mile of open field and pasture. Views are sprawling.
Local vistas these days are markedly more cramped — exactly as nature intended. In Barton, as in nearly everywhere else in New England, you literally can’t see the forest for the trees. Thick woods cover valley and peak. There are still a few dairy farms. But over the generations, most farm families have moved to towns and surrendered their fields to advancing poplar, birch, and spruce.
Environmental bad news tends to grab the big headlines — and for sure there are dangers aplenty, from the global menace of climate change to local lakes sullied by runoff. And the helter-skelter development represents a threat to a century-and-a-half of forest regrowth — Harvard Forest has even reported declines of tree cover in some areas.
But the six-state region is amid a broad and seemingly sustainable environmental comeback from the ruinous cutting, clearing, and damming that started almost from the day the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower.
Some of the revival can be credited to aggressive environmental efforts that have, for example, stoppered the pipes that once spewed raw sewage and industrial toxins into the Connecticut River, spurred the cleanup of Boston Harbor, and checked the threat of acid rain.
But the return of forests has mostly been a matter of economics: As New England became more citified and industrial, and food from western states became cheaper, there was less reason to maintain open land — much less blast every wild critter that might nibble a crop or gobble a goose.
European settlers pouring into New England in the 1600s were confronted by sheer forest broken only by waterways and Native American trails.
But the energetic newcomers and their successors chopped it to urban space or farmland in short order.
“It was cut nearly into non-existence,’’ said Foster, the Harvard Forest director.
Naturalist Thoreau believed the wilderness could never recover in New England.
“Thank God they cannot cut down the clouds!’’ he declared of his hyper-industrious mid-19th century neighbors.
But after the Civil War, farms were abandoned by the thousands as food production moved to the richer, flatter lands across the Appalachians. New England’s population contracted into villages and cities. More recently, industry clustered along rivers — textile mills, machine tool factories — suffered economic collapse.
“The trees have marched back to their old ground,’’ Foster said. “History has given our region an extraordinary second chance to get it right.’’
The change occurred over generations and so is difficult to perceive. “But drive along the back roads or even Route 2 and you can’t miss how much of Massachusetts has reverted to woods and wetlands,’’ Foster said.
A similar change is also underway just outside Boston. Farms have yielded to housing tracts. But much suburban sprawl has slowly become hidden beneath mature, towering trees that have reached fullness since the 1950s.
“It’s false forest, perhaps, but birds don’t know that — it’s heaven for species that used to be extremely rare, like pileated woodpeckers, ravens, and some hawks,’’ said Joan Walsh, director of bird monitoring for the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
“Owls are doing so well that nights can sound like a barred owl bar brawl,’’ she said. “And just when you’re admiring that adorable little songbird feasting at your backyard feeder — bam! — it gets hit by a Cooper’s hawk. That burst of bloody fluff is a sure sign of nature coming back strong and ferocious. Yes, right here in Concord.”
Some 222 species of birds breed in Massachusetts. The ones that require open grassland — bobolinks, meadowlarks, swifts, and swallows — are faring poorly with fewer meadows and crop fields.
But 60 percent of bird species in the Bay State are regarded as stable or soaring, including red-bellied woodpeckers, willets, ospreys, and Carolina wrens, according to MassAudubon.
“Do I dare mention wild turkeys?’’ Walsh asked jokingly.
America’s Bird, as the wily gobblers were known, was “extirpated’’ throughout New England by the 1800s. Starting in the 1960s, wild turkeys trapped live in New York and Pennsylvania were transplanted to western Massachusetts.
Population explosion is an understatement for what came next. Today, the big birds are ubiquitous across the region. They scurry along forest edges, fan across upland meadows, and preen along rural roads and urban intersections. They occasionally swarm small downtowns like beaked biker gangs.
A gang of arriviste wild turkeys has notoriously taken up residence in upscale Brookline. They peck at cars, chase pets, and puff up at human passersby. No one knows what to do. Police caution against annoying the big birds.
Such assertive wildlife, once a bizarre aberration, is starting to seem almost a 21st century trend.
Vermonters have told hoary bear tales around campfires for generations. But few ever glimpsed a real bear.
In the past two decades, however, black bear numbers in Vermont have doubled to more than 6,000, believed to be an all-time record.
Last year a raucous quartet of bears chased Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin out of his Montpelier backyard. And just the other day, a bold bruiser smashed into a Barton farmer’s sugarhouse, clambered to an upper loft, and gobbled down two hives of bees — honey, wax, worker bees, and wriggling queen.
As a state wildlife service spokesman put it: “We seem to have gone beyond the optimal population of these large mammals.’’
Lately, everyone’s got a story about bear naughtiness, and it’s usually firsthand. You don’t have to travel to Vermont to hear one — the burly mammals have become backyard marauders in even suburban Boston.
Meanwhile, mystery surrounds the explosion in numbers of gray seals on Cape Cod and its islands — from a few Canadian strays in the 1990s to today’s 15,000-plus sleek creatures lolling mainly near Chatham.
“This is a marine mammal that had gone extinct in these waters — killed off for bounties,’’ said Stephanie Wood, a biologist who researched gray seals for the National Marine Fisheries Services. “Not everyone is thrilled to see them back, but it’s certainly a huge conservation success story.’’
Fishermen grumble that seals steal their catches. Indeed, there’s considerable grumping about wildlife.
Further inland, suburbanites complain about deer cropping their expensive shrubs. And lately even tree-hugging rural locavores have begun muttering darkly about abundant foxes, fisher weasels, and raptors snarfing up their free-range chickens.
Rising rates of Lyme disease — spread by ticks carried by deer and white-footed mice — point to a darker side of proximity to nature. As does mounting highway carnage caused by collisions of motorists with moose, deer, or bears.
“It’s yin and yang; bad arrives with the good,’’ said John Gobeille, a Vermont wildlife biologist. “The forest is rising, but farms are declining. Wildlife is making strides — but, ‘Yikes, those beasts are trampling my backyard!’ ’’
He added: “I do think that humans are doing a better job of living with nature. Maybe it’s because we got so far away [from nature], most of us truly appreciate seeing it back.’’
And humans have played a hand in some comebacks. Simple projects like putting up wood duck shelters, bluebird houses, and osprey perches — coupled with wetland protection, clean air laws, and bans on potent insecticides — have wrought triumphs of species recovery.
In a form of activism that barely existed a few decades ago, New England is emerging as a national leader in smashing dams to restore rivers to a more pristine state.
In just over a decade, 96 dams have been breached across the region, opening waterways to spawning fish such as salmon and alewife.
“The rate of dam removal [for mainly environmental reasons] in New England outpaces all other regions,’’ said Brian Graber, acting director of river restoration with the activist group American Rivers.
On a sunny morning in July, Native American drummers provided a thudding soundtrack for the demolition drama unfurling on Maine’s Penobscot River, the second largest river system in New England.
The crowd gathered on the banks was a mixed bag of eco-activists, Penobscot Indians, salmon fishing enthusiasts, birdwatchers, and wildlife bureaucrats. The mood was exuberant. They’d fought a common cause. This was the victory dance.
Across the river, a pair of immense yellow excavators — sharp steel flashing at the tips of arachnid-like, hydraulic-powered arms — trundled to the base of the Veazie Dam, one of the oldest hydroelectric generating stations in the United States.
Concrete flew as the blades ripped suddenly and remorselessly into the upper face of the industrial-age icon.
The crowd went wild. And so, too, did the lower Penobscot River — running freely to the sea for the first time in nearly 200 years.
“We’re transforming soured, stifled waters into riffles and runs,’’ said Laura Rose Day, executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust. “It’s about bringing back an entire ecosystem, not just a single species or habitat. These waters will thrive and so will the animals that depend upon them. And so, I believe, will the humans who live or recreate on the river.’’