The final steps in the active restoration of a floodplain in southern Berkshire County are taking root.
On 10 acres of land in Bartholomew’s Cobble in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, rows of 1,800 recently planted trees now adorn once barren fields. In the 1970s, the National Park Service designated Bartholomew’s Cobble a National Natural Landmark for its biodiversity. Renee Wendell manages the Cobble property for The Trustees of Reservations, which owns the land.
“To illustrate how crazy awesome this place is and botanically rich; our original 60 acres was compared to 60,000 acres of Mount Desert Island in Maine as having comparable biodiversity,” said Wendell.
Over the years, the Cobble’s floodplains have been decimated through devastating farm use of land right up to the banks of the Housatonic River, general neglect, and PCBs released by General Electric into the river. The Trustees, Project Native, and Helia Land Design partnered to use the last of the $15 million GE provided in a Damage Grant to the Natural Resource Trustees in 2000 for releasing the harmful chemicals into the river. Bridghe McCracken is the owner of Helia Land Design and is implementing the restoration.
“We are transitioning them from fields that were dominated by weed canary grass, which is an invasive grass, to fields that will now be dominated by floodplain forest trees,” McCracken said. “So all around these fields there are examples of what climax floodplain forests look like. They’ll all become one large forest.”
Before tree planting could take place, various invasive species needed to be cleared. Jonathan Pierce is one of the field technicians fighting the never-ending battle.
“Invasive species have no natural predators, they’re highly aggressive, and they just out compete our native plants,” Pierce said. “They take everything from them, either sun or water. They overcrowd them to the point where they can’t thrive, so when it gets to that point something needs to be done, and our native plants need to be restored.”
About 60 of a total 80 acres of floodplain have been cleared of invasive plants like burning bush, yellow flag iris, and garlic mustard, using some unique methods.
“Cut and paint, where you actually cut things like buckthorn trees or multi-floral rose and you actually paint the stumps with herbicide,” said Pierce.
McCracken says eight people planted 1,800 saplings over 10 acres in just two weeks. She says tree species were selected from local areas based on their tolerance for varied growing conditions.
“Ash trees, which are specially adapted to being flooded,” said McCracken. “When their roots are saturated with water they grow new roots that have sacks of oxygen along them. They also can open lenticels in their bark along their trunk so they can breathe through their trunk. So when they are underwater sometimes for two to three weeks they are still actively growing.”
Sean Swift is one of the people who planted the trees.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Swift said. “I’m looking forward to coming back ten years down the line. I think that might be even more impressive.”
McCracken says restoring the floodplain is vital to the health of the Housatonic and surrounding areas because it traps sediment that may still be contaminated with chemicals.
"A forest would trap those sediments along the way,” McCracken said. “When you’ve gotten rid of those forests then the sediments make it all the way down to the ocean. So the forests almost act like a sponge.”
McCracken says similar restorations using the grant money from GE at Taft Farms in Great Barrington and in Stockbridge are in their second and third years of growing. She says protecting the saplings from invasive species and animals like beavers and rodents will continue for two years. Also two people working eight hours a day will continue the tedious task of watering all the young trees.