Sandisfield — Only bushwhacking will bring you to the special place. It is sloping terrain with boulders and a soft understory of mossy, fallen trees, pine needles and plain old dirt where the things that live here now hide in their holes. Daylight comes through in beams and flickers; a stream sparkles through on its way down to the Clam River. And the air here does not move as well as it did back on the trail.
This place is different from the forest around it.
It is a grove of old growth forest, not far from where Kinder Morgan subsidiary Tennessee Gas will cut trees for a third pipeline on a 50-year-old natural gas run through Otis State Forest that now requires widening.
The place is so precious a developer sold it to the state, and the state, honored to have it, shielded it under its constitution, with a law called Article 97, one that says people in Massachusetts are entitled to pristine nature.
Yet even the state can’t guard it from a Fortune 500 corporation that holds sway with our federal government.
Narain Schroeder of Berkshire Natural Resources Council knows where the special grove is. We meet at the Monterey General Store and make our way into Sandisfield up an unmarked, unmanaged dirt road near Lower Spectacle Pond, from which Tennessee Gas plans to draw millions of gallons of water to flush its newly installed pipes. I follow him across the existing pipeline run, and through the forest, before we head off the trail and work our way to where the old trees live.
It is not hard to see why the 300- to 400-year-old trees remain here — Schroeder says they were never cut because the terrain was too hard to get to, especially back when horses were needed to cart out timber.
It’s true. Feet sink into mossy soft bark of fallen logs or critter holes; there are boulders and downed trees to navigate. It is one careful step at a time.
While Tennessee Gas isn’t planning to clear this area, it is part of the larger forest ecosystem that will likely be affected by nearby cutting. While U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says it will help the company mitigate disruptions to nesting birds, for instance, there are some things the agency can’t control.
The ageis beetle is one. It likes to eat up hemlocks, and there are signs of damage in the surrounding forest. Cutting there, Schroeder says, could push the bugs into this old growth, of which there is precious little of left in New England.
Schroeder points to the difference between the trees in this untouched place from not far away, where there was clearly some logging over the years. The trees there had more light to branch out. Trees here grow to the light; their branches are at the top.
Schroeder hugs a tree that he estimates at 300, maybe 400 years old. He says old growth is something to be treasured. “I can’t believe we didn’t leave more of it. Imagine if we left a few miles of [old growth] spruce or whatever — it would be mindboggling. Instead, it was all turned into the British navy.
“They cut all of England and Europe, and had to go looking elsewhere.”
Here in “elsewhere” this pattern will likely continue, since the Natural Gas Act of 1938 trumps state laws. Even cutting that is potentially dangerous to wildlife can’t be stopped now because the federal government says pipelines come first. Tennessee Gas may also, if they win their current appeal, get to bypass even Fish & Wildlife’s rules that you can’t cut trees during nesting season that runs from March 31 to October 1.
The gas company is running roughshod over Sandisfield townspeople, too, as it backs away from promises to give the town money to fix roads and bridges that may be chewed up by massive pipeline trucks.
But unlike a pristine forest and pond, roads can always be fixed. Schroeder says tree clearing here will reverberate out to these old towering treasures.
“Any disturbance to old growth is just a travesty,” he said.