Where there is a river, there are floodplains. Where there are floodplains, there is fertile soil. For centuries, farmers have known this, and that’s why so many farm fields can be found along the Connecticut River as it twists and turns through the landscape of Western Massachusetts.  

But many of those farm fields have been vacated for years and have the potential to return to the floodplain forests they were before farmers cleared them out. Connecting Point‘s Brian Sullivan met up with several environmental groups during their efforts to restore one of those forests in the meadows of Northampton.  

Read the full transcript:

Brian Sullivan, Connecting Point: Heavy cloud cover hangs over the Northampton Meadows on Old Springfield Road, as more than 20 volunteers take to the task of repopulating this former farmland with rows of trees.

How many trees? Well, somewhere in the neighborhood of 900, spread out over four acres, and done within roughly four hours time.

This floodplain forest restoration project is a collaborative effort between Mass Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, and the Mass Division of Ecological Restoration, with Land Stewardship Incorporated as the contractor managing the installation. And while this is the second and final day of this effort, it certainly didn’t happen overnight.

Tom Lautzenheiser, Mass Audobon: We’ve been planning this project for over four years, and it’s been delayed for various reasons. Of course, the pandemic, among others. And just to be able to to get everybody out here working to help us install these plants is just really heartwarming.

Brian Sullivan: The wet and muddy conditions may not have seemed so wonderful for any of the volunteers hoping to stay clean and dry. But as far as trees being planted is concerned, those conditions were nearly perfect.

Because the Connecticut River cuts through so much of western Massachusetts, floodplain areas like this one here are not uncommon throughout the region along the river’s path. And what they offer is soil that’s stone-free and rich with nutrients. Ideal for regrowing a forest or, as history has shown, growing crops.

Tom Lautzenheiser: For hundreds of years, this was prime farmland, even for the earliest European settlers. And it was even used by Native Americans prior to European settlement in the area.

So, the Northampton Meadows have been open for centuries, and Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary hosts some of the finest examples of floodplain forest anywhere in the state. And, we thought we could grow that forest block out by just taking some of our fields and putting them back into trees.

Brian Sullivan: The last time we looked at a project like this was back in early spring of 2019 at Fannie Stebbins. Now, big difference between the two is that this one features much fewer trees, with only about 2000 going into the ground in this first phase.

But there are still plenty of similarities to go around. Each location has sections that are visible from the highway. In fact, drivers passing on 91 up through this Northampton stretch here, have probably seen this field flooded out in the spring. That’s why planting the trees now is paramount.

The 2019 Stebbins Project in Longmeadow was much bigger in scope and size, and not just in the number of trees, but in budget and time frame compared to the one here. This is essentially a two day project, covering eight and a half acres for the 2,000 plantings.

And with a much smaller budget, volunteers become the driving force in completing the task, many of whom are first timers. This makes a prep course ahead of time necessary so that everyone is on the same page. But limitations aside, each new undertaking in the area provides a learning curve to possibly do something better or more efficient then the one before it.

Karen Lombard, The Nature Conservancy: One of the big differences that I see here, that’s I think going to be really helpful, is they put the deer protection in as they’re doing the the planting. So, they’ve got some electric fences, they’ve got some wire cages. And I think that will really help their survival rate, the trees.

Brian Sullivan: Lombard was instrumental in heading up that project in Longmeadow with the Nature Conservancy. And although the TNC was a partner in this endeavor, today, she was just joining the dozens of others here as an unpaid helping hand.

Karen Lombard: I’m really passionate about this, and I like to do this in my free time, as well as professionally. And it’s kind of fun to be on the planting end, instead of on the project management side.