May 15, 2013

Mount Toby

Our side of the mountain

Although many residents of western Massachusetts use Mount Toby in Sunderland as a recreational area for hiking, climbing, and fishing in Cranberry Pond, few outside of UMass Amherst realize that the mountain itself is a university holding. “Everyone thinks they are at a state forest,” says Matthew Kelty, professor in the Department of Environmental Conservation.

In some ways, they are. When the Massachusetts General Court deemed in 1916 that Massachusetts Agricultural College needed a place to teach forestry, it acquired the mountain and a nearby dormant farm by eminent domain and the sum of $30,000, and passed ownership of Toby to the college, hence the mountain’s official designation as The Mount Toby State Demonstration Forest.

The forest has been in continuous use ever since: by geology students who study the puddingstone composite rock of which the mountain is made; by wildlife and fisheries conservation students who observe the native species in Cranberry Pond; and by students for whom the entire mountain is a working forest laboratory.

The mountain itself, originally called Kunckquachu by the Nonotuck, is rich in history, from the Blair-Witchy-looking abandoned sugar house high up in the woods, to the fire lookout occupying the original location of a sightseeing tower built in the 1870s for visitors from nearby mill towns like Chicopee. Viewers would ride trains and carriages to the summit to get some fresh air above the tree line and escape the fumes that were the byproduct of industrial milling.

Mount Toby is now the main site of UMass Amherst’s silviculture field work. Silviculture is the practice of managing the health of forests as living systems. It encompasses, according to Kelty: “what to cut, what to plant,” and what species will grow well together. Students use the diverse wood scape of Mount Toby to isolate stands of different trees and to demonstrate different styles of management.

Kelty points out that when you are a student or professor of silviculture, you have to think in terms of decades—which means having to accept that the results of your experiment may arrive long after you have passed on. One stand of white pines was planted by Professor Arnold D. Rhodes (1912-1998) after the hurricane of 1938, to show how “thinning” trees creates a contrast in their development and the forest canopy. The trees are still towering. Says Kelty, “You have to take the long view!”