In America the Northeast is where the sun first rises. This region — stretching from Pennsylvania to Maine — was also among the earliest in our country to be settled by European colonists. It was once a place of wild and dazzling abundance, where forests stretched nearly continuously from the Atlantic coast to the grasslands of the Midwest, and where a “prodigious and spectacular” array of creatures stunned newcomers.
But a century or more of land clearing, farming, livestock grazing, logging, overhunting, overfishing, predator control, dam building and other uses stripped the Northeast of much of its natural glory. By the mid-19th century, large predators were virtually gone; deer were rare to nonexistent in many places; and fish populations had shrunk dramatically in rivers scoured by log drives, blocked by dams, and polluted by burgeoning, industrial cities.
The felling of the Northeast’s great forests and loss of many wildlife species — often occurring so swiftly that changes were obvious within a lifetime — prompted some of this nation’s first major conservation achievements, such as the establishment of the Adirondack State Park and the passage of the Weeks Act, which enabled the creation of eastern national forests. The Northeast’s state and federal forests, as well as other public lands and private nature reserves, are the region’s most important sanctuaries for biodiversity, as well as vital havens for people seeking a deeper connection with nature.
The human-assisted transport of invasive organisms, such as the chestnut blight fungus, took a devastating toll on the Northeast’s native species. The loss of species to introduced diseases is an ecological disaster that continues to this day — for example, with white-nose syndrome, an emerging fungal disease that first appeared in upstate New York and has been catastrophic for bats.
The Northeast has also been the stage for precedent-setting battles against unchecked industrialization. Some of these struggles, such as the 20th-century campaign to protect the Hudson River from a hydroelectric project at Storm King Mountain, are legendary in modern environmental history. Others, like the fight against gas fracking in the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania and New York (as well as Ohio and West Virginia) are ongoing struggles with outcomes still unknown.
Most recently the Northeast has become a major transport corridor for fracked and mined North American crude oil, both explosive “Bakken” oil and dense Alberta tar sands. Communities along rail lines and pipeline corridors, as well as those in the midst of fracking fields, are waking up to the fact that the fight over climate change has literally come home to their backyards, in the form of flammable crude-oil rail cargos, leaking pipelines and poisoned drinking water. From these awakenings, a new grassroots movement is being born against all forms of “extreme energy” and for cleaner, more sustainable ways of powering our homes, workplaces and transportation.
The future of the Northeast’s natural communities also depends on these efforts to defend the region’s lands and waters. Bicknell’s thrush, Atlantic salmon, Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, and dwarf wedgemussel are just a few of the Northeast’s creatures for which sound habitat and a stabilized climate is a matter of survival or extinction. For the 55 million people that also live in the Northeast, a healthy environment is no less vital.
The Center’s work in the Northeast is aimed at defending the conservation gains of the last half-century while meeting new environmental threats such as fossil fuel production and transport, climate change impacts on vulnerable species, and emerging diseases in wildlife. We have taken the early lead in issues such as crude-oil transportation by rail and white-nose syndrome, both of which have become subjects of national focus and concern.
Since the establishment of our Northeast office in 2008, we’ve campaigned to protect hibernating bats affected by white-nose syndrome, protect roadless areas on the White Mountain and Green Mountain national forests, and safeguard imperiled aquatic species in Lake Champlain and other New England watersheds. The rapid and dangerous increase in oil train traffic in the Northeast since 2012 has led us to focus on the threat these “pipelines on rails” pose to aquatic ecosystems and endangered freshwater, coastal and marine species, such as sturgeon, sea turtles and piping plover.