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Amid the Concrete, a Forest Grows Tall

In the unlikeliest of places -- the Bronx -- 50 acres of woodlands next to the Botanical Garden offer a bucolic respite from city life.

August 13, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — After just a few footsteps, it becomes a trip back through time -- a place of filtered sunlight and deep shadows where ancient oaks grow, towering tulip trees seem to touch the sky, hawks forage and great horned owls nest.

Fat and happy squirrels feast on acorns. A robin flits just ahead while a cottontail rabbit darts amid fallen branches near rocks carved by glaciers. There are foxes and wild turkeys.

The New York Botanical Garden's forest, all 50 acres of it, stands in an unlikely place: the Bronx, which brings to mind the Yankees, urban blight and rebirth and an Ogden Nash couplet, "The Bronx? No Thonx!"

The wooded land is one of New York's treasures, testimony to the resilience of nature to the buffeting of the big city. But few people visit.

"Most people don't know this great treasure is part of the garden," said Karl Lauby, the Botanical Garden's vice president for communications. "Most people come to the garden to see the flowers. We would love for more people to know about the forest and visit it and appreciate it."

Last summer, the forest was closed to the public because Botanical Garden officials worried that drought conditions had raised the fire risk to unacceptable levels.

Record rainfall erased the fire hazard this year, but the city's budget crisis threatened to keep the woodland closed for a second successive summer. The administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the City Council ultimately approved enough money to keep it open.

A stroll through the forest can be a time to refresh and contemplate. The first weekend after the start of the war against Iraq in March, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his wife, Nane, spent several hours walking amid the towering trees.

Officials say the forest not only is a tribute to the tenacity of nature, but is also a living laboratory -- a community of competing species. Some are like the giant oaks that have stood for 300 years.

Others, far more recent arrivals, blew in from somewhere else. The tree of heaven, a species that some people regard as a weed, can be traced to China.

"There have been very few things planted here," said Charles Peters, curator of botany at the Botanical Garden. "... This is a relic of the way things used to be."

In a lot of places, it's a tough time to be a tree.

New York and other cities are struggling to find money for urban forestry, as ecology programs compete with such essential services as police and fire protection at a time of widespread budget deficits.

"If you go to a city council and they need to cut the budget, who is going to win?" asked Mel Johnson, executive director of the California Urban Forest Council.

"It shouldn't be either-or, but that's the reality. Trees can't talk, and we have to be their spokesman."

He said research shows "significant savings maintaining and planting urban forests in cities."

According to the Center for Urban Forest Research in Davis, Calif., a branch of the U.S. Forest Service, 100 trees remove about half a ton of pollutants from the air each year.

New York's forest was named the Hemlock Grove when the Botanical Garden became its steward in 1895. Nathaniel Lord Britton, the garden's founding director, called the wooded area "the most precious natural possession of the city of New York."

Only a few hemlocks are left. Over the years, they have fallen victim not only to the stresses of an urban environment, but, more important, also to the wooly adelgid, an insect resembling a tiny ball of white fuzz that has a voracious appetite for hemlock sap.

As the Bronx has evolved, so has the forest.

"The notion of a virgin forest is a flawed notion," said Todd Forrest, the garden's curator of woody plants, who serves as the forest's chief caregiver.

"... This forest a thousand years ago was changing, maybe not at the same rate, maybe not to the same degree as it is now, but forests always change. Change is the essence of a forest."

After a nearby highway was built, some trees close to the roadway started to grow more slowly -- a fact confirmed not only by visual sightings, but also by the narrowing of growth rings discovered when stumps of fallen trees were studied.

The forest faces other urban pressures. Its soil contains high concentrations of heavy metals.

Water penetrates at a slower rate than normal because the ground contains hydrocarbon deposits from the burning of fossil fuel in the city. And because generations of visitors have tramped down the earth on some former trails, new plants haven't been able to grow.

But the wooded land has managed to thrive despite the stress.

"It reminds me of the things I value most, the things that are most important to me," Forrest said.

"It reminds visitors as well of the things they value most, which are the beauty of a place where the hand of man isn't clearly dominant, or maybe the past and a sense of the way things might have been."

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