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The oldest fossilized forest in the world is found in Greene County. He needs to be saved.

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The oldest forest in the world is not in a museum. It’s not in a national park. The fossilized remains lie behind a municipal building outside of Greene County.

Land surveyors accidentally discovered the area in 2009, and over the next decade scientists discovered fossilized root systems from three separate plant species. The fossils, which predated the first dinosaurs by 140 million years, were the oldest of their kind, pushing back 2 million years from when the ancestors of modern trees would have developed.

The city of Cairo, which owns the land, is now struggling to find a way to preserve the find before the unsecured site falls victim to the elements and souvenir seekers. But city leaders have competing visions for the site’s future, potentially making the problem worse.

Discovering the oldest forest in the world

The site looked much different during the life of the Cairo forest. The climate was subtropical and the region was covered with wetlands.

The Catskills were not a group of smooth mounds, but rather a large plateau. To the east rose a jagged mountain range, the Acadian Mountains, as high as today’s Himalayas. To the west was a giant inland sea – the Appalachian Basin.

According to the findings of researchers at Binghamton University and Cardiff University in England, who have spent years reviewing the site and published their findings in Current Biology, floodwaters swept over the forest 385 million years ago, pushing sediment onto the trees, killing them, but preserving their roots.

The researchers completed their work in 2019, but the priceless land remained in the hands of the city of Cairo.

Joe Hasenkopf, a resident of Cairo, is the chairman of a municipal committee formed to study the issue of preserving the site.

“Basically what we want to do is build an education center… a building all over the site, with glass on top of it. [the fossils] so you can walk on the site without stepping on it, ”he said.

“It’s an old quarry, so there could be parking for schoolchildren, students and tourists, but also a full lab for graduate students to actually study, with the glass high enough that they can go in there and study things, but low enough that it’s protected and people don’t try to cut up little pieces and take them home as keepsakes, which are unnecessary.

Fears that the fossils might be damaged are not unfounded: City supervisor John Coyne said people were already coming to the site.

There were two distinct groups, Coyne said: People drawn to the science and history of fossils, who ask the city for permission to visit. And then there are all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts.

“Unfortunately, we have people in our community who think they can drive their four-wheelers on the [site] and that’s okay, “he said.” That’s why it’s so important to try to get funds to protect and preserve it. “

Small town, great find

Cairo, with a population of 6,400 and a budget of less than $ 3 million, doesn’t have enough money to even begin securing the find. Boulders have been pushed in a ring around the part of the site to prevent vehicles from crushing them, but outside funding must be sought to go further.

The city is currently pursuing two grants to help preserve the site.


The first would help pay for a series of concrete barriers that would be placed around the entire site to prevent ATVs from entering, Hasenkopf said.

The grant was not yet obtained, according to Hasenkopf, so he did not want to say where it came from, but the installation of the barriers is still a long way off. As a municipal enterprise, the project is expected to issue a tender before the barriers can be installed.

The second is a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for a feasibility study on building a permanent education center on the site. The city applied for the grant last March.

The end goal was to partner with a college in the center, Hasenkopf said, adding that he had spoken about the project to several universities, but “no one wants to do anything without a feasibility study.”

Preservation of the site has led to infighting within the city government.

When city council met with state assembly member Chris Tague in March 2020, council member Jason Watts skipped the meeting, Coyne said.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t have the support of the whole board – we had enough to come up with a resolution and things like that, but with a project like this it would be great to have the full support. community, ”he said.

Watts, who is posing as city supervisor – Coyne is not seeking re-election – wanted to sell the site at the time.

Watts said he has since changed his mind mainly because the site cannot be sold.

To sell it, the site has to be rated, but “there is nothing to rate it against,” Watts said – the site is unique in the world and therefore invaluable.

Watts said as recently as the May city council meeting that he wanted to sell it, according to HudsonValley360, and claimed in a previous meeting that he received an estimate on the site between $ 500,000 and $ 1 billion.

Any sale he might have made would have been made to an educational institution, Watts told The Times Union on Monday.

“They are the ones who can find the funding; we can’t find the funding for that, ”he said. “We could have some kind of fundraiser, a chicken barbecue or something, and then we only have a few thousand dollars to spend on that. “

Coyne scorned Watt’s change of mind. “It just bothers me how people change their tone when the tide changes,” he said.

The first trees in the world

There are three distinct species found at the Cairo site, according to the Current Biology article.

The first one, Eospermatopteris, appears a dozen times on the site. The palm-like plant was first identified at a nearby site in Gilboa, which held the title of the world’s oldest forest before the discovery of Cairo.

The second set of root fossils, those of Archaeopteris, are over 30 feet in diameter and consist of 10 to 15 branching primary roots from what were probably the central trunks.

Researchers also discovered an “enigmatic” third root system at the Cairo site, according to the article.

William Stein, professor emeritus of biology at Binghamton University and one of the site’s principal researchers, called this root system a “very interesting puzzle”.

The system was “instantly recognizable” as a lycopsides– like a plant – but it was believed that these plants did not exist for tens of millions of years after the preservation of the Cairo site.

Lycopsids originate from the Carboniferous Period, a time when the biomass of growing and dead plants was greater than the amount of clastic matter – grains of rock – on the earth’s surface, making rotting plants giant bogs. Peatlands have been buried and compressed over time, creating modern coal deposits.

Cairo’s root systems date from the Devonian period, around 60 million years before the Carboniferous, Stein said, but more research had to be done to prove lycopsides existed so long ago.

“Anyone who understands plant paleontology would recognize these things for what they are,” said Stein, referring to lycopsides. “But what we can’t say is what they absoutely are – so we always call them ‘enigmatic’.

Whether or not this plant is a lycopsid, the Archaeopteris the specimens found at the Cairo site are the oldest tree found.

Stein points out another reason why securing the site is crucial: there may be more fossils to be discovered.

“We only surveyed part of the area,” he said. “The difficulty was the discovery; it takes a long time to remove all the gravel from the site and map it properly etc.

“It could be nothing, it could be a lot,” Stein added, but the researcher, who spent nearly 10 years studying the site, said it was up to other scientists to pick up the baton.

An economic windfall?

Coyne said a science center could help everyone.

The economy of Greene County, with its skiing, hiking and resorts, depends on tourism, and a science center could benefit Cairo and surrounding towns.

“We see it as a global destination,” Coyne said – European tourists visiting this summer had already requested to visit the site.

Cairo contains the Round Top community, which includes three all-inclusive resorts. Researchers and others interested in the site could stay there, Coyne said.

“It’s just an economic benefit for the whole community,” he said.

Warren Hart, deputy administrator for Greene County and chief economic development, tourism and planning for Greene County, agreed.

“An important segment of tourism is the journey through history,” he said, “so [the forest] presents a very lucrative opportunity for additional travelers to the county and this translates into additional direct and indirect visitor spending.

If the science center were developed, Hart’s office could promote it through advertising and social media “to get people to see the fossil forest and stay here, and make it part of their itinerary,” he said. he declared. “We would make it part of our regular business of attracting tourists to the county.”

However, the city must act quickly. In the age of geolocation on Instagram, nothing remains a secret for long, and the city also fears what winters could do to fossils.

“Water and ice is seeping underneath, and it’s shale,” Watts said, fearing the fossilized prints would crack like potholes.

“We are going to lose this,” he added. “I would like to hope someone would step in and help us with something to protect it – it is a very precious piece of land.”

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