CAIRO, N.Y. (NEWS10) — The Capital Region is covered with beautiful forests, but there is one so ancient tucked away in the Catskills it was once a turning point in earth’s history and made way for new life. Researchers from Binghamton and Cornell University to Cardiff, Wales have been studying the forest full of tree fossils.
The site is rooted deep within the lush landscape of Greene County, giving scientists a glimpse into the past. Chuck Ver Straeten, a geologist with the New York State Museum, said, “It’s the best discovery I’ll ever make in my life.”
He has made a career out of reading the rocks, and 12 years ago, his eye caught something unusual at an abandoned quarry in Cairo, New York. “I got up around here and just noticed there was a gutter-like feature,” Ver Straeten explained.
For the untrained eye, it’s easier to spot from above. It’s clear the jagged lines all lead to one point. Ver Straeten was able to connect the dots. “What else could it be? These are tree roots, and this is where a tree once stood,” he exclaimed. “These trees are 385 million years old.”
That dwarfs even the arrival of the dinosaurs, which took place around 235 million years ago. Ver Straeten’s keen eye led to a team of researchers to the site to study the fossil roots. They identified three different types of trees, Eospermatopteris, Lycopsids, Archaeopteris, all thriving together.
The roots remain undisturbed for the time being, and some of the history is also being preserved at the New York State Museum. “This is actually a plate from a fish that was preserved in Cairo. These fossil fish were washed in during a flooding event,” explained Lisa Amati, a paleontologist with the NYS Museum.
She walked NEWS10 through the room where plant fossils found through the state are stored to give a better idea of what ancient trees looked like 385 million years ago. “Understanding present eco-systems requires understanding how they formed in the first place,” Amati added.
But the world’s oldest fossil forest remains an open space, opening itself up to degradation. “As you can see, we have barriers around it, but it’s an open spot. People can ride four wheelers if they get through,” said Joe Hasenkopf, the Chairman of the town planning board in Cairo and President of the Friends of Cairo Fossil Forest group. “We are putting concrete barriers around the whole site and put a fence on top of it. That way it helps preserve it.”
It’s a costly geological gem to preserve, but one that has the potential to make Cairo a tourist destination. The town has secured a grant to pay for the cost of the fencing. Hasenkopf plans to help the town apply for larger grants. He estimated the town needs to secure $200,000 to conduct a feasibility study.
“What we’d optimally like to do is pair up with a college, put in an educational site with a working lab. There’s also a way for tourist to come and look at the site, see what it has to offer, while being educational at the same time” shared Hasenkopf. “It’s a very long process. In order to get the interest of even New York State to turn it into a state park, you have to cross all of these hurdles.”
A plan that could easily take 10 years or more, according to Hasenkopf. As the town looks to preserve nature’s footprint for future generations, Ver Straeten reflects on the significant lessons the fossil forest offers us all. “The perspective of time. It’s just all of these massive changes that happen over time on our planet.”