Most people in Chesapeake Bay watershed states have never walked through an old-growth forest — which is to say they have never experienced nature in one of its most biologically diverse forms.
These awe-inspiring forests, with massive trees and canopies so thick that the ground below never sees full daylight, once blanketed most of the United States. That is until rampant, industrial-scale logging in the 1800s and early 1900s hit its stride and nearly wiped them out. The woods that have grown up since then appear and act much differently.
The quest to cut every large tree for its practical and financial value was so thorough that, experts generally agree, the remaining old-growth forest in the eastern United States represents less than 1% of what was here when European settlers arrived.
For 10 years now, Joan Maloof, a retired professor from Maryland’s Salisbury University, and her Old-Growth Forest Network have been doggedly working to change that void in the landscape.
“I used to get frustrated. Why didn’t they save more [original forests]?” Maloof said. “I said, ‘OK, we’ll start now, we’ll be the ones.’ So these people 200 years from now will be thanking us.”
The group’s mission is to find a remnant of old-growth forest in every county in the United States that ever had one. If no old growth can be found in a county, they aim to find and protect a tract of woods that, in time, can grow into a grand reminder of the past. Then, future generations can experience, as Maloof put it, the “joy and respect” of seeing a forest old enough to be in balance with itself.
So far, the network has managed to protect patches of woods in 146 of the 2,370 targeted U.S. counties. Forest preserves ranging from 14 acres to 17 square miles have been established in 27 states, from Massachusetts to California, carved from community parks, private woods, state forests, and nine national parks.
Pennsylvania leads the pack, tied with Ohio, with 18 old-growth or potential old-growth preserves established — mainly from state forests placed in the network by the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“In protecting old-growth areas, the Old-Growth Forest Network seeks to connect people to them to appreciate their beauty, and that public education and awareness is of great value,” DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn said. “It’s awe-inspiring to be among the ancients, and we all know awareness and connection are what lead to stewardship and conservation.”
The agency maintains 20,000 acres of old-growth in state forests and has designated another 575,000 acres of second– and third-growth forests to be managed for future old growth.
New York has 13 sites in the network. West Virginia has 11, Virginia has 10 and Maryland has 9.
Old-growth forests include but are not the same as even rarer “virgin” forests, which have never been harvested by humans and have never in recorded history been destroyed by fire.
An old-growth forest, by contrast, is one that may have been timbered or burned, but not in the last 150 years or more. Some put that number higher in defining bona fide old growth, but what counts, however long it takes, is that the forest has had enough time to at least begin developing the kind of complex and profoundly interdependent ecosystem that exists in a virgin forest.
Old-growth woods develop deep, complex canopy layers that offer an abundant variety of habitats and insects for birds. The berry-producing plants that thrive under those thick canopies support birds, as well as terrestrial animals. The cavities that develop in some very old trees shelter birds and small mammals. And even dead trees — muscled out by other species or succumbing to injury or old age — create habitat and nourishment for fungi, insects, reptiles, and amphibians.
The soil in old-growth forests retains moisture like a sponge, favored by lichens and mosses. When you walk in such a forest the ground bounces back from your steps. Here, topsoil is created instead of destroyed. And old-growth forests are enormous carbon-capturing machines and oxygen producers.
Then there is the matter of the sheer beauty of an ancient living organism, Maloof said. “I started out as a scientist and when I visited all these old-growth forests, I was thinking I would observe scientific principles, but what I kept noticing is the beauty [of leaving] a part of the Earth alone to develop naturally. There’s something about this evolution and development that feels beautiful to humans.”
The Old-Growth Forest Network is based in Easton, MD, and is privately funded. It has attracted more than 4,000 supporters, including about 600 volunteers nationwide who search for patches of old-growth woods and old-growth candidates, regardless of size, that Maloof and her staff of six can target for protection and public access.
It’s a needle-in-the-haystack effort, but the search has yielded unexpected finds and far-flung preservation efforts, even on private land.
For example, the Woodland Owners of the Southern Alleghenies is a group of about 100 landowners in southcentral Pennsylvania who have woods they intend to log occasionally. But they want to manage the process in a way that sustains wildlife, pollinators, and native species.
Recently, the group was given a parcel of 37 acres when a member died. In the process of having the land inventoried by a professional, an 8-acre patch of woods was found to have massive and very old white oaks. Core samples determined they had been growing there undisturbed since 1838.
Those 8 acres, renamed the Sulzbacher Demonstration Forest, are open to the public and include trails and a parking lot.
“It’s just a beautiful piece of woods,” said Laura Jackson, treasurer of the group. “It’s not a wilderness impact, but it’s very uplifting and it makes me feel good to see such big trees.”
For information, visit the Old-Growth Forest Network website at oldgrowthforest.net. There are too many old-growth preserves in the Bay region to list here, but the network’s website can help you find a preserved forest near you. Under the “Forests” tab, click on “Find a Network Forest.”
This article was originally published on BayJournal.com on December 17, 2021.