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A voice for the old forest

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/11/12 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Connecting to nature, Land

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You’ve heard the old adage, if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear, does it make a sound? Dr. Joan Maloof hopes that by hearing her voice for the forest, you will be motivated to protect a small patch of it in your county.

Maloof started the Old Growth Forest Network – an effort to protect and build from the 0.1% of old growth forests remaining in the U.S. Before European colonization, almost the entire continent was covered in old growth forest. Five hundred individuals have volunteered so far to join and make the effort in their county—16 forests have an old growth designation.

There’s a wealth of original material, like seeds, still in place even though 99% was logged and plowed under for cities and farms. Forest managers in the U.S. won’t let forests grow untouched for the hundreds of years it will take to reestablish as old growth. States have refused to set aside forests that are not logged at all.

“The forest managers say, ‘if we don’t log them now, they’ll just die.’ Exactly. We need dead trees for new ones to grow. The arguments are so subtle for forest preservation.”

In order to build a case, Maloof set out to visit the remaining old growth or virgin forests in America. She wanted to field test if they offered greater beauty, more biodiversity and resilience than the second and third growth forests we see in places like the Cleveland Metroparks.

“I saw some of the healthiest forests,” she told an audience at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s 2012 Conservation Symposium. “In Cook Forest (PA), I saw many National Champion trees. I saw the remnants of American Chestnuts still releasing their carbon, still serving as habitat. In Johnson Woods (OH), I saw what old Ohio looked like.”

The ecological services of old growth forests are great. “In younger forests, the uptake is faster, but the total carbon stored is higher in old growth. In old growth forests, fresh, cool water is flowing even in this summer drought. The soil is so deep, it’s like a sponge. And in forests like the Congaree National Park (SC) you experience a real sense of the wild. It has the tallest tree canopy in the east. ”

Part of the problem may be what Dr. David Suzuki said last week: We’ve evolved into short-term thinkers.

“I think my forest management friends haven’t experienced (old growth) because they are so far apart. There’s hundreds of miles between them.”

The goal is to bring the sense of wildness closer to people; kids growing up in city and suburb. “Otherwise, who will be the future audience of natural history museums and natural areas they’re protecting?”

Standing in front of a slide of clearcut forest, Maloof said, “This is an FSC certified forest.”

The shock effect worked—not a stir in the cavernous auditorium. When we think of ‘doing the right thing’ by buying paper with the little FSC symbol, we picture dense green canopies of well-managed forest. But apparently FSC forests are low grade and clear cut. In fact, most of America’s eastern forest is a patchwork of Metro and state parks, pine tree plantations, and private land.

“Fiber is a significant resource,” admits Dr. Maloof, “but a portion of our forest should be preserved.”

Maloof hopes you’ll call her or write an email to have her help you get started. Her criteria for an old growth forest in each of the counties of the U.S. are:

  1. As mature and native as possible
  2. Open to the public
  3. Relatively accessible
  4. Has a sense of the wild

For more information or to nominate a forest in your county, check out the Old Growth Forest Network web site.

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