When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Western Hemisphere, America east of the Mississippi was sheltered by a thick cover of tall, majestic trees—an ancient forest of grandiose dimensions that had persisted for uncounted centuries. Botanical pioneer William Bartram described groves of trees of astonishing dimensions—such as a huge forest of black oak up to 30 feet in girth—sheltering an understory rich with diversity and beauty. George Washington wrote about Sycamore trees in the Ohio River over 60 feet in circumference. George Marsh, America's first ecologist, wrote about White Pine in New England measured at 240 feet tall.
Quickly, European settlers cut the trees down to clear the land and convert that magnificent forest into farms, timber, charcoal, and potash. Early colonists took it as a man's duty to cut down trees and remove rocks to create open fields to grow food for home and market. The amount of ancient forest east of the Mississippi shrank to such a tiny scale that the common assumption was that it didn't even exist—that all the first growth forests had been cut.
Now, in the 21st Century, only a tiny remnant of virgin forest—less than a quarter of one percent—survives. Many more acres have regrown with secondary stands of mature trees which often approximate the once-great Eastern forests. Most of these ancient forest remnants and second-growth old growth are in national and state forest preserves, with smaller tracts owned by environmental organizations, private citizens and timber companies.
to Eastern Old-Growth
In the 1980s, an effort began to systematically locate, document and inventory the remaining Eastern old growth forests. Academic researchers, environmental groups, arborists, and forest enthusiasts began organized, methodical surveys to find forgotten forests in mountains, ravines, swamps, cliffs, and other extreme topographies.
Surprising amounts of old growth were discovered—much more than expected or predicted. Including amazing discoveries of untouched or barely distured ancient forests in the East's major metropolitan centers. Bob Leverett of Chicopee, Massachusetts began his investigations at Harvard Forest of Harvard University, and has been a steady leader of this rediscovery of ancient forests.
These discoveries have gradually brought about a reassessment of forest policy and practices. As science and bureaucracy adjust to this unexpected re-appearance of ancient forests into public awareness and policy, a new vision of forestry is emerging. As of 1989, National Forests are now required to incorporate old growth forests into their Forest Management Plans, and now many states are recognizing old growth resources, and adopting new forest management plans and policies. Five Eastern Old Growth Forest conferences were held through the 90s, co-sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and a dozen State Universities, to assemble the leading investigators and their information.
Scientific research can study the dynamics that sustain these ancient forest communities to provide principles for their survival, health and ongoing evolution. These insights can foster an enlightened and sustainable forestry for the new millennium. The forests themselves are test plots to reveal the growth potential of tree species, and may be genetic reservoirs for the regeneration of other land into old growth character.