if yer not forest,
yer aginst us
Ancient Forests
Old Growth
Heritage Forests
Climate Change
Vanishing Forests

Eastern Old-Growth Forests

by Robert Leverett
adapted from
Old-Growth in the East: A Survey
Foreward: A New Perspective

Demise of Eastern Forests

Magnificent forests existed in eastern North America before Europeans arrived and began to clear land of timber. Early American naturalist William Bartram described a Black Oak forest with trees over 30 feet in circumference. New England accounts depict 200-foot tall White Pine—giants coveted by the Royal Navy for ship masts. By 1700, they had vanished. Today, all the tall White Pine are gone. Also gone are 10-foot diameter Eastern Sycamores in Ohio and Tennessee Valleys. Gone is the mighty American Chestnut. Gone are huge Appalachian Tulip Poplars with crowns 150 feet above forest floors, their legendary girths often over 25 feet. Gone, too, are giant Baldcypress of Southern swamps—trees more suited to when dinosaurs roamed.

Most of Eastern America was settled by Europeans 300 to 400 years ago as ancient forests were cleared for farms. Much timber was simply piled and burned to make charcoal and potash. Fertile yet fragile virgin soils were overfarmed and quickly depleted, and most early farms were soon abandoned. Private parcels changed hands repeatedly, and each new owner stripped whatever forest cover had regrown.

By the turn of the century, in Wisconsin, all but 80 acres of virgin timber was cut, and all virgin timber in Minnesota was cut. Twentieth century logging left only small areas of timber untouched. By the Governor's request, a measly 4 acres on Mount Mitchell's summit were spared. Before creation of national forests, most virgin timber in them were cut over, and, because of loggers' bad methods, woods were left in a bad state.

By the 1940s, surviving Eastern old growth was limited to scattered small acres in public forests. Clearcutting continued in mountain regions and far North into the 50s. Today, we are left with juvenile replacement forests under siege from disease, pests, air pollution, and overcutting.

Eastern forests struggle to revive, but centuries must elapse before they regain their former glory. As long as soil isn't stripped of nutrients and rainfall is adequate, Eastern forests will grow back after being cut, since the natural vegetation cover for the East is forest.

Eastern Old-Growth Remnants

The common belief is that only an tiny fraction of original forest in the eastern United States remains. Except a few very small private reserves, and small holdings by environmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, clearcutting of original forests on private land seems incontestable.

The East has no vast tracts of virgin forest left, but has numerous little pieces—far more than previously thought. The total acreage is admittedly small by Western standards, but not as small as land managers claim. Major differences of opinion exist in some areas.

Official studies place public forest reserves (state and national forests and parks) in old-growth at zero to less than one percent. Old-growth further Northeast is usually placed at less than a tenth of one percent. Exceptions include:
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (20 to 25 percent)
  • New York's Adirondack Park (2.5 to 5 percent)
  • Michigan Upper Peninsula
  • northern Minnesota.
  • private timber in northern Maine and New Hampshire
  • parts of the Arkansas Ozarks
  • Ancient Forests
    of North America

    click to enlarge map

    Yet, more old growth continues to be discovered. David Stahle at University of Arkansas' Tree Ring Laboratory confirmed over 40,000 old-growth acres in the Boston Mountains not previously recognized. Substantial Florida pine acres may be old growth. Even in the populous Northeast, little "old-growth gems" were found recently, with at least 23 sites in thickly settled Massachusetts.

    Millions rallied to defend tropical rainforests and California Redwoods. But irreplaceable Eastern old-growth were largely ignored. Yet, we must insure that fragments of original Eastern forest are recognized and protected as part of a priceless natural heritage we almost lost.

    The Value of Eastern Old-Growth

    Natural heritage is no less important than great works of art and architecture. Our ancient forests are more than mere symbols of that heritage. The old trees are the sentinels of the Earth. When they are snuffed out by pollution, or the fiber of their hulking forms converted to paper, all humanity is reduced.

    Ancient forests have great scientific significance—an absolute necessity for future studies of the natural distribution of flora. Scientific research is indispensable to unraveling the secrets of Nature's grand design. Eastern old-growth forest remnants are crucial to biological diversity and the environment's general health. These oldest Eastern trees cling tenaciously to life after a millennium of struggle, bearing silent testament to Nature's diversity. The case can be made strictly on the grounds that so little Eastern old-growth is left.

    Further, to plan cutting methods to assure a sustainable forest, we need unmodified stands to compare with human modification. We need buffers against our mistakes. Innumerable laws of nature can never be understood without access to the primeval conditions to serve as experimental control. These scientific values are generally recognized, and both Forest Service and Park Service are beginning to preserve old growth.

    For many of us, though, ancient forests possess values that lie beyond science. Ancient forests provide us a sense of inner peace and tranquility. Primeval woodlands tie us to an Earth like the one our ancestors knew. Towering trees with spread limbs, sculpted by centuries battling the elements, are Nature's grandest creations. To walk under the giant Tulip Poplars of Joyce Kilmer, or stand silent beneath towering pines on remote Adirondack lakes, we know that old-growth can be transcendental. Arboreal treasures were the source of inspiration for many great thinkers, such as William Cullen Bryant, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Robert Frost, and Aldo Leopold.

    We need real forests, not sterile tree farms with military rows of pencil-sized stems doused with herbicides and pesticides, periodically scalped to bare soil. A large percent of our land must be kept as real forests in all stages of succession. We need to allow old-growth forests to return on a broad scale.

    Rediscovering Eastern Old Growth

    Until recently, state and federal managers insisted lands were completely inventoried for old growth, and rejected the idea any remains to be discovered. There weren't supposed to be any discoveries left to be made.

    Yet undocumented old growth still exists. An impressive number of new sites were found in the last decade. The size of this remnant gives lie to the institutionalized dogma of denial.

    East of the Mississippi, there are over 15,300,000 acres of National Forest, and another 2,780,000 acres in National Parks. State forests and parks, excluding New York's Adirondack and Catskill Parks, increase this to 27,000,000. States just west of the Mississippi—Arkansas, Missouri and Minnesota—add 6,730,000 acres of National Forest and 223,000 acres of National Parks to total nearly 34,000,000 acres of public forest—53,125 square miles—an area slightly larger than North Carolina.

    This vast region is now about 48 percent forested. A mere half percent of this yields 1,740,000 acres. Bob Leverett suggests that 750,000 to a million acres can be classified as old-growth—double to three times previous estimates, and many small stands have been missed, waiting to be discovered.

    The Debate about Definitions

    Old-growth definitions come from two distinct groups with different focuses—natural scientists (mostly botanists and ecologists) and the timber industry.

    Professional forestry uses economics to define old-growth, since their concern is commercial timber. "Over-mature" and "old-growth" are often synonymous to them. Second-growth forests with trees 100-150 years old are likely called old-growth.

    Old growth enthusiasts, using a scientific approach, believe one definition is too broad for the East's wide variety of forest types. So they concentrate on characteristics old-growth forests share in common. Ecologists once believed old-growth is a climax state where a balance of renewal and destruction mean the forest changes little for thousands of years. But forests are dynamic; composition, age structure and overall character change over short time periods.

    Yet, criteria can be developed from common characteristics that, if not too rigidly defined nor dogmatically applied, provide a basis for classification.

    Old-Growth Characteristics

    Advanced Age of Trees in a sizable percent of mature trees. Virgin, open, park-like conditions with as few as five large, mature trees per acre.

    Random disturbances create uneven age distributions. Ideally, old-growth will exhibit a wide range of ages. Older trees may be either thickly or sparsely distributed. The number of older trees per acre can vary greatly even within the same tract; 40 to 60 old trees per acre isn't unusual.

    Ideally, 50 percent of mature trees are at least half the maximum age for those species, and a few approach the maximum ages attainable. At least two Pennsylvania Eastern Hemlock stands have trees dated over 900 years. However, 350-450 years is a more common age maximum for Hemlock.

    Downed Logs
    Fallen tres and limbs, and other woody debris highly conspicuous inold growth. Moss species growing near one another. A mosaic of fungi, lichens and mosses that's visually striking and contrasts markedly with sparser distributions in younger forests. Yet, some old-growth exhibits little understory vegetation and a rather barren floor.

    Pit and Mound Topography
    An uneven, up-and-down topography is created by windthrow mounds in varied stages of erosion. This indicates a forest hasn't had significant human impact for a long time. Uprooted trees produce cradles that persist several hundred years; logging and pasturing smooth out windthrow mounds.

    Representative Species Distribution
    Many forest types exist in the East: boreal, northern hardwood, oak-hickory, southern hardwood, Appalachian cove are the broad classes. Within them, many sub-classes exist. Most have what are called "indicator species." But forest types overlap, and it can be hard to determine the natural composition of a specific site. Light-loving species (Paper Birch, Bigtooth Aspen, White Ash, Black Cherry) usually take over after a large disturbance

    Absence of Human Disturbance
    Old trees alone aren't sufficient to identify old-growth. Selective logging and other human actions may damage a stand's natural integrity. Consequently, most old-growth definitions adopted by scientists prohibit past human activity. Cut stumps, old rock walls, apple trees, unmistakably indicate human intrusion, and, if widespread, are inconsistent with the idea of old-growth. Multiple trunks and root sprouts are good indicators of cutting. Northern Red Oak and Red Maple are prolific stump sprouters.

    Analysis of an area's history may produce circumstantial evidence. For instance, absence of a particular species may be the result of selective logging. With no direct evidence of human interference, and all other old-growth characteristics present, an area can be considered old-growth. The prevailing perception is that virgin forest is supposed to be visually spectacular. Old-growth is supposed to have big trees.

    Size, Age and Appearance of Eastern Old-Growth

    Remnant stands of Eastern old-growth bear scant resemblance to the Pacific Coast old-growth conifers. Eastern trees are mere infants compared to the great trees of the Pacific Northwest. Further, the wide variety of forest communities in the East differ markedly in physical characteristics and appearance.

    Within a forest, or even within the same stand, tree size for comparably aged trees can vary widely. Red Spruce is a case in point. In higher altitudes of New Hampshire's White Mountains, spruce may reach 70-foot heights and 6-foot circumference. Red spruce in favorable areas of New York Adirondacks may exceed 100-foot height and 8-foot girth. Great Smoky Mountain Red Spruce exceed 135-foot height and 10-foot girth (one reached 162 feet height). The national champion Red Spruce, located in the Smokies, measures over 14-foot girth and 123 feet high.

    Site conditions and genetics of trees that make up a stand in an area must be taken into consideration. Girths and heights achieved by vigorous second growth in favorable may exceed the sizes of the largest trees in an adjacent old-growth area.

    PHOTO: DYarrow 12/1/01
    Lisha Kill Forest Preserve
    Niskayuna, NY
    Bob Leverett
    leads the way
    into an Ancient Forest
    Lisha Kill Forest Preserve, Niskayuna, NY
    Bob Leverett
    PHOTO: DYarrow 9/23/2000
    computer scientist, consultant
    college instructor
    Wild Earth journal named
    "the East's old growth evangelist"

    discovered & verified
    hundreds of old-growth stands
    organized old growth conferences
    leads conservation group walks

    co-founder & executive director
    Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest

    All this and more
    in spare time as his "hobby"
    —his personal passion

    PHOTO: DYarrow 2/1/02
    Ancient Yellow Birch
    Schunemunk Mountain
    Orange County, New York

    Recognizing Old-Growth

    Tree age and size doesn't correlate well, yet it's possible to develop sufficient skill to recognize age characteristics of particular species and thus identify old trees by sight alone.

    Yellow Birch in advanced age is very conspicuous as young, yellowish peeling bark is replaced by whitish-gray plates with a broken-up, shingle-like appearance, and are usually thicker on one side of the tree, particularly concave areas of the trunk.

    Red Maple shows advanced age with brownish-gray bark strips that curl conspicuously outward. At a distance, some people confuse old Red Maple bark with Shagbark Hickory.

    Tulip Poplar have unmistakable symmetry when young, with elbow-like branches, spear-shaped crown, and slightly furrowed bark. With age, the Tulip Poplar changes shape and bark texture. Thick ridges and deep furrows develop, later flattening with extremely advanced age as outer bark is lost. Old crowns are broad and foliage clumped.

    Eastern Hemlock is easy to age by sight. Young bark is greenish-brown to brown; old bark is a rusty brown to almost reddish. Deeply furrowed bark, massive root structures and stubby branches are marks of age.

    White Pine old-growth specimens are easy to recognize. Bark is deeply furrowed. With truly great age, bark scales fall off, and the pine looks increasing "platy." Crowns usually flatten, foliage sparse and irregular.
    Hemlock, White Pine & Hardwoods
    Cook Forest State Park
    Cooksburg, Pennsylvania
    PHOTO: DYarrow 4/21/02
    Ancient Hemlock & Tulip Poplar
    Green Lakes State Park
    Fayetteville, New York
    PHOTO: DYarrow 11/17/01
    PHOTO: DYarrow 4/13/02
    The Ancient Forest
    Palmaghatt Kill, Minnewaska State Park
    300-500 year old hemlocks
    Old Growth Hemlock & Oak
    Old Maids' Woods
    Schenectady, New York
    PHOTO: DYarrow 12/20/01
    Dwarf Ancient Pitch Pine
    Schunemunk Mountain
    Orange County, New York
    PHOTO: DYarrow 2/10/02
    Old Growth Beech
    Saratoga Spa State Park
    Saratoga Springs, New York
    PHOTO: DYarrow 3/9/02

    The Earth Restoration and Reforestation Alliancewww.championtrees.orgupdated 4/14/2003