Another Worthy Conservation Priority: Old-Growth Forest

The Lynchburg News-Advance has an article about the “500-Year Forest Foundation.” The Lynchburg-based foundation is raising money to identify three privately owned woodlands in the state, at least 100 acres in expanse, that exhibit the potential to evolve into “old growth” forest.

Only 0.25% to 0.5% of the forest in the Eastern United States is old growth, where the trees are at least 150 years old. The rest has been cut for lumber at some point in the not-too-distant past. Old-growth forests have especially rich habitats, thus are especially important to preserve — and build upon. The Foundation, states the article, wants to “match forests that have the potential for old growth with land already protected under conservation easements.”

As a number of readers have commented in previous posts about Virginia’s land conservation programs, the state needs a system for prioritizing the distribution of land conservation easements. Land containing rare habitat such as old-growth forest should be a much higher priority for benefiting from the tax abatements than farmland or run-of-the-mill woodland.

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11 responses to “Another Worthy Conservation Priority: Old-Growth Forest”

  1. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    I wrote about creating Old Growth belts across and up and down the Commonwealth – like the Appalachian Trail – continuous belts of Old Growth … in the Rebellion last summer. Here too, http://www.americancivilization.

    Glad others are actually working to achieve some progress.

    Still like my idea. Maybe when I retire I can put more time into it. I’d be happy if others worked it. You take some sweet Virginia soil, let it grow naturally for a couple of hundred years and there it is – done.

  2. And while we are at it, lets not forget that such trees are a valuable resource themselves. Just because a tree is 150 years old is no reason to let it slowly succumb to rot and disease when it is eventually past its prime.

    You would like to maintain the forest at something like 30% young trees, 50% mature trees, and 20% overmature. This is going to require occasionally removing both mature and overmature trees, and you would like to remove the worst of these, not the best.

    That stuff you buy in the lumber yard is grown in 20 years and it is mostly water and fertilizer. The tight grained hardwoods grown in a competitive environment are so valuable they are being salvaged from the bottom of the great lakes.

    I’d also point out that some of our oldest growth these days is in the urban forests. Obviously these don’t provide the same kind of habitat, but we should have plans to find the best uses for valuable timber, supporting craftsmen, furniture makers, ship restorations, and artists. Every time a storm comes through and wipes out a bunch of them, watching what the cleanup crews do to them is enough to make you weep.

    After the 200 year tree is gone, we should be able to, and plan to, enjoy it for another 300 or so.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Ray – you miss the point. A tree continues to have ecological value once it begins to rot.

    Yes, trees are a renewable resource and the Sierra Club went way, way, way off the deep end when they proposed a zero harvest rule for the the national forest system, but some old trees should be allowed to get old and die on the stump.

    I own some substantial timber and the loggers drool over my oaks and always warn me that the trees will lose “value” as they get older. I say bull, they gain value to woodpeckers, warblers, and eventually after they fall, the soil and the woodland critters.

    At last check, we don’t have a shortage of hardwood in this country so I’m content to let it grow and die on the stump, just as God intended.

  4. Agreed, they have value where they are. And don’t listen to what the loggers tell you.

    If you want to let a $5,000 tree become habitat for woodpeckers and eventually return to the soil, that is your choice. I imagine that there is plenty of less valuable material that can be left to rot preferentially.

    For myself, I’d prefer to see such material converted into something beautiful that people can enjoy and admire for generations. I’m not sure if God gave us trees so we could spend 1500 hours on a fine cabinet, or if that is our punishment for cutting them down.

    Notice that I don’t suggest we take it all, or even the best. Foresters are conviced that our habit of taking the best trees has reduced the genetic quality of what remains, and careful culling will produce better stock in the long run.

    There is no shortage of ordinary hardwood in this country, but for certain applications fine material is hard to come by and prices are increasing. There are over 700 companies that recycle various kinds of wood products, mostly for mulch and fuel, but there is a growing market in recycled rare wood such as Southern Yellow Pine and Chestnut.

    Historic ship preservationists comb the countryside looking for grown knees and other rare stock. Rare Hardwoods are Walnut, Cherry, Royal Paulownia, Persimmon, Coffee Tree, and Yews; some Cypress, White Oaks, and specimen trees not commonly marketed, as well as exceptionlly tight grained or wide sections, curly, or highly figured specimens. The more common of such materials are marketed as flooring at prices of $7 to $13 a square foot and the better material is highly prized.

    The forester told me a story of driving in the southern part of the county. He happened upn a man that was clearing out the trees that were crowding his driveway, and had bulldozed a number of them into a burn pile.

    The forester stopped him and told him they were valuable Paulonia trees and he had just burned $60,000 worth of timber.

    All I’m saying is that a completely hands off approach may not be the best means of conservation, or the best use of resources. If it works for you, and they are your trees, my hat is off to you.

  5. Uhmm, there are very few places that haven’t been cut over. Regardless of that issue, old growth forests don’t provide the type of varied habitat (like clearings) that many types of wildlife and flora/fauna need in order to compete with hardwood species. I get a kick out of the cry to preserve “old growth”. I don’t know why people think old growth is somehow to be more valued then new growth forests. These types of people are being selfish because nature will always take its own time in returning any type of land into forest, it just wont happen in any one person’s lifetime. In the meantime, forested land is a resource that can be managed for diversity and health, enjoyed for recreation and harvested for its commidities.

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Wood has to be grown as a crop if it is to be harvested as a product.

    Imagine letting corn grow “wild” then “culling” the best stalks and leaving the rest for the critters to eat and live in…. diversity… Tell me what kind of a combine you’d use for that task.

    Trees ARE grown as crops… and they are planted the same way.. in rows… so that later.. heavy equipment can move in to harvest them rather than try to work around some trees to get to the others.

    Old Growth… is typically forests growing on difficult terrain.. that’s why they got old… in many cases.

    “Harvesting” them means putting in very marginal temporary dirt roads.. essentially running bulldozers up and down steep terrain and through small creeks…etc..

    So.. there is no such thing as “culling” the trees that should be harvested before they die. Very few timber companies will agree to harvest trees in that fashion nor will they agree to build proper roads that don’t result in erosion and run-off. To do so would increase their costs to the point that the trees would not be worth it.

    It’s a myth and a public misconcepton that using perfectly useful trees before they fall and rot is the issue.
    The issue.. is about money… and quick returns on investment…

    What the argument is about.. is that Lumber Companies don’t want to plant trees and wait 100 years to sell a more valueable commodity than 20-year-old wood… like a vintage wine that has to age…. They want the trees… NOW..
    and they usually sell the land after they cut them.. rather than replant for the next 100 year-old trees.

  7. Larry is mostly right, but it does not have to be that way. Also, I think some of what you say applies to softwoods: I don’t know of any hardwood forests that are planted in rows, although I’m sure there are some. I, and several of my neighbors have planted softwood trees 25 years ago that are now ready to harvest. If you are not interested in running a farm, you can be a tree farm and still get land use preference.

    If you want a quick return on your investment, don’t plan on growing walnut. But that does not mean that with careful planning, carried out over generations, that you can’t have a hardwood forest that generates continual returns, even if they are smaller than a one time clear cut. I once read a story about a Virginia woman wh makes her entire living off of fifty acres of forest, as her family has for generations. She knows exactly how to market every scrap she grows.

    I cull my trees, but the opposite way you describe. I take out the worst ones first, and then i work with the log to take what L can get. (I’ll concede it is hard but not impossible to get a logger to work this way, you just have to write the contract YOU want, and see who will pay the most for it.) I take out ones that have been overtopped and will die or get distorted anyway, and ones that have fallen. Twins, unwanted species etc. I prune the lower trunks to keep knots out. I thin the forest to promote faster growth of the best trees. I space the trees far enough apart so they have air and light, but not so far that they get bushy. I trim the vines that try to kill them.

    I work only with the smallest equipment, taking the mill to the forest so that everything that is waste stays as it would have otherwise. I use a dolly on one end of the log and pick up the other end with a small tractor, that way I can move a log without tearing up the soil and smashing all the underbrush. It is not a huge business, but it is about 30% of my farm income. I am now starting to convert the material to finished products, so I expect that figure will go up.

    There are a growing number of loggers wo work on a minimum disturbance ethic, even using horses where necessary. Don’t paint everyone who works in the woods with the same brush.

    It is not true that there is no such thing culling for the best trees: that is commonly done, but it is increasingly being viewed as a bad practice because it leaves the worst genetic stock behind, just as your corn example would do. The trick is to read the forest: when you have two good trees that are crowding each other, one of them has to go. By doing this you can increase the growth by more than 20%, so it isn’t even a global warming issue.

    You can get good products out, without destrying what is there. Or, if you are a pure naturalist and you can afford it, you can operate as Anonymous does. That is perfectly fine, and I’m glad there are people who feel that way. All I’m saying is that a morally righteous, knee jerk, save everything, tree hugging, damn the loggers reaction, isn’t always necessary and doesn’t always reflect the facts of what is going on.

    To those that have a different view, such a reaction only reinforces the idea that conservationists are increasingly becoming eco-terrorists, economic idiots, and nut cases, which I think is bad for conservationists everywhere.

    On the other hand, rational and attainable suggestions such as JAB’s tree lanes idea serve us all very well.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    At one time I thought harvesting old growth was a lousy idea. Anyone doing it should be strung up by their thumbs, or worse! Now I think it’s a great idea….as long as it is done well by people that care about the whole forest. Let trees grow old, scenic, and supportive of biodiversity and ecosystem processes, but at some point cut them down. Not all of them and not all at once. Just cut enough and just often enough to generate income that can be used to control exotic species; to maintain erosion causing trails and roads; to pay land taxes so the owner need not subdivide and sell the land; to create jobs for sensitive loggers, cabinet makers, and natural resource professionals who devote their lives to caring for forests; to generate a natural resource economy on which a community, schools, hospitals, and libraries can be built; and take local responsibility for producing our fiber needs instead of importing those products and exporting environmental degradation to people and places that can least afford it. The harvesting must and can take place in a fashion that prevents soil erosion and leaves behind leafs, limbs and other nutrients. The soil under this forest would still thrive and even grow deeper and richer with time. Yes, I’d like to see many compassionately managed old growth forests in my community. I’m all for harvesting old growth.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Good discusion. Just keep in mind that 2×4’s comes from soft woods… often commercially grown as “crops” and hardwoods like oak, walnut, hickory, etc are much harder to cultivate as viable “crops”.

    As I pointed out and Ray confirmed, most commercial loggers will not “harvest” old growth unless they can pretty much knock down everything they don’t want…and send their logging equipment through the forest….the roads are needed for the hauling trucks.

    If you don’t believe me.. walk through an old growth forest and imagine trying to drive you car through it. There is no way in most cases… the smaller trees have to come down… and these smaller trees are what – if not removed – ultimately replace the older trees and maintain the forest as “old growth”.

    So, essentially, you kill the younger trees to get to the older ones.

    Now the loggers who WILL harvest by not destroying the other trees – you have to realize that it’s not a commercial activity. It’s a cottage industry/activity .. much like those that make guitars by hand.. that sell for thousands more than those made in a factory.

    If these loggers were to sell their lumber to Lowes.. it would easily cost 10 times what a 2×4 costs because of the amount of manpower and labor required to harvest them.

  10. Anonymous 5:00 :

    Touché. I love good sarcasm.

    I yield the high moral ground and the wit to defend it: clearly you have more (and better) resources than I.

    I propose a deal as a peace offering: I’ll agree not to cut down one of my finest trees, if you’ll agree to buy it from me.

    Larry, if you go to Lowes, and if you can find a piece of 1x8x8 oak there, you will find out that it does cost more than ten times what a similar piece of pine costs. I will gladly sell it for half of Lowes price, and still make a profit. The only difference is, when I run out, I’m out. I’m not willing to sell my seed corn. Put it this way, If I cut down a tree, then I have clear cut a space 20’feet x 20 feet. It will grow back eventually. The commercial guys just clear cut a much larger space at once. And, they go to much greater lengths than I do to ensure that every bit of it is used productively, sawdust and all.

    I don’t distinguish between a cotttage industry and an industry as not being commerical. Hobby farms are still farms. A guy who builds one home ata time is still a developer. And as I pointed out you can write a logging contract any way you please and commercial loggers will bid on it, it is just that the more restictions you place the lower the price you will get.

    No one will notice if I cut down one tree. And there is little dissent if you want to build one home. It’s the big guys that cause the problems, and they make it hard for the little guy because of their transgressions, and the speed at which they can operate.

  11. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Old Growth and Managed,harvested growth aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Virginia is big enough to have special areas – like the bands across the Commonwealth I propose – for Old Growth and plenty of trees as crops.

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