New York’s great Adirondack Park is the East’s biggest stronghold for original forest. However we define and name it — primeval, primary, ancient, old growth, and first growth being other overlapping or synonymous descriptors — natural, uncut forest is easier to find in the Adirondacks than in any other eastern landscape.
Adirondack Park is a partial exception to a general rule: European colonizers cleared the original forests as they swept west across temperate North America. Rugged, inaccessible, or miraculously lucky old-growth forest survived in scattered patches, but the matrix forest was cleared or high-graded. The few large concentrations of original forest in the East include:
- about 150,000 acres of old-growth Eastern Deciduous Forest saved by school children and the Rockefellers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee;
- hundreds of thousands of uncut Boreal and Northern Forest acres saved by conservationists in Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park, Minnesota and Ontario;
- an extraordinary array of occasionally bombed but never cut Longleaf Pine stands in Eglin Air Force Base, Florida Panhandle;
- 11,000 acres of bottomland forest saved in Congaree Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina;
- many grand hemlock and pine groves in Pennsylvania’s state parks (commonly established around waterfalls);
- 5000 uncut acres saved in the Great Gulf of New Hampshire’s White Mountains;
- 5000 miraculously spared acres protected by The Nature Conservancy around Big Reed Pond in otherwise badly overcut northern Maine;
- perhaps sixty thousand acres of largely-upper-elevation forest in New York’s Catskill Park;
- and our own park’s hundreds of thousands of acres of original Northern Forest — which, like the Catskills, got saved thanks to far-seeing New Yorkers of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Indeed, research by the late historian Barbara McMartin, by retired Paul Smith’s College ecologist Mike Kudish, by Native Tree Society founder Bob Leverett (the East’s preeminent old-growth sleuth), by the late environmental researcher Mary Byrd Davis (my mother), and by other forest advocates suggests that Adirondack Park may have as much as half a million acres of old-growth forest. Much of this is upper elevation, stunted, spruce-fir forest, but extensive mid-elevation areas remain intact, too.
Fortunately, then, we can find old-growth forest, and see neighbors who thrive therein, near our Adirondack homes. The Champlain Valley and West Champlain Hills have mostly been logged over a time or two or three, but some forests here — especially in Split Rock Wildway — are being allowed to regain old-growth characteristics; and not far west, many pockets and even some big expanses of old-growth survive.
Importance of Old Growth Forests
The importance of uncut, old-growth forest is as much aesthetic and spiritual as it is scientific. The differences between original forest and mature second-growth forest may only be obvious to forest ecologists, but they are profound, quite literally, extending deep into the soil, as well as high into the canopy, at least for some forest types. The unique ecological attributes of old growth are described beautifully by forest ecologist Joan Maloof in her book NATURE’S TEMPLES: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests.
I’ve had the pleasure of tagging along with Joan Maloof and Bob Leverett and other experts in old forests many times. It is a magical experience, with my guides pointing to wildflowers and fungi and lichens and gnarled old trees that I’d not have noticed, had I been going my usual hurried pace, but that add immensely to the forest’s majesty. On woods walks and in her books, Joan explains how because of their multi-layered structure and great biomass, old-growth forests generally surpass managed forests for diversity and abundance of wildflowers, lichens, mosses and liverworts, snails, salamanders, and songbirds. Joan describes research that (counter to what some industry officials would have us believe) proves old-growth forests also sequester more carbon per acre than do younger forests, helping offset humanity’s excessive, climate-destabilizing carbon emissions.
We may not have in the East the equivalent of the Spotted Owl — a charismatic old-growth-dependent endangered bird of western forests — but we have many species who are likely to fare best (especially amid climate chaos) in natural, unlogged forest. These include American Marten, thrushes, warblers, lilies, orchids, and foliose lichens.
Visiting Original Forest
If you’d like to see old growth nearby, a short hike up Gill Brook on the public trail through AuSable Club land takes you into a nice example of original Northern Forest. On a little walk there a few years ago, Bob Leverett measured a Red Spruce (which I’d unwittingly walked right past several times) at 111 feet, lofty for this usually modest species. A little more distant is expansive old-growth near Ampersand Mountain in Saranac Lake Wild Forest. Excitingly, Bob Leverett’s son Rob has been finding previously unnoticed groves of towering White Pines and Eastern Hemlocks and Northern Hardwoods northeast of Ampersand and just a short distance south of Route 3.
If you have more time, a classic old-growth trip is to paddle up the Oswegatchie River in the western Adirondacks and then hike into the heart of Five Ponds Wilderness, where survives (on the south side of the Herkimer/St Lawrence County line, for reasons of historic fortuity) a fifty-thousand acre expanse of uncut (though oft wind-battered) forest.
Learn more about Old Growth Forests
To learn more about old-growth forest, follow the Native Tree Society and Old-Growth Forest Network. Joan Maloof founded the Old-Growth Forest Network a few years ago to document, register, and protect old-growth remnants throughout the country; and already OGFN has scores of sites in its registry. (Visit “How does one recognize an old-growth forest in the Adirondacks?” to find a fact sheet by Bob Leverett and the Old-Growth Forest Network offering details on recognizing old growth.)
If you own forest land, you will serve well all your neighbors — wild and human — by letting it grow big and old. Along with all their important biological attributes, old forests are beautiful, mysterious, diverse places, worthy of our protection and veneration.
[Note: Special thanks to Rob Leverett for permission to include his illustrations in this blog post.]