The Old-Growth Forest Network

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.


— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie

On Memorial Day, my family visited Hueston Woods State Park in southwestern Ohio to take an orienteering course offered by the rangers. After romping around the woods, our instructor urged us to visit a spot in the adjoining nature preserve called The Big Woods. This section is filled with ancient, champion trees, including what is possibly the tallest in the state: a tuliptree over 176 feet high.

As dendrophiles, we needed little prodding. We hopped on a trail that wandered through a stand of massive beeches, sugar maples, white ashes, and towering tulips. A sign at the trailhead notes that the Big Woods are part of the Old-Growth Forest Network, which prompted my mind to time travel to other forests we’ve visited. Standing among archaic trees provides one of the most impressive senses of calmness and perspective I have encountered outdoors. Some of my favorite memories are walking among the loblolly pines, sweetgums, and oaks of Congaree National Park, the Estivant white pines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the giant sequoias of California.

Pondering these places made me consider the notion of old-growth forests in general and the vast variance among forests. What constitutes old-growth forest and what do they look like?
The sign at the Big Woods in Hueston Woods State Park - photo by Kyle Stout
Deb S. in the Big Woods - photo by Kyle Stout

Walking through the Big Woods, one might never realize how special the spot is. The trees are big and old – some perhaps upwards of 300 years – but this tract might disappoint someone who expects old-growth forest to look like Sequoia National Park or the ents of Middle Earth. Photographing trees always makes them look tinier than they are (see the photo of General Sherman below), but one could drive by the Big Woods and never know centuries of natural history lay nearby.

Forests are not monoliths, and three-century forests composed of differing species will look vastly distinct. When speaking of these ancient forests, several terms commonly arise. Old-growth forests, broadly defined, are those that have grown for long periods without disturbance. Virgin forests, sometimes called first-growth forests, are trees that have never been logged. Most of the time, virgin forests also happen to be old-growth forests, but not all old-growth forests are virgin. A more technical definition of OGFs revolves around the maturity of a region. Tall, old trees populate these forests, with multi-layered canopies, canopy gaps, and woody debris on the floor. Old-growth forests are supreme, diverse ecosystems. Mature ecosystems can develop after logging, turning a forest into old-growth but not first-growth. It’s also possible for virgin forests not to be old-growth forests, though the circumstances are rare. New forests emerging naturally – perhaps thanks to wildfire or climate change – would constitute young, virgin woods. Further complicating the situation is the term primeval forest. By some definitions, this status denotes a forest never significantly altered by humans. Virgin forests might never have been logged, but they could have been transformed in other ways, through hydrology, farming, or numerous other methods. The forest primeval is a spot unchanged from its natural blossoming. These locations are exceedingly uncommon on today’s Earth.

The definitions of these terms tend to be ambiguous. How mature must a forest be to become old growth? How far back does a forest need to stretch untouched to be primeval? Discussions about the Big Woods among tree-loving friends prompted the question about its status. Is this stretch simply old-growth forest or is it virgin, or both? Begat by a man who served with General Anthony Wayne in the early 1800s, the Big Woods represent the forest that covered much of Ohio during this period. Matthew Hueston cleared a lot of the land he purchased for farming but decided to save a section of trees for his descendants. The Big Woods are definitely old-growth forest; some of the trees are older than the United States and the ecosystem is unquestionably mature. Some sources stop at old-growth, but according to the National Parks Service and the Audubon Society, this parcel has never been cut, making it first-growth.

Deb S. at the world's largest tree - photo by Kyle Stout

Though the existence of primeval and virgin forests might pique the imaginations of nature lovers, the distinction between them and old-growth forests lives in the academic realm. Pragmatically, old-growth forests are important, virgin or not. Mature forests provide incredible benefits to the planet, far more than fast-growing, regenerated forests produced by logging companies. OGFs sequester far more carbon than others, create richer soils and nutrients, produce cleaner water, and offer better habitats to critters. We want to protect virgin and primeval forests, but we especially want to foster old-growth forests, even if they aren’t first-growth.

Enter the Old-Growth Forest Network. This non-profit organization aims to protect old-growth trees across the United States by connecting people to them. Begun by scientist and writer Joan Maloof, the group wants to identify and protect a forest in each county they believe can house them; they estimate 2,370 of the nation’s 3,140 counties can sustain forests, approximately 75%. For a spot to qualify for the network, it must meet several criteria:

  • old, mature ecosystem
  • open to the public
  • protected by law from commercial logging

According to the group, more than 99% of old-growth forests in the Eastern United States were destroyed; in the West, they put the tally at 95%. This loss makes the preservation of the remaining OGFs tantamount. Maloof also realized the dearth of old trees, especially in the East, made it difficult for the average person to visit the ancient ones. She believed that humans connecting with old-growth forests is one of the best ways to foment conservation. So, the group focused on a county-by-county strategy. Some network forests are mere acres in size, but they represent an opportunity for preservation and visitation.

As of June 2024, 250 forests have found official designation in 38 states.

The current Old-Growth Forest Network map
Deb S. and Bob S. ponder the 300-year-old white pines of the Upper Peninsula - photo by Kyle Stout

If you live in the United States, chances are you can visit a copse in the Old-Growth Forest Network close to you. Check out their maps at their official website, listed in the Further Reading and Exploration section below. If you can, think about donating to the cause.

Contemplating the nuances between “primeval,” “virgin,” and “old-growth” led me down an interesting hollow-tree hole. Ecologists might benefit from stricter definitions, so it did not surprise me to discover a system had been developed at the wonderfully named Third Expert Meeting on Harmonizing Forest-related Definitions. This gathering discussed the ways a scientist could distinguish the stages of forest ecosystems, arriving at a 14-point method.

Ten of the designations apply to primary forests, another moniker for old-growth forests. The proposal sought to maintain many of the familiar terms while distinguishing between stages. “Primeval” remains the highest designation, followed by “virgin” before other stratifications join the fray:

  1. Primeval
  2. Virgin
  3. Frontier
  4. Near-virgin
  5. Old-growth
  6. Long untouched
  7. Newly untouched
  8. Specially managed
  9. Exploited natural
  10. Plantation-like natural

Four designations apply to planted forests:

  1. Partly natural planted forest
  2. Native plantation
  3. Exotic plantation
  4. Self-sown exotic forest
Congaree National Park - photo by Kyle Stout
The proposed spectrum of forest designation - Erik Buchwald

Is your local wooded area a frontier forest, long untouched, or specially managed? Are you a big enough tree nerd to peruse the definitions linked below?

Resources that collect virgin and old-growth forest locations are difficult to come by, which makes the Old-Growth Forest Network an incredibly valuable tool. If you’ve never had the fortune to walk among hoary trees, find a stand near you and make the trip. On the Network’s webpage, they display a quote by Karen Joy Fowler that I find to be compelling:

“Trees are as close to immortality as the rest of us ever come.”

Old trees imbue a sense of serenity, a priceless commodity. Long live the old-growth forests!

Further Reading and Exploration

The Old-Growth Forest Network – Official Website

THE BIG WOODS – Ohio Department of Natural Resources

Harmonizing forest-related definitions – Collaborating Partnership on Forests

Definitions – Old-Growth/Primeval/Virgin? – Forests & Co

A hierarchical terminology for more or less natural forests in relation to
sustainable management and biodiversity conservation
 by Erik Buchwald

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