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For the Wild, 8: Rediscovering Old-Growth Forests

Wildlands Network published For the Wild in 2017 to celebrate 25 years of reconnecting nature in North America. Every couple of weeks, we’ll be posting a new excerpt from this inspiring collection of prose, poetry, and photographs as a special feature on our website. Please join the Rewilding Society or our Wildlands Stewards giving circle to receive a bound copy of For the Wild. Visit our Donate page to learn more.

Rediscovering Old-Growth Forests

by Joan Maloof

Close-up of large tree with reddish, furrowed bark
Old-growth white pine, western Massachusetts. Photo: Robert Llewellyn

DID EUROPEAN COLONIZERS really cut all the Eastern old-growth forest? If not, how much remains?

These were questions posed by famed wilderness defender Dave Foreman while sitting by a campfire in the Sonoran Desert in the late 1980s. He was wondering aloud to John Davis—back then, a young apprentice, now a veteran wildlands explorer. Foreman doubted the story that the East’s original forests had all been cut. Davis agreed that some places must have escaped and said that perhaps his mother, environmental writer Mary Byrd Davis, could research the subject and write an article for Earth First! Journal.

Talking with ecologists and reading reports on natural areas, Mary learned of many more old-growth sites than anyone expected. She gradually compiled the sites into an eastern old-growth inventory, which she completed in 1993 and updated in 2003. How amazing that the extent of Eastern old-growth forest was only documented so recently! The amount left is vanishingly small—less than one percent—but enough to provide seeds of recovery, both biologically and metaphorically.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Wild Earth journal regularly ran articles about old-growth forests of the East, written by Mary Davis, old-growth sleuth Bob Leverett, and others—and helped inspire a movement to identify and protect primeval forest remnants.

We formed the Old-Growth Forest Network to ensure these last original forests do not fall to logging. We also protect “future old-growth forests” recovering from long-ago logging, in hopes that the land will someday again host abundant old-growth. Finally, we help people find and connect with these forests so they can truly understand the beauty and biodiversity of an unmanaged forest.

All of this from a campfire conversation!

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