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America’s Next Idea

The preservation of unique and beautiful tracts of land as National Parks is often called America’s Best Idea. Present generations are profoundly grateful for the foresight and effort that went into setting aside the parks that we enjoy today. Now it is our turn to do what we can for those who will come after us. I suggest our gift to the future to be a network of old-growth (or future old-growth) forests across the U.S. In these forests visitors will be able to experience native forests in their mature diversity and complexity. Below I explain the benefits of this network, and a possible scenario for its structure.


Old-growth Forests

When we look at a forest very little appears to change from year to year, but change is happening slowly. Forests, like humans, can be classified as young, mature or old. Because of past disturbances old forests are the rarest. Sometimes the disturbance has come in the form of a tornado, an insect, or an intense fire; but most often the disturbance has been from logging. As a result only a few percent of the western forests are old-growth, and only a few tenths of a percent of the eastern forests are old-growth. The amount of old-growth forest has declined every year since European settlement on this continent. As a result old-growth forests have important ecological and cultural attributes that are not being fulfilled as they should be. We need a clear vision and a strong resolve to reverse the decline. If we are able to accomplish this we will be the first generation to have done so.


Cultural Role of Old-Growth Forests

Many children growing up today have no idea of what the natural appearance of the land surrounding them would be if it were undisturbed. What species of trees would grow? What animals would live there? We speak of “nature-deficit disorder” but how is it to be remedied if there are no places to show these children, but only stories in a book about what their town “used to” look like and the animals that “used to” live there?

There are health benefits and psychological benefits to be gained from forests too (although these have not been specifically tied, yet, to the age of the forests). Perhaps the most recognized, but least studied, attribute of older forests is their beauty. This element of beauty brings a mixture of joy and respect to almost everyone who experiences an old-growth forest. Many forest lovers drive or fly hundreds of miles each year to reach an old-growth forest.

The National Parks began as places for human recreation and spiritual refreshment, and the ecological benefits were recognized later. In our establishment of an old-growth network we acknowledge the cultural and ecological benefits as being equal from the beginning.


Ecological Role of Old-Growth Forests

All forest stages have an important ecological role to play. The old-growth stage is especially important because of its unique structure. Various canopy layers and berry-producing plants are beneficial for many bird species. In a forest that has not been disturbed for hundreds of years some trees will develop hollow cavities, these cavities become important nesting places for animals. In an undisturbed forest some large trees will die and fall, creating yet more habitat: numerous insects, fungi, reptiles and amphibians benefit from the fallen trees. The moisture retained within an old-growth forests benefits lichen and mosses, and the species that live among the mosses and lichens. Old-growth forests are one of the few land uses where topsoil is created instead of destroyed. More carbon and nitrogen is retained in an old-growth forest than in forests of other age classes. For improving water quality and air quality there is nothing better than an old-growth forest.


How the Old-Growth Network will be Distributed and Built

Forests grow in most of the U.S., but they do not grow everywhere. Figure 1 shows how forests, and forest types, are distributed in the continental states. For the old-growth network to be truly effective, and to be within reach of all school children, there should be one forest identified which will be left forever wild within each county where forest naturally grows. Figure 2 shows the distribution of the 3,140 counties. It is estimated that forests will not grow naturally in 770 counties; therefore there are 2,370 counties which could be part of the network.

Figure 1. Distribution of forests, and forest types, in the continental United States.

Figure 2. United States county boundaries.

Although this figure may seem daunting at first, many of these counties already contain public forests and a single one merely needs to be chosen and officially recognized as part of the network. In many counties it will be already protected Federal land which becomes recognized in the network, such as National Forest, or Fish and Wildlife land. In other places, such as in the northern counties of New York, it will likely be a State Forest that is recognized. In some counties that have no State or Federal lands the county or city itself may have some property that could become part of the network. It is impossible to determine without further research, but perhaps two-thirds of the network can be built by identifying already existing public lands. Although it will be more difficult to build the network in counties with no appropriate public lands, those are the very places where forests are most needed, and this process will help identify them.

The next level of landowners to be considered for voluntarily joining the network are likely to be NGOs such as land trusts and the Nature Conservancy. In the less common situations where there are no public lands and no non-profit organization lands which can be included in the network, a county may appeal to a private donor or apply for federal grant funds (perhaps with the assistance of an organization such as the Conservation Fund).

Building the old-growth network in this way will take very little financial investment. The result will be a gift for all generations to come. A gift that will get more beautiful, and more filled with life, as time passes. A place which will never be sold or placed off-limits, and can therefore be the cornerstone of curriculum lessons. Over two thousand undisturbed, accessible, forests which will have a positive effect on both the humans and the wildlife in our nation.