Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Old trees on opposite coasts

fir treesWhile visiting family in Oregon recently, I spent some time reflecting on what makes the Adirondacks special, while also enjoying some of the incredible nature that makes the Pacific Northwest special.

(Please forgive this small departure from water issues – though forests, as any Adirondack history will remind you, are crucial to water quality.)

I visited Oregon’s largest state park, Silver Falls, about 50 miles south of Portland, which includes a loop trail that passes by as many as 10 impressive waterfalls. While on the coast, I hiked through extraordinary, old-growth forest and across cliffs that opened to admittedly-clouded ocean views.

The natural areas feel sprawling in a state nearly twice the size of New York, but the scope of the state’s park system pales in comparison to the Adirondack Park.

Oregon’s 254 state parks take in incredible shorelines, waterfalls and ancient forests. But Oregon state parks account for just 122,000 total acres – about 62 percent the size of the High Peaks Wilderness or about 11 percent of the total wilderness in the Adirondacks. Crater Lake National Park accounts for another 183,000 acres, and Oregon includes well over 1.5 million acres in dozens of federal wilderness areas, some of which stretch to the size of the Adirondacks’ largest wilderness areas and in total roughly match the size of Adirondack public lands.

Driving from Portland to the coast, I watched out the window as massive hemlocks and firs draped in deep green moss ticked by – incredible specimens you rarely find an equal to on the East Coast. But between the ancient trees opened windows of forest devastation. Rows of young trees stretched across hillsides; in some places all you could see was the slash of a clear cut.

Obviously, logging still happens in the Adirondacks. I regularly see and hear trucks stacked with logs rumble past my home. The region’s history calls to mind grainy photos of timber workers standing atop logs stretching edge-to-edge across the Hudson River. But forever wild protections and numerous conservation easements have protected vast (and largely intact) swaths of North Country forests.

While in Oregon it feels like the forests are on the decline, in the Adirondacks the forests appear more on the mend. I learned during a recent online presentation by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies that the Rocky Mountain region forests have become a net releaser of carbon dioxide as a result of raging fires, and the Pacific Northwest is trending in that direction, while 85 percent of forest-based carbon sequestration in the country happens in Eastern forests.

As many of the unlogged forests in the West continue to burn in the decades to come – New Yorkers may well find new reasons to be grateful for the protections first put in place over a century ago.

pine tree

A favorite pine tree near the author’s Corinth home divides into four massive trunks as it reaches skyward. Photo by Zach Matson

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Zach’s weekly “Water Line” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Zachary Matson has been an environmental reporter for the Explorer since October 2021. He is focused on the many issues impacting water and the people, plants and wildlife that rely on it in the Adirondack Park. Zach worked at daily newspapers in Missouri, Arizona and New York for nearly a decade, most recently working as the education reporter for six years at the Daily Gazette in Schenectady.

19 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    My impression of two trips to Oregon was the ghastly incongruity of old-growth literally next to clear-cuts. Half or more of a mountain slope denuded with little hope of regrowing what was lost within several thousand years. A clear-cut is nothing like a natural clearing from blow-down or fire. A clear-cut produces trees that grow fast, and trees that grow fast are weak. It takes many centuries for those weak trees to be gradually replaced by trees considered to be old (slow) growth. As a consequence, it takes just as long for the old-growth soils and forest ecosystem to return. The old-growth parks are nice, but bittersweet – like endangered species in a cage in a zoo.

    We should be proud of our Forest Preserve even if only a tiny fraction is old-growth. Hopefully, in 5000 years of benign neglect, there will be vistas of old-growth to be marveled at by any intelligent species that may be present.

    • JB says:

      As usual Boreas, your repartee is also something to marvel at. All indications from the research are that regenerated old-growth forests may never resemble what they once were, at least to someone who is really paying attention (to more than the size of the largest trees). Maybe in 5000 years. Maybe. Definitely not in the few hundred years since North American colonization. Certainly not in several hundred years from now. But in several hundred years from now, at least we will have “forever wild” forests, while the Pacific Northwest will look like the hundreds of millions of acres of “working forests” (cut every 70 years) of Maine, Quebec and Ontario (i.e., everything up to the commercial timber line). It almost defies reason how efficiently we have managed to turn the temperate forests of the world into timberlands.

      • Boreas says:


        In 10,000 years, we may be under a mile of ice again! Keep in mind, our “old growth” here in the Adirondacks isn’t as old as many in areas that were never glaciated. Some of the old growth trees out on the W coast were seedlings when the Adirondacks were still alpine tundra! That is REALLY old growth!

        • JB says:

          Boreas, excellent point. Possibly the most long-lived trees in the world, the western bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva), still grows several hundred miles to the southeast of Oregon’s old growth (reaching nearly 5,000 years age). The most long-lived trees endemic to New York State survive until only about one-tenth of that age, and the most long-lived common Adirondack tree, the eastern hemlock, less than that.

          I like to think about “old-growth” forests more in terms of species composition and disturbance history than the age of the oldest trees. I think that it is a good way to overcome many of the common misconceptions about forests. There seems to be this predominant view among those who study these things that human forest disturbance can and does permanently alter species composition. I have read, for instance, that the post-disturbance Adirondack forests of the future may very likely be more dominated by maples and beeches than were the hemlock-dominant primary forests of the past (not only because of climate change and wooly adelgid, but also because eastern hemlocks do not easily re-establish). Some understory species have undoubtedly been extirpated as well, and there is even the possibility that there were Adirondack endemics that were driven to extinction in only the last several hundred years, especially in the case of the “cryptogams”, that is, the bryophytes and fungi (Canada’s only extinct endemic was species moss that was old-growth forest dependent; there are similar examples of endangered old-growth obligatory fungi).

          At the risk of misquoting a fantastic study of the complex subject of Adirondack forest succession (and there are probably Adirondack old-timers on here that personally knew its author), here you go:
          “Nearly one century after logging-related fires released resources for a new cohort of trees, the species composition and structural characteristics of the forest still reflect the impact of intense disturbance. This land-use legacy is similar to the “persistent imprints on ecosystem structure and function” that Foster et al. (2003, p. 79) described at eight Long Term Ecological Research sites in the eastern United States and the Caribbean. With time the human-disturbed forests in the Adirondacks might develop structural characteristics similar to nearby old growth (Ziegler, 2000), even if species composition is unlikely to return to its predisturbance state (Cowell and Dyer, 2002).” (Ziegler, Susy Svatek. “Composition, structure, and disturbance history of old-growth and second-growth forests in Adirondack Park, New York.” Physical Geography 25.2 [2004]: 152-169.)

  2. geogymn says:

    Fantasy…Walking in your favorite forest 400 years ago.

  3. Zephyr says:

    I am reminded of the resurgence of Eastern forests every time I tromp around in the woods close to home and stumble across the old stone walls and foundations of former farms that have now been reclaimed by the forest. These reminders of the former clear cuts are to be found all over rural regions of Upstate NY. Here’s a good overview (from 1996) via Cornell Cooperative Extension. Most of the old tree species are back except for the American chestnut.

    • JB says:

      It is true that Northeastern forests have recovered from the precipice after being decimated in the 19th century. But all indications are that the trend is now reversing, mainly as a result of parcelization, fragmentation and development for a growing population. Dave Gibson’s new Almanack article just cited a 10% decline in land dedicated to forest use across New York State over the past decade (due to development). I believe it, given the amount of development that I have seen.

      Even if we just look at the USDA Forest Service analyses for the Northeast–which are not typically studying “land use”, a better indicator of future forest area, but rather aerial defoliation (for determining timber inventory)–there seems to have been a peak in forest land area (USDA’s terminology) around 2010 and then a subsequent, albeit gradual, decline (at least in New York and New Hampshire):

      New York [analysis for the time period 2011-2016]:
      “Analysis of plots remeasured in this last inventory show a net loss of 46,000 acres of forest land to nonforest land uses. Conversion of forest land to agricultural uses accounted for an 86,000 acre net loss, while development of forest land resulted in a loss of 36,000 acres. Other nonforest land uses reverting to forest partially offset these losses. Given the decline observed since 2012, it is possible that forest land area has
      peaked.” (Albright, Thomas A.; Olsen, Anthony C. 2017. Forests of New York, 2016. Resource Update FS-141. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station)

      “In 1948 when FIA completed its first inventory within Vermont, only 63 percent of the State’s area was forested. Subsequent inventories showed a steady increase in forest cover as lands were reforested due to the abandonment of farmland. Vermont’s forested land base increased rapidly between the 1940s and 1970s and continued to increase, although at continually slower rates, until the 1990s (Fig. 2). By contrast, the amount of farmland decreased by nearly 2.4 million acres over that period (Fig. 3). Much of the nearly 1 million acre increase in forest land is due to farmland reverting back into forest through natural regeneration, although a substantial portion of lost farmland was also developed to meet the needs of a growing population. These reverted forests have increased the total forest land area in Vermont and nearly offset losses of forest land to development. Since 2007, the amount of forest cover has remained stable.” (Morin, Randall S., et al. “Forests of Vermont and New Hampshire 2012.” Resour. Bull. NRS-95. Newtown Square, PA: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 80 p. 95 (2015): 1-80.)

      (And some context from, Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, “2010 Vermont Forest Resources Plan”: “The urban areas of the state will need to continue to plan for an accelerated population growth. In addition, many of the rural communities, especially in the Rural Residential Landscape Zone, will be confronted with population increases and the pressures associated with rapid development. … The percentage of developed land also continues to increase as a result of increased residential and commercial development, and construction of second homes which is mostly related to the ski industry. …From 1983‐2008, the number of forest landowners owning 1‐9 acres more than doubled resulting in increased land parcelization. Land parcelization presents a significant challenge to Vermont’s natural resource managers who strive to accommodate individual landowner’s management objectives and values while trying to manage beyond property boundaries to maintain the overall sustainability of the region’s entire forest ecosystem. Roads, impervious surfaces and scattered developments are further fragmenting forests and creating smaller forest patches. The combination of parcelization and fragmentation poses a serious threat to the overall ecological integrity of Vermont’s native landscape. …Land conversion of farms and forests from 1982 to 1997 reveals an increase of 74,800 acres of land developed for building sites (Bolduc, et al., 2008). Of these, an estimated 31%, or 23,450 acres, came from agricultural land, whereas an estimated 68%, or nearly 51,000 acres, came from forest land. Estimates from the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Natural Resource Inventory reveal that developed land in Vermont, not including land in rural transportation uses, increased from 158,900 acres in 1982 to about 254,200 acres by 2003, a significant increase of 60% over two decades; far outpacing Vermont’s population growth (Figure 4). With pressures from development, parcelization and fragmentation, the management of Vermont’s forests for long‐term sustainability will become progressively more challenging and necessary.”)

      New Hampshire:
      “In 1948 when FIA completed its first inventory in New Hampshire, 84 percent of the State’s area was forested. The subsequent 1960 inventory showed a small increase in forest cover (87 percent of land area). New Hampshire’s forested land base then decreased at a slow rate between the 1960s and 2000s (Fig. 2). Currently, forest covers 81 percent of New Hampshire’s land base. Much of the nearly 230,000 acre decrease in forest land since 1960 is the result of the development of land to meet the needs of a growing population, particularly in the southern part of the State
      due to population growth north of Boston, MA.” (Morin, Randall S., et al. “Forests of Vermont and New Hampshire 2012.” Resour. Bull. NRS-95. Newtown Square, PA: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 80 p. 95 (2015): 1-80.)

      “Maine is a State where forests dominate the landscape. Forests make up 83 percent of the surface area in Maine (17.6 million acres) (Fig. 2). Timberland represents 80 percent of the surface area of the State (17.0 million acres) and has been quite stable since the 1958 inventory (Ferguson and Longwood 1960) (Fig. 4)…
      [And some projected worst-case scenarios: ]…Over the next 50 years, forest land is projected to decline from an estimated 17.6 million acres in 2010 to 17.3 million acres (-1.9 percent) in 2060 under scenario A1B-C; to 17.4 million acres (-1.6 percent) under scenario A2-C; and to 17.5 million acres (-1.0 percent) under scenario B2-C. All three scenarios would reverse the century-long trend of increasing forest area in Maine (Fig. 70). Those storylines focused around the greatest population growth and the most robust levels of economic activity alter the area of forest land significantly, and only then in the scenarios where acute increases in population and economic activity project less future forest land. Just three scenarios are represented in Fig. 70 because the choice of a climate model and variations on the storylines did not impact the projected area of forest land. Any projected losses of forest land from 2010 to 2060 were relatively small compared to the cumulative increases in forest area since start of the 20th century. In 2060, the forests of Maine are expected to remain the dominant land cover (≥89 percent).”
      (McCaskill, George L., et al. “Maine Forests 2013.” Resour. Bull. NRS-103. Newtown Square, PA: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 103 p. 103 (2016): 1-103.)

      (And from some context from UMaine, “Keeping Maine’s Forests: A Design for Sustainability”: “Throughout southern and central Maine, forested land
      has been converted to roads, utilities and structures at a
      pace exceeded only by the takeover of farmland. More than
      850,000 acres have been impacted by development over
      the last 20 years.”)

      • Zephyr says:

        I don’t doubt we may have passed peak forest, at least temporarily, but with a declining population in the state and soon most industrialized countries, and eventually the world I wouldn’t be surprised to see forested areas rebound soon. Yes, I see the developments all around where I live too, but I also see places where I used to be able to walk that are now so heavily overgrown that I can’t get through. One place I like to take local hikes has lost many open fields since I was a kid, and it is part of a property that is unlikely to be developed. Old logging roads on a family property are rapidly returning to the forest. Plus, newer developments often retain many more trees than they used to. I think we’re at around 61% forested right now and something like the 10th most forested state.

        • JB says:

          Zephyr, you have some good observations, but I have to correct you on population: New York State’s rate of population growth may be slowing, but the actual population itself is still increasing pretty quickly (6.1% between 2010-2020 according to US Decennial Census). If anything, the perception that New York State is not “keeping up” with the rest of the country is an indication of just how much peril that we are in (in terms of development pressure). There are examples from the Intermountain West of huge regional movements of people from urban to rural, particularly originating from Californian urban enclaves. We are seeing quite a bit of that (mainly originating from New York City) here in Upstate during the pandemic (and there is a lot of data coming in from towns themselves supporting this). But my fear is that it could get far, far worse if we are not careful what we wish for (i.e., Upstate Revitalization). The issues in New York City with “urban decay” are vaguely reminiscent of the stuff that you hear about from the 1970s that self-perpetuated the big wave of urban flight and the ensuing racial disparities.

    • geogymn says:

      Thanks for the link!

  4. Joe Dash says:

    Amen! Thank you for this article.

  5. Joe Dash says:

    When I walk through the “managed” forests within the Blue Line I notice how small the trees are there is a distinct lack of biodiversity despite use of the best scientific management practices. On the other hand, when I walk on forest preserve land I see huge trees, a diversity of species and much more wildlife. Foresters and Silviculturists insist that trees must be cut to preserve the health of the forest otherwise they will just die of old age. To my non-expert eye old growth forests appear far healthier than ones which have been “managed” and cut over

    • Boreas says:


      Good points. However, “healthy” in the context of forests is a pretty loaded term and often misused/abused by all sides of the discussion. Biodiversity is more easily measured and cataloged. A biodiverse forest may be healthy or unhealthy, but biodiversity nearly always makes a particular ecosystem more resistant and resilient to stresses in general. But this doesn’t mean a biodiverse forest (or any ecosystem) can’t be unhealthy at any point in time – be it disease, pests, or fire – but a biodiverse system is more likely to rebound and not collapse.

      Young forests that we currently see appear healthy, and the soft, furry critters humans like are more obvious, but there are few tree species, and virtually all are the same age. The soil has been compacted and damaged from modern lumber extraction, causing major disruptions in the flora/fauna of the soils and root systems. In essence, some extraction methods are about the same as farming practices in the midwest prior to the Dust Bowl. Soil communities are altered and depleted, siltation and erosion increase, the soil bakes and loses moisture, and the forest is set-up for possible disaster from climate and other stressors – just like poorly-managed agricultural land.

      Forests not only need biodiversity of species, they need diversity of ages of individual trees, with some younger trees growing very slowly under the canopy of their elders (often regardless of species), which makes the trunks mush stronger and their root systems more interconnected with beneficial mycorrhizal fungi. When the elder eventually falls, the strong, young tree has a better chance of living to old age than a tree that grew quickly because it had little competition, and developed a weak trunk and root system. The young strong tree will also benefit from nutrients released by the elder just when it is needed.

      Newer types of extraction using horses and selecting the proper trees to fell are not nearly as damaging to a forest – but also not as profitable. But worldwide population growth demands more and more wood. Ultimately, the issue will be resolved, but not necessarily to our liking.

      • JB says:

        I’m not an expert in ecology, but from what I have seen the jury is still out on the biodiversity of old-growth versus younger forests and primary versus secondary forests in the Adirondacks. It is also difficult to define biodiversity: is it a function of tree species, the herbaceous underlayer, bryophytes, fungi, birds? Most of that stuff is woefully understudied. There are definitely some very biodiverse known old-growth areas in the Park, by Adirondack standards (400+ plant species). Ultimately, though, a lot of the plant biodiversity of any given Adirondack forest area is going to be determined largely by things like soil composition, terrain, elevation, etc (compare Lake Champlain to the Five Ponds Wilderness).

        In terms of forests under continuing management, my limited understanding leads me to believe that they are not going to be as biodiverse as unmanaged forests. Aside from the aforementioned problems of limiting stand age and structural diversity, a loss in diversity probably also results from the cumulative effect of repeatedly suppressing shade-intolerant species in favor of a smaller number of successional canopy species (forests, after all, are superorganisms evolved to be create shade). Another important impact also will result from the lack of deadwood in a managed forest; especially in boreal forests, dominant tree species need log nurseries to regenerate. Similarly, timber harvesting is proven to deplete soil organic carbon for many decades, which alters the behavior of soils, not to mention other aspects of soil nutrient-cycling are going to be affected (a little understood subject being researched a lot now). Additionally, invasive species are going to be a problem in managed forests, although that seems to be less of a problem in the Adirondacks.

        I have an unmanaged successional woodlot in Saratoga County with a stand age of something like 70 years (definitely not old-growth), and while the tree species composition may not be particularly biodiverse, the herbaceous underlayer is probably nearly as biodiverse as any comparable old-growth. Conversely, the fungal diversity is surprisingly low–it is rare to find mushrooms. Now, if that forest was actively managed, it would be a whole different story.

        That all being said, I do not think that forest management is the biggest existential threat to New York forests, unless some kind of cultural phenomenon of monumental stupidity overcomes millions landowners. Development for residential use is what is overwhelmingly leading to the decline of the forests in this state (at a rate, I might add, that n recent years seems to be far outpacing any other Northeastern state). The timber industry here is just not as big of a deal as it is elsewhere, and active management is comparatively rare–partly because of Forever Wild (thank god) and also because most landowners do not perceive commercial forestry as a primary reason for owning land.

        I think that the world is going to deal with the rising demand for lumber in a few ways. In recent years, many builders have transitioned to metal and composite framing members for a number of reasons, including increased availability, greater dimensional stability, and, recently, extremely high lumber prices. Across the international border, they are building huge facilities for creating engineered wood products from lower quality inputs. Wood-free building practices like insulated-concrete form construction are becoming hugely popular as well, and it is not impossible to imagine a future where residential buildings in the United States use very little lumber, as is the case in deforested areas of Europe. In my opinion, we should probably be treating timber as a crop rather than wild forests: plantations are potentially much more productive per-acre than natural forests (I have multiple log-cabins build with plantation pine, so I am spoiled and biased).

        Unfortunately, none of those things are going to stop industrial forestry. I think that we are trending toward a world where our the world’s lumber increasingly comes from the boreal forests of Eastern Canada and Fennoscandia. In fact, boreal timber production is already rapidly increasing. Huge Canadian timber infrastructure projects are underway. Global warming is driving tree species north by as much as a few miles per year, and the boreal forests are becoming a whole lot less remote as a growing potential workforce begins to settle the previously uninhabited North. Despite NAFTA, the Canadian lumber industry has a huge cost advantage over that of the United States by virtue of a timber pricing system that is better insulated against free market fluctuations and less beholden to private landowners (if you do not consider the Canadian Crown as private). And, finally, there is comparatively miniscule developed or protected boreal forest below the commercial timber line. The Arctic nations are doing surprisingly little to protect against wholesale destruction of the boreal forests, and they are going to continue to churn out cheap lumber until global demand can no longer be met. Perhaps then there will be a reckoning, an arctic Adirondack moment. I just do not think that we’re not going to meet growing global lumber demand with horses and low-impact forestry practices.

        • JB says:

          (Try to ignore the typos.)

        • Boreas says:

          No, horses won’t be much help in supplying global demand, but some people who manage private woodlots can keep their forest as diverse as possible using draft horses that don’t compact the soil to any appreciable degree when extracting select timber.

          My definition of biodiversity above includes all organisms above and below ground. Scientists are still classifying and cataloging new species below ground, in the humus, and in the leaf litter. Warm and dry those moist soils by opening the canopy and many of those organisms are lost.

          • JB says:

            Oh, yeah, that reminds me. I think that there is at least one known endemic Adirondack slime mold (i.e. globally restricted only to the Adirondacks) …Or at least, one myxomycologist thought so a long time ago (before molecular phylogeny). There are undoubtedly endemic Adirondack species of microorganisms (e.g., streptomycetes), as there are in most places in the world, that could be lost where clear-cutting occurs. That alone is a societal justification for treading lightly.

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