The Rich Hole Wilderness

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Ancient Forests, Future Forests:
Comments on a Paper Before the Virginia Chapter of the Wildlife Society, 1998

Old-growth or ancient forests is a complex topic. The paper being passed out is a summary, so part of what I have to say today is a summary of a summary.

I think there are some key ideas here with which I'd really like you to leave. Before we get started, recall: Forest land has increased by 0.1 % in recent years. 33% of the US is forested. We have 67% of the forests we had in 1600. Land clearance stopped about 1920; it was cranking along at 14 square miles per day for 60 years. Now 6 % of forests are reserved and of this 34% is federal land. Do not forget ... 47 million acres are reserved! We need more? perhaps, but 47 million acres seems substantial in the face of limited use, limited utility, intensive site-specific use, and increasing pressures on land that can grow trees that can be harvested.

I once met a family from the plains of the US. They lived near me in Idaho ... a beautiful diverse place with cropland, sagebrush, and fir forests. They thought it unpleasant, fearful, and moved within a year back to the open plains. Their concept of outdoor beauty was that of treeless, flat open plains. That attitude shook me ... I could not imagine any people who did not like the old, deep, dark forest, the smell of the short-tailed shrew, the feel of punky wood, the spongy floor, brookies in the stream, salamanders in the springs, bear claw marks, or the sunbeams on moss in morning, the hum, and the mysterious forms of frontiersmen and Indians behind every tree.

I suspect that you, like me, love all of this ... but maybe not. Maybe you are one from the open plains. We have to remember that we do not love the same things. That is good for marriages, society, and forests. For those who love these areas, we need to be sure that they know they exist and that they use them. Satiated people (having abundant deep-forest experience) rarely ask for more. A field trip to assure people that these areas exist and to provide them with some experience within them is more cost effective than a trip to court or to Congress to ward off efforts to "gain more ground" from the federal reserves now under active management.

Next we have a problem because scientists do not talk about "Love." I love these old growth forests. Maybe you do too and will not say it. Objectivity can get in the way of saving peoples lives and marriages and other things. We've "bought-into" too much objectivity after Sputnik. Real life includes knowing things and feeling things. Ignoring the second, that is feelings, is not objective; it denies a thousand observations.

I'm all for public participation in natural resource management, but there are limits. If we let the public vote, one per vote, we'd not have libraries, art galleries, museums and we'd close the schools in some areas. We'd not have modern science. We in the land of Jefferson have forgotten that he called for an educated citizenry for democracy. It only works if the people, the public, the voters, the participants, are educated. They have to know something before they vote. They have to be social, not TV's the Simpsons. What is good or not good in my back yard is not the only criterion for land use decision making.

I think we need wilderness areas, special old-growth areas, and managed ancient forests. I love these areas but I also know that only a few of the public know about them, few love them, and none of the public loves them enough to have preserved any on their private lands. There are about 700 thousand acres of old-growth in the southeast. In Va. Dave Morton just completed a Landsat-based cover map and 60 % of the state is forested. You can bet that less than one-half of one percent of the area is in forest over 100 years old.

I think there are ancient forests but that they exist along a continuum. They can be scored ... they are "more or less" ancient forests. Each is unique; each has its own score. The score is compared to a set of criteria listed below. Following a medical practice in analysis, the forest can be called "ancient" if 7 out of the 10 categories are positive and if a score exceeds 80. Numerical value and presence of many categories is the joint criterion.

Here is some of the wildlife side of thing. First, old growth and ancient forests are not scientific words or terms. For biologists/scientists to play like they are perverts some concepts of that work when it is narrowly defined (as by the present The Wildlife Society) and not defined by those within "conservation biology."

I spent too much time on definitions in the paper in your hands. The definitions range from debates about trees over 60, or over 200, or over 32 inches, or biomass, or percent cover, or basal area, and stocking. Animals do not live long enough to have knowledge of stand age in their survival gene package. They respond to conditions, factors, stimuli that only result from growth and decomposition over time ... but at rates that are site specific and management specific. We need to concentrate on the factors to which each species responds.

We only have about 250 animal species in each old area in Virginia (not counting the 2000 mollusks and insects). Managing 20 game species is difficult; managing 200 species is a worthy challenge. Managing 20 different tree species (mastering their silvics) is a problem for the forester. If we cannot manage this number of animals, then we need to admit it and stop acting like we can. I think we can, but we need new structures and procedures to do so consistently. No individual "biologist" can master the complexity, neither the list nor the singular relations, among all members of the list. The procedures are within reach but only with new data bases, GIS, GPS, and new networks and web sites. Leopold's land health analogy and the analogy of the wildlife manager as the land doctor, the good general-practitioner analogy, have led me astray for many years.

There appears to be no Eastern-US large animal species that requires unique, very old, high-scoring ancient forests. We as a Society need to be very sure of this and I do not feel very confident in making the statement. Assuming it is true, we must personally and as a group resolve how to allocate out limited resources in studying, monitoring, describing, protecting, defending against alternative uses, administering, and presenting these to people as resources. We need to do all of that for the right reasons; perhaps "wildlife" is one reason but I doubt that it will carry-the-day. Their value and defense is likely to be found in a collection of their benefits and services, not in a singular species or legal spin.

I see forests as land with trees. As a wildlife manager, I manage land. I grow old trees on land for some species; I cut trees on land to favor other species that need early succession conditions. I manage animals. Silvicultural procedures are just one part of my management system. Don't misunderstand. I seek to achieve human benefits from the animal resource; I will try to do so in the surest, most cost effective ways possible. Cutting trees (or stopping the cutting) are species-specific decisions. On one large tract I'll seem to change my mind often ... for I'll cut often to achieve the rotation desired, a rational harvest schedule to stabilize conditions (within the area but not on the tract or stand) for all of my animals. I'll add a constraint for financial stability but discussing that is beyond the topic of this meeting.

If classical foresters increase wood production on available acres, it will reduce the pressure to cut ancient forests. I've seen this pressure in India and China. In northern Nigeria and Senegal there was no pressure ... all the trees were gone! There were no forests left! Related wildlife were gone except for that in 2 parks. When these areas become mature (and without management) all will be lost because there is insufficient area ... like local non-industrial private forests. Locally, the small non-industrial land owner, no one, can do timber rotation (area regulation) on 20 to 30 acres. No one can do multi-species faunal system management on small areas. And that is what I'm discussing ... small remaining wild areas.

We'll visit the Rich Hole Wilderness Area tomorrow, about 5000 acres. Imagine any 5000 acre watershed area. Split it into 4 compass directions, 6 slope classes, 4 elevation classes, 4 landform classes and if there were equal areas in each, there would only be 13 acres in each unique condition for animals. Few of you would feel confident if the existence of a species only found in one area -- on 13 acres-- depended on your management. 13 is too unlucky ... and other reasons.

I'm strongly in favor of managing ancient forests and I give 17 strategies in the paper.

I'm strongly in favor of concentrating analyses of"land-unsuitable" (a US Forest Service Designation for steep and slow-growing areas) as ancient forests. Many of these sites have the watershed, wildlife, esthetic and other characteristics accepted by most people as those of the ancient forest. These areas can be scored. Preserving old forests for wildlife, in my opinion, should come only after analyses of all of the "lands-unsuitable." These areas are where the foot, horse, and bike trails should be built and maintained to allow the benefits from such areas to be "harvested." They can be claimed as "wildlife areas" but only if they are actively managed for human use of that resource, i.e., with trails, access, signs, etc.

I cannot be more emphatic ... we have to stop saying these areas are good for research and start doing it and sharing it ... on a web site. We need expeditions. We need to use GAP analyses and logistic regression analyses to select the key and unique areas as well as the "most similar areas" into which to take these expeditions with groups of scientists and support personnel. In these ancient forests we also need surveys, partially to augment the expeditions.

We need stream structures to stabilize and begin to regain the losses of trees falling into the channels. We have not removed debris from the streams as done in the west; we removed it all from the land before it ever got to the streams so that there have been no large trees left for 200 years that could perform the work so evident in ancient forests ... the work of keeping the valleys broad, and streams stair-stepped in cross-section. We need to use cut-and-let-lay to re-build the lower layer of the system. We need to fight off the prescribed-fire proponents in the older stands who are worried about fuel loads. The fuel load of this area has no meaning in relation of western forests from which the literature on prescribed fires pours. Wood here in the Virginia mountains decomposes!

We need to use the areas. Trails will increase all types of uses ... especially studies, inventories, baseline analyses. I was a consultant on a job analyzing the impact of a highway on a park. The park had locked out users because of drugs, vandalism, etc. The park was protected but it lost its human support base. The highway took the park ... there was no public support for it. There must be use or these areas will eventually be lost. I believe that funds for much of the above can be developed through new enterprises within the area that I call "ranging", a diverse set of enterprise-related outdoor activities, ecotourism, and what was formerly called dispersed outdoor recreation.

Dr. Steve Boyce of the Southeastern Forest Experiment Station once challenged me to find more than 5 areas with a constant silvicultural treatment over many years. I failed. This suggests to me and to him that silviculture is about more than site and trees and their growth or about cutting patterns. It also suggested the need to be conservative about stating needs and desired changes and what is good for forests and for animals and how to achieve those conditions cost-effectively. What is being taught in the university as a pure subject may not be relevant in your area. We need to be thoughtful, to be challenging and integrating knowledge from diverse areas and studies, and discussing principles (not the latest salary or staff change).

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Last revision January 17, 2000.