Top Ten Ancient Forests of the United States

Ancient Forests of the United States
  |  Gorp.com

Old growth is a relatively new, and admittedly fuzzy, concept. At its most elemental it means a forest of old trees. But other conditions need to be present in order for most ecologists to consider a forest truly old growth. They look for old wood on the ground, a multilayered canopy, and no sign of human disruption of the forest's natural processes. The last condition is usually the most compromised. For instance, how does a road, or even a trail, affect a forest?

Why visit an ancient forest? All the rational arguments for the preservation of old-growth forests—biodiversity, watershed protection, climate control—won't answer that question. You can vote the right way and send the right checks, and stay away. Maybe the forests would be better off without more people trampling through them.

But I think not. For me, visiting old trees is like visiting old relatives, people who used to change my diapers and soothe my tantrums. Yeah, it may be behavior that now embarrasses me; I'm glad that I've learned some control over my body and my emotional expression. But old relatives remember me at my most essential: what gave me the most delight, the most frustration, the greatest fear.

Ancient forests are memory. Not memory that recalls in cinematic clarity, but memory that touches your deepest core, like the scent of an old-fashioned flower—something that you can't quite place but evokes a strong, visceral feeling. If all this sounds suspiciously like hippy-dippy tree hugging, well . . . I confess. I've wrapped my arms around a few trunks in my life. And it always feels best when my hands can't touch because the trunk's girth is too great.

The question of memory is where the rational arguments connect with the spiritual. The biodiversity preserved by ancient forests is a storehouse of information: a memory bank of DNA, and species behavior that is both learned and instinctive. When an old forest is toppled, the information it contained is wiped away. Activists protest the destruction of forests with signs that say "Respect your elders." And baby, respecting your elders is a way of respecting yourself.

Remnants of our ancient forest can be found all over the United States. The ten represented here demonstrate the range of forest types. They vary from the sunny, parklike ponderosa pine forests of the Southwest to the shadowy rain forests of the Northwest. By picking out ten I don't mean any disrespect for other stands: all ancient forest must be defended and cherished. Even though the vast forests that covered almost half the continent are mostly gone, there's probably still a stand of old trees within a day's journey from you. Go see the old folks this weekend.


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