Old Growth; Perhaps Just 15 Percent of the West's Original Forests Still Exist in Their Wondrous Old-Growth State. and Storm Is Raging over How Much Should Be Saved and How Much Cut

Sunset, August 1990 | Go to article overview

Old Growth; Perhaps Just 15 Percent of the West's Original Forests Still Exist in Their Wondrous Old-Growth State. and Storm Is Raging over How Much Should Be Saved and How Much Cut


Old Growth Like so many resources, America's biggest trees--the virgin stands of coast redwood and giant sequoia of California, the Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, Western hemlock, and Western red cedar of Oregon and Washington--were once thought to be inexhaustible.

But now that the West's old growth is small enough to measure (some 15 percent of the original Pacific Coast forest), timber and environmental concerns are fighting desperately in Congress, in the courts, and in the forest over what remains. By early summer, there were already heated protests by people on both sides of the issue--for more on the public debate, see page 64.

The issue is uniquely Western. Virtually all of the nation's old-growth coniferous forests are here. As old growth is cut, we have nowhere to go for more. And as it is set aside, fellow Westerners will be the ones who lose their jobs.

What is old growth? What sets it apart from second-growth forests created by nature or replanted after logging? It comes down to diversity. In old growth, you'll find an enormous amount of wood, living and dead, standing and fallen; a great variety of plants, animals, birds, insects; a wide range of tree ages, sizes, and kinds.

In the lumberyard, more than half the clear wood that's sold is old growth, as is the darkest (and most rotresistant) of the Western red cedar and redwood. Old-growth supply, however, is already dropping, while the demand for wood is increasing. Results are rising prices and changing options; many of us are switching to tight-knot (instead of clear) redwood for decks, for example--and pressure-treated hemlock instead of cedar for fences.

Use these 11 pages for help in understanding what the old-growth debate is all about--and in getting out and appreciating the majesty and fascinating ecosystem of our old-growth forests. The destination we suggest are principally in areas where old growth is not being contested, where it has already been protected in parks and other accessible areas.

What makes an old-growth forest

Though scientists have only just begun to understand the complex workings of old-growth forests, they have come up with some common denominators. The most obvious one is that the trees tend to be old--125 to 250 years is the most widely accepted starting point. Dense stands of these big trees tend to temper the seasons, keeping summers milder, winters less severe.

The features we describe on these pages apply to the huge conifers that range from the narrow canyons of Big Sur, California, up the coastal plains to Alaska. The one anomaly, giant sequoia, lives in moister parts of the relatively dry central and southern Sierra; undergrowth isn't as lush or dense, but even so it still exhibits some of the old-growth features outlined here.

Indicator species. Many animals prefer, even require, old-growth forests to breed and thrive. Roosevelt elk slip in and out of Douglas fir and redwood groves to graze in coastal meadows

Nurse log. New trees take root in the thick, nutrient-and moisture-rich dead wood of a fallen tree, often thriving in a patch of light (left). Look for rows of mature trees (right) with buttressed bases completely surrounding the crumbling log

Nitrogen fixers. This lichen grows in the canopy, where it traps atmospheric nitrogen. When lichen falls to the earth, it releases nitrogen--essential to forest life--into the soil. Some fungus also convert nitrogen. Small mammals eat the fungus, helping disperse nitrogen through the forest

Standing snags. Struck by disease, fire, or lightning, some giants die but don't fall right away. All provide a heyday for beetles and other insects, and hence woodpeckers. Snags also provide nests for cavity dwellers, such as flying squirrels

Large downed trees. Fallen trees in streams slow the water's velocity, important for the success of eggs and fry for salmon and trout. …

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