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Ohio’s Old-Growth Forests

Posted on 12/22/2014 by State Nature Preserves

There are few places in nature more tranquil or awe-inspiring than an old-growth forest. Stepping underneath their lofty emerald canopies reveals a living, breathing masterpiece of what nature can do when given the time and opportunity. They are complex ecosystems comprised of many different working parts that intertwine together and function as one massive organism. From the fungi and their intricate subterranean networks of mycelia, to the songbirds high in branches above, each has a role in an old-growth forest’s health and sustainability.

Davey Woods SNP

It’s hard to imagine the sights that greeted early European settlers as they came to explore the extensive and diverse forests of eastern North America. Ancient trees of dizzying heights and girths abounded. Specimens over five and six feet in diameter with trunks that went seventy plus feet until the first limbs were a common occurrence. Standing amidst and under such leviathans is a humbling thought today.

Hueston Woods State Nature Preserve

Around the time of European settlement a large majority of Ohio’s landscape was dominated by primeval forest. Their understories were relatively open and almost park-like. Immense contiguous tracts were only broken up by natural openings and boundaries such as tall grass prairie, wetlands, barrens, bogs etc. It was hardly untouched though, as thousands of years of indigenous cultures and tribes had shaped and influenced the forests around them. However, their presence obviously pales in comparison to that of the pioneers. In only a couple centuries’ time nearly every acre of Ohio’s forested landscape was cut, removed or otherwise impacted by their activities.

Gross Woods SNP White Oak

Fortunately, some pockets of forest throughout the state survived. Difficult and/or isolated terrain, cartography oversights and cherished family land all helped keep a small slice of our natural history intact. These special tracts of old-growth forest act as a time machine of sorts for us today and give a relative glimpse at what once was. It’s imperative these priceless relics are protected and properly managed.

Johnson Woods State Nature Preserve

Throughout the state some of our best remaining examples of old-growth forest reside in Ohio’s State Nature Preserve system. Places like Goll Woods, Hueston Woods, Johnson Woods, Clear Fork Gorge and Davey Woods provide a primitive atmosphere.

Goll Woods SNP Bur Oak

Ohio’s remaining old-growth forests come in numerous different types and sizes. Some are small woodlots only 20 acres or less in size, while others are large contiguous tracts numbering in the hundreds of acres. Forests of oak-hickory, beech-maple, mixed mesophytic, swamp, floodplain/riparian zone etc. are all represented. The state can even still claim a few old-growth examples of coniferous forest communities, such as the impressive hemlocks and whites pines within Clear Fork Gorge state nature preserve. They do a good job dwarfing famed Ohio botanist, Daniel Boone in the photo below.

Clear Fork Gorge White Pines and Hemlocks

While old-growth forests are classified as climax communities they are hardly static from an ecological point of view. They exhibit multi-layered canopies and mixed ages of trees below due to a staggered pattern of regeneration. As the oldest and largest trees succumb to age, disease, windthrow etc., younger trees compete for the canopy openings and light and gradually replace one another. This mixing of ages ensures the forest remains relatively stable as time goes on and any significant disturbance events don’t occur. Dead standing timber also serves an important function as food and shelter sources for a wealth of insects, birds, mammals, fungi etc. Needless to say, many different things help make up the composition of an old-growth forest.

Gahanna Woods State Nature Preserve

One thing in particular that is synonymous with many of Ohio’s old-growth forests are their phenomenal displays of spring wildflowers. Centuries of decayed organic matter accumulation from fallen timber, leaves and herbaceous plants provide the deep, rich soil conditions needed for such displays. Limited disturbance also aids the slow growing ephemerals like trillium and trout-lilies. They can take upwards of half a decade to reach flowering maturity and many decades more to form large colonies. As do so many other aspects of life, old-growth forests rely on a great deal of time, patience and luck to reach their full potential.

Old Growth Forest Trillium Display

There’s never a bad time to visit any one of our state’s old-growth remnants. Each season offers a unique look and feel to the trees and landscape. Spring brings its aforementioned explosion of wildflowers along with a return of our migrating neotropical birds. Summer cloaks everything in green with the rich smell of terra firma heavy on the air. Fall’s colorful spectrum of chlorophyll-drained leaves only intensify in the complex layers of an old-growth’s canopy. Winter lays the world bare and allows each tree to become a distinguished individual; their cylindrical trunks topped with a weaving tangle of limbs and gnarled branches.

Riddle SNP Old Growth Scene

Even with winter settled in and spring’s reawakening still only a dream, now is as great a time as any to get out and experience any one, or all of Ohio’s old-growth forests. As just mentioned, winter is especially prime for fully grasping and appreciating just how impressive the tree specimens within can be. Regardless of where you live in the state, there’s sure to be an old-growth forest preserve not too far away. Organizations and groups like the Ohio Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Arc of Appalachia to name a few, also feature preserves containing old-growth forest. It’s important to remember that old-growth forests are grown and just because they are exceedingly rare today doesn’t mean they have to be rare forever. Setting aside younger forested lands today can mean a replenishing of old, mature woods for the future. Thanks for reading and I hope you have a safe and happy holiday season!

Andrew Gibson

Davey Woods SNP Tuliptrees