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Old growth forests , also referred to as ancient, late-seral, or late-successional forests, are found throughout the world and are extremely rich in biodiversity and natural resources. A universally accepted definition of old growth forests is difficult to resolve, but most experts would agree that several key features characterize these ecosystems. These forests are not exclusively comprised of older, gigantic sized trees, nor are they always left unaffected by natural or human disturbances. They exhibit a multilayered canopy, which is created by tree species of varying sizes and ages. These forests typically need to be anywhere from 100 to 350 years old to be classified as old growth and will vary in composition depending on the area in which they are found. Fallen trees, woody debris, and dead standing trees (snags) are common attributes that contribute to high biomass. Canopy openings, pits, and mounds are other classic characteristics.
Old growth forests house diverse plant and animal species, some of which may be endemic or endangered and only thrive in these unique habitats. For example, some wildlife species may be dependent on old growth conditions for optimal nesting grounds because conditions might be more specialized than in younger stands. Small-scale, infrequent natural disturbances such as fire, disease, insect infestation, and storms are crucial in preserving genetic diversity, and old growth areas demonstrate resilience in maintaining ecosystem equilibriums. However, this resiliency has a limited capacity; if heavy degradation takes place and thresholds are crossed, unfavorable consequences are bound to arise.
Old growth forests help sustain healthy environments. Research has shown that old growth forests carry out important ecological functions such as climate regulation, soil and water conservation, maintenance of hydrological cycles, storage and cycling of nutrients, and breakdown of pollutants. Forestry products, fish and animal stocks, and recreational activities are some of the more tangible human benefits.
In spite of their ecological, economic, and social significance, these forests are vulnerable to increasing harmful anthropogenic disturbances; they have already suffered immensely on a global scale. Illegal logging practices, clear-cutting, and deforestation for agriculture, housing, and industry are major threats because they disrupt, if not completely destroy, forest equilibrium. These activities may also displace local or indigenous populations who rely on forest resources for everyday subsistence. Social and environmental implications have been severe as these forest tracts steadily decline. There has been great contention among politicians, scientists, industries, environmentalists, and citizens over the need to protect these forests and the desire to exploit them for short-term economic gains.
It takes a significant amount of time for old growth forests to reach their optimum state; it is likely that once biodiversity is lost it cannot be regained. Possible remediation efforts include restoration-a long-term process that can be implemented in order to encourage old growth features within a forest. Although mimicking natural features can accelerate this process, it is best achieved by leaving the forest alone for a substantial amount of time.
In recent years, public concern has resulted in calls for appropriate policy and management strategies to help prevent further devastation. Much attention has been focused on protecting these habitats so that rare species can survive and flourish. Perhaps the best known example in North America is the case of the northern spotted owl of the Pacific Northwest. This bird began to decline in numbers in the 1980s as a result of habitat destruction and was declared a threatened species.
Environmental organizations argued that extensive logging of the forest needed to be reduced, if not halted, while the timber industry stated that unemployment levels would rise, crippling the local economy. After years of legal and political dispute, the Northwest Forest Plan was signed in 1994 with the intent of executing more sustainable and environmentally friendly logging practices in old growth woodlands. The “jobs versus owls” controversy highlighted the complexity of finding a balance between human needs and those of the environment. Furthermore, it symbolized the wider social, cultural, and ecological implications of how to understand, manage, and protect forests. While there is now heightened appreciation for these forests, more pertinent scientific research must be conducted to truly understand how they function and respond to both shortand long-term changes.
- Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez, “Ethics and the Spotted Owl Controversy,” Issues in Ethics (v.4/1, 1991);
- Bill Freedman, Environmental Science: A Canadian Perspective (Prentice Hall, 2001);
- C. McCarthy, “Eastern Old-Growth Forests,” The Ohio Woodland Journal (July 2006);
- Mosseler, I. Thompson, and B.A. Pendrel, Environmental Reviews: Overview of Old-Growth Forests in Canada from a Science Perspective (Natural Resources Canada, 2003);
- Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Extension Notes: The Old Growth Forests of Southern Ontario (LandOwner Resource Centre, 1999);
- T.A. Spies et al., “Conserving Old-Growth Forest Diversity in Disturbance Prone Landscapes,” Conservation Biology (v.20/2, 2005).