"We are between two forested worlds–the natural forest of pre-[European] settlement North America and the recovered forest of the future… The earlier forested world is not dead. We are studying and struggling to preserve its living remnants. And we do not believe that the future forest is powerless to be born. These remnants–with our help–will become the seeds from which a renewed forest spreads."
- Mary Byrd Davis,
As two born-and-raised conservationists at different ends of the Appalachians, we can both recall our youthful naivete when it came to understanding the state of our Eastern US forests. Whether gazing out from an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway or a bald summit in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the view is stunningly beautiful: a multi-textured carpet of green unfurls as far as the eye can see.
We took that view at face value growing up, assuming the panorama hadn’t changed much since time immemorial, and likely didn’t question whether the green tapestry before us was a truly healthy forest, or in fact a forest in recovery. With a few more years under our belts and miles under our feet, we’ve come to realize a truth that, unfortunately, few Americans are ever taught in school: our forests are a fraction of what they once were, and few are managed to restore their former glory.
Our Eastern forests were decimated in the 19th and 20th centuries by logging. Centuries-old forests were liquidated, complex ecosystems vanished, rich topsoil eroded, and waterways were clogged with silt. Our forests today—as spectacular as they may be—play second fiddle to the forests that once were.
But from the massive bald cypress and tupelo gum trees in the blackwater swamps of South Carolina's Congaree National Park, to the sky-scraping old-growth white pines in the remote glacial eskers of New York's Five Ponds Wilderness, there are still living remnants of the Eastern forest that once dominated the landscape. Paddle or walk into their midst, and it's hard not to be overcome with awe and wonder. These remarkable, old-growth forests—remnants of what once was—must be preserved. They are also reminders of what could, with our help, someday be restored.
There are many good reasons to let our Eastern forests return to their former glory, and one of the biggest is their ability to store carbon. The East is the most forested region of the coterminous United States with some of the highest potential for storing carbon in trees. Storing carbon in mature and old-growth forests is one of the cheapest, most effective, and most immediate tools available to fight climate change. Older forests, in particular, are of outsized importance because they store much more carbon than younger forests. Fully utilizing these forests’ abilities to trap and store carbon can help mitigate the impacts of climate change, which are already happening in the Eastern US and across the world.
Old forests are also critical when it comes to supporting native biodiversity, mitigating flooding and erosion, protecting drinking water supplies, and producing clean air. These forests are important wildlife habitats and are often used for recreation and spiritual renewal.
To use these forests to their full potential we have to stop cutting them down. Approximately six times as much carbon is released from eastern US forests due to timber harvesting than all other forest disturbances combined, including wildfire—and in some Eastern states, the difference is closer to twentyfold. Wood products can store some amount of carbon for a period of time, but this is only a fraction of the carbon stored in a standing tree or even dead wood left to decompose in a forest. There is no way to harvest an old forest without putting significant carbon into the atmosphere. And a new forest planted to replace the old, harvested one won’t recapture the emitted carbon for decades or centuries at best—far too long to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. It is past time that we start recognizing our mature and old-growth forest for the carbon and biodiversity powerhouses that they are and stop cutting them down.
The easiest place to start is on federal forestlands. In the East, much of our best remaining old-growth and mature forest is on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Many of these forests are vulnerable to logging and in recent years the Forest Service has proposed increasing the amount of timber harvest on public lands. This is a foolish proposition where federal public lands make up a relatively small percentage of the total land area and private lands are already managed intensively for wood products. It would be far wiser, in our view, to manage mature and old-growth forests for their carbon storage and biodiversity values, putting our National Forests on a long-term path towards recovery of the complex and awe-inspiring forests that once blanketed much of our home region.
We have a unique opportunity in the Eastern United States. National Forests across the East can play a globally-significant role in solving the climate crisis – all we have to do is let them grow.
Patrick Hunter, Associate Attorney at Southern Environmental Law Center
Zack Porter, Director at Standing Trees