ESPERANCE — Walking through the forested trails of Landis Arboretum, one might notice the vibrant fall foliage, which was recently covered in the season’s first snowfall, or some of the homes that porcupines and other creatures have made in the trees.
What one might miss is the longevity of these forests, which was recently recognized by the Old-Growth Forest Network (OGFN).
The national network includes more than 100 forests in 23 states and hopes to preserve at least one publicly accessible forest in every county in the United States that can sustain one, an estimated 2,370 counties.
“It’s an ambitious goal but I think it’s a good goal,” said Fred Breglia, the executive director of Landis Arboretum.
Within Landis, which is in Schoharie County, there are 30 acres of old-growth forest. One trail, known as the Ancient Forest Trail, is packed with eastern hemlocks and sugar maples as well as red and white oaks that have reached more than 250 years of age. The Woodland Trail also features the old-growth forest, with more eastern hemlocks, yellow birch, American Beech, oaks and others.
There are few tell-tale signs of an old-growth forest, according to Breglia. They usually have undulating floors because the trees that have died create mounds where they’ve fallen. Another sign is that there are trees of a variety of ages.
“If you looked at all the biomass in a forest like this, you’d actually see approximately half the material dead or dying or rotting on the forest floor and then the other half alive,” Breglia said. “That creates a really complex network of bacteria and fungi within that soil system. Scientists over the years have realized that a lot of the stuff that we’ve been walking over is … most complex in the old-growth forest communities.”
Old-growth forests are also home to some of the world’s endangered species and tend to be better at carbon sequestration than younger forests.
“Forests have been proven more and more to be fighters in the climate change process. The older ones sequester more of those gases and they’re better at it,” Breglia said. “They actually store all of that carbon in many forms and over long periods of time the giant trees store so much more. Then, because they’re not just getting clear cut, it isn’t just released back to the atmosphere.”
“There is a real need to preserve them, not just for the future for children so they can see the forest but for our own well-being,” Breglia said.
“The U.S. has lost nearly 99 percent of the old-growth forests in the east [and] 95 percent in the west,” said Shawn Bevins, a longtime Landis volunteer and the Schoharie county coordinator for the Old Growth Forest Network. “The OGFN seeks to protect the remaining old-growth [and secondary growth] for future generations. It’s not about protecting just the trees but the diversity of the forests.”
Being part of the Old-Growth Forest Network requires forest managers to put preservation measures in place.
“For a forest to be inducted into the Old Growth Forest Network, the forest should have logging protections in place, be open to the public and be accessible,” Bevins said.
It also requires documentation of the dominant tree species growing there, along with the protection history of the tract. Anyone can nominate a forest via the network’s website. Then volunteer county coordinators, like Bevins, help to identify and verify the old-growth areas.
Several other forests are a part of the network in New York State, including the Thain Family Forest in the New York Botanical Garden in Bronx County, the Sucker Brook Trail in Hamilton County, and the Fisher Old-Growth Forest in Tompkins County, among others.
While Landis and the forest network plan to celebrate the induction next fall, new signs were recently erected at two trailheads to let visitors know about the Old Growth Forest Network. All along the trails, there are also signs with more information about the forests and the wildlife and Breglia hopes to add on to those in the future.
Over the last few months, more and more people have visited Landis, exploring the trails and perhaps learning more about the old-growth forests.
“It does seem like more and more people are getting in tune with the environment. COVID I guess in a weird way helped get people outdoors that maybe weren’t outdoors before,” Breglia said. “I do think when you make those connections with nature, not everyone is going to have that become part of their soul but once you make those connections I don’t think you can really break those connections too easily.”
To learn more about the Old Growth Forest Network, or to volunteer, visit oldgrowthforest.net. For more on Landis Arboretum visit landisarboretum.org.