The Value of Aging Trees

A big red oak on top of Sapsucker Ridge

A big red oak on top of Sapsucker Ridge

On a hot July day, I sit beneath a large red oak, nestled into a deep buttress, one of several that flare out from this 200-year-old tree. The ground beneath the tree is littered with old acorn remnants as are the bases of the other elders in this stand of deciduous trees.

Protected as a picnic spot by the previous owners, the trees were allowed to prosper even as other portions of our property were cut over in the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries. Instead of fencing a young forest, such as that last 120-acre cutover piece we acquired back in the 1990s, we put up our three-acre deer exclosure in March 2001 around these mature trees.

Now, as I gaze around, I see dozens of oak seedlings and saplings filling in the forest floor. Most are red oaks, but some are offspring of the enormous white oak beside the exclosure gate.

Technically, this is not an old-growth forest but one that is becoming old-growth. Still, it and much of the rest of our property consists of an aging forest. Not long ago, old trees were seen as useless and were harvested so that young trees would grow in their place. But in the last few decades scientists have been discovering that old trees in an old forest are incredible absorbers of carbon dioxide. And red oaks, with their dense wood, are particularly good at absorbing impressive amounts of carbon.

One study, in Massachusetts’s Harvard Forest, found that at 50 years of age, their trees, both oak and maple, were absorbing 0.8 tons of carbon per acre every year. After 15 years, the rate of carbon uptake had doubled. Researchers studying old-growth forests in the West discovered that those forests too absorbed more carbon as they aged.

One of those researchers, Bev Law, of Oregon State University, told a journalist that, “Across forest types, globally, we find that the amount of carbon stored is high in older forests, and that live carbon continues to accumulate for centuries.” This carbon is held not only in the trees themselves but in their fallen leaves and branches as well as in the fertile soil of old forests.

Law is director of the AmeriFlux Network, an international collaborative project founded in 1996 to measure the carbon dioxide, water vapor, and energy in all kinds of major ecological community types or biomes in North, Central, and South America. Using a variety of sophisticated tools, scientists are able to track carbon in any ecosystem. Here in our eastern forests, studies have been done in several states including the aforementioned Massachusetts.

Old trees in an old forest have other uses too. They provide large hollow trees for a variety of birds and animals that use them for nesting, food, and shelter. For instance, sycamore trees are the most massive trees in the eastern United States. They can grow over 100 feet tall and 10 feet wide and live up to 500 years. When they are very old, they have a cavity at ground level large enough, in one recent case, to house a maternity colony of 100 Indiana bats, researchers discovered back in 1993.

A giant eastern hemlock tree in Central Pennsylvania

A giant eastern hemlock tree in Central Pennsylvania

Large, hollow trees also appeal to children of a certain age. I was reminded of Jean Craighead George’s book My Side of the Mountain which my husband Bruce read aloud to all of us when our three sons were young. They were all entranced by the 12-year-old hero of the story, Sam Gribley’s large, hollow tree home in the wilds of the Catskill Mountains. In his case it was a hemlock tree. Remembering the many old-growth hemlocks we have (or had, before the hemlock woolly adelgids killed so many of them in our Pennsylvania old-growth forests), I knew that such trees might have been large enough to house one young boy.

Because our old-growth hemlock trees are mostly in Pennsylvania’s state natural areas, the trees attacked by adelgids have been allowed to die and be reclaimed by the earth as our son, Dave discovered during a recent visit to Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area. Many people find this wasteful, believing that such trees should be harvested. But Dr. Joan Maloof, who has been writing and speaking about the value of old-growth forests, maintains that “old-growth forests are one of the few land uses where topsoil is created instead of destroyed.”

We like to think that our own younger but mature forest is also creating soil as we allow our trees to fall over and rot, creating, as our young nephew Patrick once cried over and over, “Dirt, dirt, dirt” while sifting the powdery, reddish-brown remains of red oak branches through his fingers. Those powdery remains of the heartwood and sapwood appear to be a nursery for the downy rattlesnake plantains I’ve discovered inside and outside our exclosure. When we first put up the exclosure, I found a large colony of this orchid growing on a slope where several trees had rotted down to heartwood and sapwood. Another plant that we found outside the exclosure and fenced had germinated beneath a stump that was seeping rotted wood at its base.

Then, a couple years ago, I found still another downy rattlesnake plantain plant that had germinated on the decaying remains of a fallen red oak limb. At the same time, I noticed that the fenced plant outside the exclosure was looking poorly. I gathered up more of the “natural” fertilizer from the trunk and sprinkled it over the plant, and once again it is thriving. I haven’t seen any studies that indicate that downy rattlesnake plantain needs this material, but I wonder.

Photographing downy rattlesnake plantain in our deer exclosure

Photographing downy rattlesnake plantain in our deer exclosure

As our forest has aged over the last 41 years we’ve lived here and now nearing one hundred years of age in our hollow area, our forest bird diversity has increased. Fallen trees across our first-order, headwater stream, attract several breeding Louisiana waterthrushes and winter wrens. Barred owls court and nest in our larger, hollow trees. Scarlet tanagers, worm-eating warblers, and red-eyed vireos, among others, are more common than ever. Once we had no nesting black-throated green warblers, cerulean warblers, blue-headed vireos, winter wrens, or Acadian flycatchers, but our aging forest has attracted them. All of these bird species and several more, such as blackburnian warblers — depending on whether species need coniferous, deciduous or mixed deciduous forests — use older, mature forests. And the larger these forests are, the better the chances are for the birds to fledge nestlings.

The same is true for many mammal species. Bears, raccoons, and porcupines, for example, like to den in large, hollow trees. One study of black bear den trees found that in order for red and white oak trees to be big enough, they had to be between 175 and 280 years old, which reminds me of the huge oaks our boys found more than 30 years ago at the steep base of our mountain on a property line with a neighbor. They took some box camera photos of themselves standing in front of them and they looked as if they were as large as California redwood trees. I was amazed and delighted, but before I had a chance to see those trees, our neighbor’s logging operation had cut them down. The boys went to check on them and said that they were all hollow inside, so excellent habitat had been destroyed and not a dollar earned on those trees.

The same den tree study found that raccoons liked tree hollows in trees from 90 to 164 years old, and gray squirrels 65 to 130 years in age. Many bat species, too, like old trees with cavities and loose bark. Other opportunities for denning in older forests include in soil pits created by large root masses of wind-tilted trees, in the root masses themselves, and in stumps, logs, large, horizontal limbs and cavities in standing trees, all of which we have in abundance in our aging forest..

One special kind of older forest that has diminished greatly is that of mixed red spruce and hemlock in the northern tier of Pennsylvania. Such a forest especially appeals to red-backed voles, water shrews, and state-endangered northern flying squirrels. According to researcher Dr. Carolyn Mahan of Penn State, this type of coniferous forest creates a moist microclimate that supports a diversity of fungi, which both the voles and the northern flying squirrels thrive on. They also spread the fungi spores, thereby enriching the soil. Water shrews also seem to prefer such forests, but they like them to be in swampy ravines.

Megalodacne heros beetles feed and mate on varnish shelf fungi, found on an ancient hemlock logs

Megalodacne heros beetles feed and mate on varnish shelf fungi, found on ancient hemlock logs

We also have red-backed voles in our deciduous forest, and Mahan explains that they are not specific to old red spruce/hemlock forests, but more of them are found there than in forests such as ours. Northern flying squirrels are much rarer in our state because they are habitat specialists and their red spruce/hemlock forests have been lost to habitat fragmentation from development of all kinds and to hemlock woolly adelgids. The remaining smaller, patchier coniferous groves next to deciduous forests also attract the more generalist and numerous southern flying squirrels. They are sharing nest sites and even hybridizing with northern flying squirrels, and in the process, passing on a roundworm species, Strongyloides robustus, to which they seem to be immune but which is killing the northern flying squirrels.

Mahan has 600 nest boxes in 21 study sites for the northern flying squirrel, and this year not one northern flying squirrel has been found in any of those boxes. Last year she and other researchers planted an experimental 2500 native red spruce seedlings among the dying hemlocks of a site and others in a recent Game Commission clearcut which was fenced to see if they will grow and thrive and someday produce more red spruce forests. If they do well, they will plant more red spruce seedlings. But think how long it will be before there will be another red spruce forest as magnificent of those we had in Pennsylvania. How much better it would have been if we had saved larger pieces of our older spruce forests.

After talking to Mahan and other researchers, I am more determined than ever to keep growing an older forest. But on this hot summer day, I most appreciate our mature forest for its deep shade that cools not only me but all the creatures large and small that live here.

All photos by Dave Bonta ~ click on images to view larger versions at Flickr

Christmas books for nature-lovers

Christmas is coming and even in this super-technological world, some of us still like to curl up with a good book. If you are such a person or if someone like that is on your Christmas list, you might be interested in one of the following books.

Cerulean BluesCerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon tells you everything you might want to know about cerulean warblers as she follows researchers at the Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia’s northern panhandle and the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area a few miles south of the Cumberland Gap in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains. Both areas are thought to be in prime cerulean warbler habitat, which researchers say stretches from southwest Pennsylvania through all of West Virginia and into eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.

Along the way, Fallon profiles the prominent senior cerulean warbler researchers — Paul B. Hamel and Petra Wood — as well as the graduate students and others who search for cerulean warbler nests during late spring and early summer. She spends days in the field with them and days in the library researching the history of the cerulean warbler beginning with the early bird artists Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon. Wilson, known as “the father of American ornithology,” was a Scots man who immigrated to Philadelphia. In his Volume II of American Ornithology, he calls the cerulean warbler “one of our scarce birds in Pennsylvania,” but he saw it “on the borders of streams and marshes, among the branches of the poplar” in the Philadelphia area early in the nineteenth century.

Fallon also discusses the threats to cerulean warblers on their breeding and wintering grounds — mountaintop removal coal mining and habitat fragmentation in their core breeding areas and sun coffee agriculture and logging in their wintering habitat in the Andes Mountains of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and maybe even as far south as Bolivia.

She even travels to Colombia to attend the Cerulean Warbler Summit and visits the Cerulean Warbler Reserve — a 500-acre forest created through a partnership between ProAves and the American Bird Conservancy in 2005. This was the first reserve in South America created for a bird that breeds in North America.

Because Fallon is a creative writing teacher, her book is lively, and she records numerous adventures both here and abroad. Black and white photos of habitat and people are sprinkled throughout the book such as one of boys dressed as warblers in San Vicente, Colombia, as part of a parade celebrating ProAve’s Fifth Annual Migratory Birds Festival. ProAves, which means “for the birds,” is a nonprofit Colombian organization formed in 1998 “to protect birds and their habitats in Colombia through research, conservation action and community outreach.” Fallon also includes dismal photos of the remains of what used to be Kayford Mountain in southwestern West Virginia, and, of course, a photo of the beguiling bird itself perched on the finger of a West Virginia researcher.

Her Epilogue entitled “Help Save the Cerulean Warbler” includes a plea to buy shade grown coffee because the forest canopy above the coffee shrubs provides a winter home for cerulean warblers and many other migratory and resident songbirds. She also asks readers to speak out against mountaintop removal coal mining which Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. calls “the worst example of what human beings can do to their environment when they behave irresponsibly.”

The End of CountryHere in Pennsylvania many folks feel the same way about Marcellus shale gas drilling. That brings me to my second book The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone by Seamus McGraw, a 51-year-old journalist whose mother contacts him and his sister about whether or not she should sell gas-drilling rights on her property near Dimock, Pennsylvania in Ellsworth Hill.

McGraw sets out to discover all he can about the natural gas rush in the commonwealth. As he said in a later interview, “the risks are real and profound and cannot be minimized,” but he also thinks that there are real benefits to those who strike it rich and to our greater society looking for a clean energy future.

Unfortunately, the extraction of natural gas is neither clean nor quiet as neighbors discover. And in Dimock, at least, some wells are polluted with methane due to improper drilling by one company. But, on the other hand, at least one person, Ken Ely, strikes it rich.

McGraw has written a book that satisfies neither the gas industry nor the conservationists opposed to gas drilling. Mostly, it is about how the drilling affects individual lives, namely Ken Ely and his neighbor Victoria Switzer. Ely sells off his gas rights, figuring he’ll never see another penny. To his amazement, the Ely well produces so much natural gas that he is a millionaire overnight. And that’s only the beginning.

Perhaps Tom Brokaw best summed up the book when he wrote, “The End of Country is an elegantly written and unsettling account of what can happen when big energy companies come calling in rural America. This cautionary tale should be required reading for all those tempted by the calling cards of easy money and precarious peace of mind. The result too often is bitter feuds, broken dreams, a shattered landscape.” I can testify from friends living in fracking land that it does mean “the end of country” and all that might imply.

But, needing the money and assured by the gas company that the risks are minimal, like many of her rural neighbors, McGraw’s mother signs over her rights for $2500 an acre, far more than many of her neighbors received who took offers as low as $25.00 an acre earlier.

And Ken Ely? You’ll have to read the shocking (to me) ending to find out.

Among the AncientsAmong the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests by Joan Maloof is a book I wish I had written. Imagine visiting old-growth forests from Alabama to Maine and New Jersey to Michigan — twenty-six forests in all — in each state east of the Mississippi River. Actually, I was surprised at how many we have visited — the Sipsey Wilderness in Alabama’s William B. Bankhead National Forest, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina, West Virginia’s Cathedral State Park, Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, and Pennsylvania’s Cook Forest State Park.

Some are more impressive than others. Maloof is especially disappointed by Mississippi’s Bienville Pines Scenic Area in the Bienville National Forest, “a forest gone missing,” she calls it after a fruitless search for what was described on the Internet as a scenic area of 180 acres containing “the largest known block of old growth pine timber in Mississippi.” The advertised trail is gone and no local person knows anything about it. When she finds it she sees that it has been logged, a ‘mechanical reduction’ to lower the risk of fire near a populated area that is “standard forestry practice.” Mississippi does not look good in Maloof’s account and neither does the National Forest Service or forestry practices in general.

But Maloof has a list she calls “Other Forests of Interest” at the back of her book, and the alternate for Mississippi — Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area–is an excellent remnant of old-growth forest according to our son Mark who has lived in Mississippi for several years and just finished writing a book on the natural places of the delta area of the state. Sky Lake WMA, in the Mississippi Delta, has a board walk through old-growth bald cypress forest and is heavily promoted and visited by local people proud of it, unlike the citizens near Bienville Pines Scenic Area who are either unaware or scared of the place. Incidentally, Maloof’s other choice in Pennsylvania is Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area.

Along with a map, travel directions, and a photo, each chapter also has fascinating natural and human history material, for instance, on wildflowers and beetles, butterflies and crabwood, bluebead lily, Lucy Braun, nesting hawks, the Bealls, Henry Ford, tulip poplar trees, Bob Leverett, and, in Pennsylvania, the family Cook. People, she stresses, have saved these forests. Many have been private landowners and others, such as Lucy Braun and Bob Leverett, have studied and promoted old-growth.

She concludes by naming her top four old-growth forests — the Porcupine Mountains, the Sipsey Wilderness, Congaree National Park in South Carolina, and our own Cook Forest. “These are the places I keep urging others to visit so they, too, will see and understand what our land aspires to be, and what it can perhaps be again in more places, given enough time.” Maloof, a professor biology and environmental studies, is well-qualified to write such an eloquent, opinionated, and convincing book about the worth and beauty of old-growth forests.

The Forest UnseenAt last, we come to the ideal book for the nature nerd on your list: The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. He too, is a biology professor who chooses to sit for hours at a time observing one square meter of old-growth Tennessee forest on the Cumberland Plateau. He calls it his “mandala” which he explains is “a re-creation of the path of life, the cosmos, and the enlightenment of Buddha. The whole universe is seen through this small circle of sand,” a mandala he saw that was created with sand by two Tibetan monks on his campus. But he sits on a flat slab of sandstone on a forested slope in steep, rock-strewn terrain that kept the loggers away.

There he sits through the four seasons many times a week and covers a vast number of subjects in great detail such as how deer digest their food, the lives of Plethodon lungless salamanders, the biology of ticks, the reproduction or rattlesnake ferns, medicine from nature, sharp-shinned hawk, in summary, something for everyone who has an interest in some aspect of the eastern forest.

His account can be poetic, i.e. “lightning-white fungal strands crackle over black leaves,” and introspective, “the world does not center on me or my species. The causal center of the natural world is a place that humans had no part in making. Life transcends us. It directs our gaze outward.”

He also makes frequent comments about conservation, some so subtle that you have to read them again to appreciate them. For instance, in a section he calls “Chainsaw” he asks, “How should we treat our forests, as a gift to be wisely and sustainably managed or as an ‘industrial process’ in which we run down nature’s capital, mining the soil, and then discarding the spent land?…Our laws and economic rules place short-term extractive gain over other values.”

Finally, maybe the most controversial point he makes as an ecologist has to do with white-tailed deer. “Most of the scientific studies of eastern North America forest ecology in the twentieth century were conducted in an abnormally unbrowsed forest…’Overbrowsing’ by deer may be returning the forest to its more usual sparse, open condition,” he writes. Haskell quotes from old letters and diaries about the great abundance of deer in the 16th and 17th centuries and mentions that Native Americans cleared and burned forests to provide food for plentiful deer.

Merry Christmas and good reading!

Marcia's library

Marcia’s library is dominated by nature books and field guides

A Walk in the Park

Ganoga Falls 1“Is there anything that can sting me?” our granddaughter Eva asked as she peered down at the lake bottom.

She and I were swimming in Lake Jean at Ricketts Glen State Park. It was a hot day in early June, and this was ten-year-old Eva’s first experience of lake-swimming.

Like her mother Luz she enjoys swimming, but at first she walked almost fearfully into the water. Because she was used to swimming in the warm water off the Bay Islands in Honduras, where she had gone snorkeling the previous year, or in swimming pools in Mississippi, where she lives, I had assumed that the cold water was bothering her.

I assured her that no harmful creatures lurked in the water or hid in the sand, and she relaxed. I performed my usual back and side strokes in my 45-year-old, two-piece bathing suit, while she performed the Australian crawl and back stroke in her newer, more stylish, two-piece bathing suit. The last time I had gone swimming was with her mother, Luz, at Whipple Dam State Park, when Eva was an infant. Where had the decade gone?

My husband Bruce and I had been eager to introduce Eva to our favorite place in all of Pennsylvania–Ricketts Glen State Park and specifically the Falls Hike, which we had always referred to as the Glen Hike. We had been hiking it for nearly half a century, through courtship, marriage, children, and now grandchildren. But we had never swum in Lake Jean or taken any of the other trails.

This time we had decided to rent a cabin and spend several days at the park. After our swim, we headed to the park office to pick up the keys for our cabin. But Bruce’s online reservation hadn’t gone through. We had no cabin, and after touring a series of increasingly dreary, privately-owned cabins nearby, we headed for the motels of Wilkes-Barre. Weary with searching and disappointment, we engaged a room in the first one we saw.

Imagine us, laden with a huge cooler of perishables, several cardboard boxes of food, backpacks, and suitcases, which we loaded onto a luggage carrier supplied by the Hilton Garden Hotel, and took up to our room. Bruce was not going to sacrifice our planned Falls Hike, and I was not going to sacrifice our perishables. We carefully packed them into the small, motel refrigerator in our room.

“Camping out in a Hilton,” we joked as I heated up our baked bean supper in a microwave oven, also thoughtfully provided by the Hilton. Still, it was a real blow not to stay in a state park cabin, something Eva had been looking forward to because she had never stayed in a cabin. But she rallied sooner than I did.

hobblebush 2I was still glum the following morning as I prepared breakfast. I pulled out a bag of thawed wild blueberries, intent on putting them on our cold cereal, but the bag had sprung a leak. Blueberry juice dripped on my new jeans and the rug. Yelling an oath, I raced to the bathroom and drained the bag into the sink. While Bruce tried to scrub my jeans clean, Eva tackled the rug. Finally, we settled down to breakfast, the blueberries on top of our cereal, the stains more-or-less gone from my jeans and the rug.

It was not an auspicious beginning. But despite the warm, humid weather, our day improved once we reached the lower parking lot at the park. First, we climbed down to Adams Falls. Many folks consider that falls, a series of three cascades, 18, 25, and 10 feet high, that races through deep, narrow gorges, the most beautiful falls in the park. We followed a series of large plunge pools formed by the erosion of turbulent water, the most impressive of which is Leavenworth Pool, which is about 30 feet in diameter and eight to ten feet deep. Eva was sufficiently impressed by the wild scene.

Then we told her about the waterfall hidden underneath Pennsylvania highway 118, which we could not see. She was as incredulous as we had always been at what seemed to be almost sacrilegious–building a highway over a waterfall. We wondered if the highway engineers had thought that 22 named waterfalls were enough.

We had the place almost to ourselves that weekday. And those we passed on the trail didn’t take the whole hike, short-circuiting it either from above or below. They seemed surprised that we did. No doubt they were heeding the warning in the park brochure that it was a difficult hike and hikers should be in good physical condition. But we wanted Eva to experience the trail as we had for nearly half a century. I had always said, half-jokingly, that when I could no longer hike the Glen Hike I would be old.

The long walk through what used to be an intact old-growth forest, following the meandering Kitchen Creek, is the only level part of the entire walk. Despite the demise of the huge hemlocks, either uprooted by a hurricane or dying from woolly adelgids, the wildflowers put on a fantastic show–whole beds of maple-leafed waterleaf, jack-in-the-pulpit, Canada mayflowers, and white-twisted stalk bloomed. I even found a couple of faded painted trilliums. But the giants were gone, and we could not share them with our granddaughter.

Adam's Falls 1Once the trail narrowed and started up North Mountain, we could share the water that still drips from the moss-covered rocks along the trail, the wild gardens of wildflowers, tree saplings and both common and rock polypody ferns that grow atop the giant boulders overhanging the water, and the Louisiana waterthrushes and winter wrens that sang above the roar of the water.

Best of all, we could share the waterfalls. Because of the endurance of rock, they hadn’t changed either. Only their setting had diminished. Recently, the park had repaired and rebuilt the superb series of rock steps that employees of Colonel Ricketts had constructed back in the nineteenth century for trout fishermen. We even glimpsed the famed brook trout in a few pools.

I don’t think that Eva actually believed me when I told her that we would see 22 named waterfalls on the hike, but after we passed three more waterfalls before Watersmeet and started up Ganoga Glen, she was more than convinced, especially when I began pointing out unnamed waterfalls as well.

“In Mississippi, they would be named,” she told us. They don’t have many waterfalls in that state and they cherish every cascade.

After passing seven more waterfalls, all named for Iroquois Indian tribes, we reached Ganoga Falls. Ganoga means “Water on the Mountain” and, at 94 feet, it is the highest waterfall in the park and the second highest waterfall in Pennsylvania. But large or small, each waterfall has its unique architecture, here a long, narrow one, there a shorter, wide one–all sculpted by water over rock. Often, we stood close to a fall and welcomed its fine spray as the day warmed up.

At the top of the mountain, we took the Highland Trail that connects Ganoga Glen to Glen Leigh. But the huge American beech trees, once prominently marked by black bears, are also gone, dead from beech bark disease. In their place are spindly, young beech trees that will never reach the girth of their parent trees.

Once again the rocks remained, a jumble of huge glacial boulders, some showing glacial scratches, halfway along the trail. At one place we walked through a five-foot-wide gap between two rocks aptly named “Midway Crevasse.” After the roar of the water, the silence along this trail was broken only by the singing of black-throated green warblers and American redstarts. And then we started down Glen Leigh. Although it has only eight waterfalls, two less than Ganoga Glen, it is steeper and has always seemed wilder to me. After finding a scenic lunch spot overlooking 30-foot-high Shawnee Falls, we told Eva the history of the park, including the two glens known as the Glens Natural Area, which is a National Natural Landmark.

Ricketts Glen State Park was originally part of an 80,000-acre estate owned by Colonel Robert Bruce Ricketts, who led Battery F during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. In the 1920s the Ricketts family sold more than half the property to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and today the adjacent SGL#57 and the nearby SGL#13 add considerably more wild acreage to the 13,050 park acres in Luzerne, Sullivan and Columbia counties, acreage that we had hoped to explore had we stayed in a cabin.

Most of the park, including the waterfall area, was approved as a national park site in the 1930s, but World War II intervened, and the area was sold instead to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by Ricketts’ heirs for a state park. Lake Jean and the now dry Lake Rose, where we had once picnicked with our sons, were named for Ricketts’ daughters. Those waterfalls not given Native American names such as Mohican, Cayuga, Delaware, Seneca, and Huron, were named for Ricketts and his relatives. We pointed out the 40-foot-high R.B. Ricketts waterfall to Eva as we continued on down Glen Leigh.

painted trillium 1In those early days, the local people called it “Kitchen Crick,” according to Bruce. As a young boy, he had gone once to Ricketts Glen with his Uncle Gilbert and great Uncle Byron and remembers them walking through the old-growth and identifying the trees. Eva likes to hear family stories so we also told her about her Grandpa’s people who had come down from Connecticut to settle at the base of North Mountain and farm, about his Grandpa Ide’s apple farm and how every year Bruce and his family, who lived in New Jersey, went back to visit family at the old farm.

Once we reached Watersmeet, rumbles of thunder hastened our walk back. Eva and Bruce had easily hiked all 7.2 miles of the Falls Trail, but I struggled during the last descent from the last waterfall, sweat pouring off me. I’ve never counted the stone steps that lead from waterfall to waterfall, but I suspect they number in the hundreds. And the elevation drop is 1,000 feet in a little over two miles.

As Eva and Bruce forged on ahead, I welcomed the level rerun through the remnants of the old-growth forest and walked slowly, because, as usual, I was loath to leave the peace of the trail. The rain held off until we were back in our car and headed for home. Nature, at least, had not let us down even if the park reservation system had.
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All photos taken at Rickett’s Glen by Dave Bonta on May 14, 2007. To see the complete photoset, click here.

In Search of Old-Growth

Every time our son Dave suggests a field trip in search of old-growth forests, I get nervous. I also grab my walking stick. That’s because these rumored old-growth remnants are always on steep rocky slopes that discouraged loggers back in the late 1800s. They also discourage me. Navigating up boulder-strewn mountainsides is not my strong suit.

Dave first tested my mettle back in late February of 2002. He had been intrigued by a research paper entitled “Relating Land-use History and Climate to the Dendroecology of a 326-year-old Quercus prinus Talus Slope Forest,” by Charles M. Ruffner and Marc D. Abrams of Penn State University. It wasn’t so much the subject matter that caught his attention but the location of the forest–on the top of Thickhead Mountain above the Detweiler Run Natural Area in Rothrock State Forest. The 463-acre old-growth hemlock/white pine forest in the natural area is one of our favorite places in Pennsylvania. Yet somewhere high above it grows a 65-acre old-growth chestnut oak forest. We had to see it!

Accompanying the article was a rough map of the area. Dave and my husband Bruce studied that map, cracked out the corresponding topographical map, and carefully plotted our route via gravel roads to the closest access point. The winter of 2002 had been snow-free, and we knew that the forest roads would be open so off we went one sunny day.

We left our car by the side of the road and bushwacked through the woods near the rocky mountaintop that rapidly became a talus slope. After carefully picking my way over and around rocks for a half-mile and slowing down the men, I told them to go ahead. I would sit on a rock and wait for them. They weren’t gone for more than a few minutes before the talus slope erupted with chasing, courting chipmunks, providing great entertainment for me during my long wait.

After an hour the sun disappeared and the day turned gray and damp. I put on a second jacket and pulled up the hood. Canada geese honked in the distance and, as the sky darkened, a pair of great horned owls hooted. A couple raindrops pinged down. Then more raindrops fell. Still there was no sign of the men.

I looked around for shelter and spied a white pine tree that appeared to be denser than the others. Just as I headed toward it, I heard Bruce calling to me. They never had found the old-growth. As cold rain pelted down, we made our slow way back to the car, getting thoroughly soaked in the process.

Since we hadn’t actually found the site, I took solace in reading the description of it in the Ruffner/Abrams paper. The “extreme talus conditions of the site [had] prevented exploitation of the timber resources” by charcoal and logging operations. Fairly well-distributed old growth chestnut oak trees dominate the overstory while black birch, red maple, and black gum represent understory trees. “The stand,” they write, “is characterized by low-branching, twisted, sparse-crowned individuals typical of old-growth forests.”Of course, old-growth oak forests on poor sites, such as dry talus slopes, don’t look like old-growth on well-watered and fertile sites. “More important than size,” says eastern old-growth guru Robert Leverett in an Orion article by Tom Horton, “are [the trees’] tops, broken and contorted, flattened in broccoli shapes, craggy limbs devoid of the fine, twiggy branching of younger trees.” Leverett also looks for thick moss growing several feet up a tree because he says that it takes moss centuries to grow half an inch thick.

Such a description was in our minds when we set out on our next search for old-growth forest last November. Ecologist Beth Brokaw, working on the Huntingdon County Natural Heritage Inventory for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, had discovered old-growth characteristics in another portion of Rothrock State Forest, what she called the Seven Stars Biodiversity Area. That was only 20 miles from our home and on a brilliant autumn day we went off again in search of old-growth. This time we had more precise directions, we thought.

We took a road that climbed up the side of Tussey Mountain from Colerain and afforded lovely views of the valley below. After several miles of gravel road, we reached the Seven Stars BDA. Dave had been eyeballing the trees above the road on a steep slope strewn with large boulders. Many large chestnut oaks had contorted shapes and broccoli tops. A few of the largest trees had thick moss several feet up their trunks. To me it looked like a troll’s forest and unlike any forest I had seen in Pennsylvania.

“It won’t bring in the ecotourists,” Dave said.

Once again, though, we had looked in the wrong place. It was the forest below the road that most interested Brokaw. That forest had fewer boulders and was more diverse with a fair number of large tulip trees, cucumber magnolias, black gums, and chestnut, red, and white oaks. It also had several charcoal flats and the remains of an old charcoal haul road. Tom Thwaites, author of Fifty Hikes in Central Pennsylvania, maintained that both the flats and the road were evidence that trees had been cut to fuel the Colerain Forges from 1805 to 1850. Could trees not much over 150 years in age be old-growth, Thwaites asked?

“Second growth can be considered old-growth,” Dave said, “depending on how you define ‘old.’ The minimum definition used by Marc Abrams calls for simply a majority of canopy-height trees over 150 years old. But the more standard definition of an old-growth stand is that the median age of canopy height trees of any given species should be half the normal expected lifetime of that species.” Since the life span of chestnut oak trees is 200 to 300 years old, 150-year-old chestnut oak trees could be considered old-growth.

Brokaw, on a field trip she led to the area late in November, told us that she had talked to a forester from Rothrock who had mentioned that there might be pockets of old-growth chestnut oak in the area, but that most of the forest was maturing second growth. If left alone, it would attain old-growth status in not too many more years.But who would decide when it had crossed the line? Leverett contends, in an article he wrote called “Old-Growth Forests of the Northeast,” that “…there is never a point when a forest becomes clearly identifiable as old-growth… [because] forests do not progress toward the old-growth phase via a single path.” He and other old-growth researchers are finding that different kinds of eastern forest age in different ways. For instance, old-growth oak and hickory forests are probably impacted by wind and fire disturbance and may not have thick organic soil layers like old-growth conifer forests.

Then, too, many anthropogenic changes have been wrought on the eastern forests. Original Appalachian oak sites, such as the Ruffner/Abrams research plot, were also dominated by American chestnuts and were called, by earlier researchers, oak-chestnut forests. Today the chestnut component is gone.

Size is also not a reliable indicator. Big trees are not necessarily old trees as we found out on still another old-growth expedition. This time we decided to visit an old-growth site in a state forest natural area, one that I had been told years ago was difficult to reach via a steep powerline right-of-way and not terribly worthwhile. On the other hand, Chuck Fergus, in his excellent and recently-published book Natural Pennsylvania: Exploring the State Forest Natural Areas, had given alternate, more accessible directions to the Mt. Logan Natural Area in Bald Eagle State Forest. Dave was keen to see the place, and I must admit that I hadn’t read Fergus’s account of the site as carefully as I might have. Luckily, though, I did remember my walking stick and Bruce’s.

After a bumpy ride to the end of Nittany Ridge Road, we parked the car and followed a deeply-rutted, mud and water-filled old road, passing two ephemeral ponds on the right. Just before we reached the blue-blazed Winchester Trail, I spotted a porcupine walking along a parallel white pine branch above the road. Then, as we started up the trail, a noise to my right alerted me to another porcupine, high in a large oak tree, peering down at us. Already, this seemed like a great place.

At first the trail was easy. I admired the white pine regeneration in the forest even as the mountain slope steepened and more and more rocks appeared. Ever upward the trail went to over 2100 feet. It wasn’t the ascent so much as the rocks themselves that slowed me down. How would I ever get down in one piece? Still, I persevered.

When we reached the base of the crest, I was almost defeated. Layers of Tuscarora quartzite formed a hogback 20-feet-high and there was no way around it. The blue blazes snaked back and forth up the rocks. Dave had long ago reached the crest. Comfortably seated on the rocky top, his back against a white pine, he egged us on. My walking stick was no help at all. I had to use my hands to pull myself up, and I was a quivering mass of nerves by the time I reached the top. That was when I looked at Fergus’s account more carefully. “The rock [Tuscarora quartzite] is a pale tan, almost white, and on top of Mt. Logan it stands in low cliffs ten to twenty feet in height. Below the cliffs lie boulder fields, also known as talus slopes: jumbled, tilted, clack-together slabs ranging in size from dictionaries to pool tables.” Exactly.We sat on the crest to eat our bag lunches as turkey vultures floated past and we enjoyed a view of blue mountains through the trees. The forest had been silent on our way up the trail, but once we reached the summit we could faintly hear the traffic from U.S. 220’s four-lane, limited express highway to Lock Haven below us.

Somewhere below us also was the old-growth hemlock forest. I groaned when I saw that it too was strewn with boulders. I not only struggled over rocks but through almost impenetrable thickets of mountain laurel. I made it to the edge of the old-growth, and once more found a rock while the men continued on. Still, I did see the difference between the surrounding second-growth oak and the old-growth hemlock. Thick, thick layers of moss covered the leaf and needle duff on and between the rocks. Long ago fallen large trees were hoary with moss and the live trees had the reddish-brown bark of old-growth hemlock.

Bruce soon joined me as Dave went farther afield to explore the 50-acre site. As we sat under the swaying hemlocks waiting for him, a common raven croaked past. Then we heard the clear “fee-bee” of black-capped chickadees and three surrounded us and scolded “dee-dee-dee.” No doubt humans were a novelty to them in this remote place. We saw no sign of deer. Surely no self-respecting deer would risk their graceful, thin legs in such a pile of rocks. A coyote would, though, and we found a pile of very fresh coyote scat.

“This is what I wanted to see,” Dave said when he returned. “This is what our mountain probably once looked like.”

How I got back down the mountain is probably better left unsaid. I did make it on my own after I inched my way off the crest with Bruce’s assistance. Otherwise, I blessed my walking stick many times and made a vow (as I have on other trips) that if I made it safely back, I would never again climb a steep, rocky trail.

On the other hand, seeing more “old-growth” is a mighty motivator. “Time travel,” Dave calls it.