But they were few. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of forests in the eastern United States is old growth. Out of the 1.1 million acres in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, about 80,000 acres contain old growth. There, 150-, 200- and even 300-year-old trees can be found.
“To find little portions that have escaped, that is pretty special,” said Jill Gottesman, the southern Appalachian outreach coordinator for The Wilderness Society.
Nevertheless, roughly 20,000 acres of the old forests in the Nantahala and Pisgah are still susceptible to logging, not given special protection by the U.S. Forest Service. One such stand is adjacent to the protected Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest near Robbinsville but was not fortunate enough to have been included safely within its boundaries.
The stand is just over 1,000 acres in the Wright Creek drainage, bordering the Cherohala Skyway to the north and interspersed among other sections of forest that have been cut. It neighbors the Indian Creek drainage, another notable site of old growth trees.
Both sites have caught the eye of biologists and environmental activists, and once came within an eyelash of being logged over before advocates took forest service officials on a walking tour of the area to put its qualities on display.
The old growth stand along Wright Creek, with a carpet of wildflowers beneath, is easily picked out from the neighboring stands of dense, shrubby trees that were logged more recently. The old growth giants were temporarily saved from the saw, but Gottesman fears that unless the area is permanently protected the danger being cut will always be present. Cutting the trees could also disrupt the natural cycle and fragile habitat — the small area contains three species that are on the federal endangered list.
Also, a large tree’s trunk, once fallen, takes just as long to decompose as it did to grow. The decomposing tree provides habitat for countless animal species such as birds, chipmunks and salamanders, all the way down to the microbes that convert its wood back into soil. And it will be more than a century before another tree takes its place. Gottesman says that’s too long to wait, considering the paltry number of old trees in the forest.
“Knowing it takes generations for those trees to grow — I personally want my own children and grandchildren and great grandchildren to encounter trees like that,” Gottesman said.
And although old growth forest provide unique habitat in their shaded canopies and massive, fallen trunks, they also should be revered for their historical significance. They resemble the forests the Cherokee once walked through and the trees that the European settlers found when they first entered the Appalachians.
Gottesman says they’re just as much a part of the cultural heritage of the area as an old cemetery, a Native American archeological site or a settler’s home.
“These were the forests that our ancestors encountered when they came and settled this part of the world,” Gottesman said. “It’s a living history. It helps us connect to our past.”
And, they have stored in their wood a cross section of that history. Through their rings and physical markings, the oldest trees in the area have kept an accurate record of droughts, fires and conditions of the forest over the years.
“They’re like the chronicles of nature,” said Josh Kelly, public lands biologist with Western North Carolina Alliance, an environmental organization.
But their chronicles unfold at a different pace than those of human history. To mature into an old growth stand can take between 140 and 240 years after being cut. Logging cycles on private land typically occur every 80 years, Kelly said. Since logging stopped on much of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since its creation as a park in the 1930s and 1940s, Kelly said much of the woods within its borders are destined for old growth status in 100 years or so.
“We won’t see it in our lifetime,” Kelly said. “But that’s the benefit of public land — it can allow old growth forests to happen.”
Kelly said there has been a small but noticeable resurgence in old growth forests in recent years and a growing fondness for them. When park- and forest-goers visit stands of tall, looming trees, they can’t help but be drawn in by their grandeur.
“Old growth forests are charismatic,” Kelly said. “People love to see big trees.”
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and the adjacent Wright and Indian creeks, with rich soil and fertile growing conditions, have created poster children for the old growth cause.
Nevertheless, that creates a special challenge for the most common class of old growth trees in the Appalachians. Often found on ridge tops where the climate is harsh and the soil is poor, these trees are as old as they get but often scraggly and stunted.
Their remote and uninviting location have saved them from being logged over the years, but as the technology for logging has advanced, they may not have the superstar tree appeal to save them in the future.
Many people, Kelly said, will pass them by without even noticing, which creates a problem for their preservation.
“If people don’t know something, they can’t love it, and if they can’t love it they won’t protect it,” Kelly said.
Forest Service input session
The U.S. Forest Service is soliciting information and feedback from forest visitors, area residents and others on the state of the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. The forest service is undertaking a planning process that will determine how it manages the two forests for coming decades.
People supporting everything from logging interests to wilderness expansion to recreation and hunting advocates are weighing in. The agency expects to have a draft assessment report available to the public this summer and a final report this fall.
Officials are currently in the assessment phase of revising the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests management plan and are accepting comments through email as well as through two upcoming meetings in Franklin and in Asheville.
• 6-9 p.m. May 23 at Tartan Hall of the First Presbyterian Church, 26 Church Street in Franklin.
• 6-9 p.m. May 30 at the N.C. Arboretum, 100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way in Asheville.