Old growth forests, although rare, do exist within the Finger Lakes region. All you have to do is look.
We were only 15 minutes into our hike and I was already panting and lagging behind. Dr. Bruce Gilman was my guide for the day and his long strides were making quick work of the hillside. I peppered him with questions, hoping to slow the pace, but he answered each one without missing a step. Suddenly he stopped. We had arrived. I looked up. And up. And up. We were standing in a forest of trees that were enormous. Some of these beauties were 350 years old. The spectacle of fall colors before me made it all the harder to catch my breath.
It isn’t hard to find forests in the Finger Lakes. A hundred years ago, over 75 percent of our forests had been removed. That was before the Great Depression, when farms were abandoned and the fields were left to let nature plant her crops of forbs, shrubs and eventually, trees. Now we boast forested trails and parks and campgrounds that are destinations for many visitors and locals alike. But we were in search of something special. Gilman had brought me to this location in South Bristol in response to what I thought was a simple question: “What is an old growth forest?” The answer, it turns out, is as elusive as the forests themselves.
I had visited old growth forests in several western states, but had yet to truly grasp the concept other than to know it involved really old trees. And since the trees I had seen in the West were larger than anything I had seen in the East, I figured we had long lost all of our old growth. Not quite. First, our trees are different species than the redwoods or sequoias that are so famously large, and never reach the same heights (in fact, the tallest trees in New York are on the order of 150 feet high). And although most of our forests were logged, a few untouched pockets remain in the state, some right here in the Finger Lakes.
Instead of telling me what old growth was, Gilman began to point out characteristics of the area known as Whispering Creek Old Growth Forest at the Cutler Boy Scout Camp near Naples. “Start at the ground and work your way up,” he advised. “Notice the uneven ground? That is called pit and mound topography. When a large tree falls, the root mass is taken up from the ground forming a pit. Where they lay and decay, a mound is formed.” He pointed out numerous downed logs, several of considerable size. “Now let your eyes wander up. See the standing dead trees? They are called snags and make up an important component of an ancient forest.” The snags indicate maturity and a lack of human disturbance. Younger forests have dead trees too, but they don’t stand as long. In an area managed by people, dead trees are usually taken down as timber, firewood or simply to remove the potential hazard they pose if they were to fall.
Finally, I was instructed to identify the tallest of the trees. I am not an expert, but I was completely baffled when I looked at the bark. “I am sure my skin won’t look the same when I am 300,” I joked. I resorted to looking at leaves with my binoculars and got most of them right: white oak, hemlock, basswood. The common thread among these trees, according to Gilman, was the fact that they are all shade tolerant. That was the final piece of the puzzle.
“What about age?” I asked. “Surely we are going to have to include the age of trees in our definition somewhere.”
“Age is implied,” responded Gilman. “If the canopy, the top layer of the forest, is dominated by shade-loving trees, that tells you they grew up in the shadow of the first generations of trees, the sun-loving trees. That takes many decades.” The logic was easy to follow, but only after it had been pointed out to me.
Another excursion into old growth
My second trip into old growth was under the guidance of Dr. Rob Wink. I tagged along with Wink and 15 students on a trip to Zurich Bog near Newark. About 35 acres of old growth remain here, safe from past logging practices due to the bog that borders it on three sides. Two things became quickly apparent: Wink has a short stride, and mercifully, he stops when you ask him a question. The question was basically the same: “What is old growth?”
Wink immediately played the age card. “Most people think that an old growth forest is going to be a place where every tree is centuries old. That’s not a forest, that’s a museum.” It is the mix of ages that provides a key characteristic of old growth: a forest that sustains itself. Wink told the class, “We have fragmented the original forest of the Finger Lakes so that only tiny pockets of old growth or untouched areas remain. To be considered a true forest, it has to be self-perpetuating.” In general, that means no smaller than about 20 acres.
Wink sat us all among the silent giants and talked of the characteristics of old growth in much the same way Gilman had. I watched one student idly run his hand over a grapevine that was as thick around as a football. I looked into the eyes of these 19- and 20-year-old students who were being asked to view forests of 70 or 100 years old as “young” and wondered if the amount of time was just too much to truly comprehend. As a species, we are very reluctant to contemplate things that take centuries to accomplish. But that is exactly what Wink was asking. Instead of looking back 300 years, we looked forward. IF we allowed a forest to remain undisturbed for 300 years, it would be old growth. He rattled off a list of things that will influence that imaginary forest of the future. Introduced threats not present 100 years ago, such as the fungus that nearly wiped out American chestnuts, are also a danger to elm, beech, hemlock and sugar maples. The food habits of white-tailed deer (now numbering 1.4 million in New York), will surely shape the makeup of tomorrow’s forest as well. “One thing is certain. The forest will never look like it did in pre-European times,” he added gravely.
The definition of old growth
I sat with both men for one final interview. They share many similarities. Both hold PhDs from SUNY ESF and both are currently teaching at Finger Lakes Community College. They both found it amusing that I was frustrated in my attempts to define the term “old growth” for this article. It seemed that each agency website I visited gave me a slightly different definition. Some were tailored specifically to Western forests or only certain forest types.
“Old growth or ancient forests are really a concept that is only a few decades old. Conservation agencies still wrestle with the definition,” Wink winked. In fact the New York Old Growth Forest Association was only founded in 2002. Their formal definition of old growth includes most of what Gilman and Wink had mentioned, but there were definitely differences.
I am glad old growth is getting its due. There is a special quality to an ancient forest. All of the pieces of an ecosystem are there, working together. It is truly different from what we are used to seeing. Perhaps the essence of old growth is a mixture of art and science. Both men agreed.
While immersed in the old growth forests, I could certainly feel a difference. Not spiritual, but close. They evoked a sense of wonder; a link to the past and a hope for the future. According to Gilman, there may be undiscovered old growth sites in the Finger Lakes still. “I am willing to bet that some of the steep ravines around here have never been logged due to difficult terrain. These areas have poor growing conditions, so ancient trees will not reach gigantic proportions. We may find 300-year-old trees that are only 20 inches across.” Nearly all of the old growth sites in the Finger Lakes have been scientifically verified only within the last five to 10 years. Imagine finding an ancient forest, unknown to science, in our own backyard, hidden in plain sight.
Here is just a partial list of old growth sites in the Finger Lakes:
Canadice Lake, 600
Hemlock Lak, 415
Montezuma Refuge, 100
Fischer Woods, 30
Bentley Woods, 23
Watkins Glen SP, 15-25
Zurich Bog, 10
Before you go: Each of these areas has rules and regulations governing visitations. Some are completely restricted, while others require no special permission. The website listed here is a good starting point for locations and rules for some of the places mentioned. Before you set out, please contact the agency or organization that manages property for a complete set of rules.
by John VanNeil
John VanNeil is a professor in the Environmental Conservation department at Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua. He teaches wildlife and ornithology courses.