The Black Road Ridgeway running through the Black Forest, with green hills and evergreen trees on either side.

Ecology: The Distinction Between Old Growth and New Growth in the Forest

If you are reading this, you have likely taken a walk through the woods before. Forests cover about 30% of land on Earth, and humans live in the majority of that land. Aside from those living in the desert or underwater, a patch of trees is never far away.  There is a magical feeling when you go under the brush, like mystery and adventure is always around the corner. In addition, the idea that you are next to living things thousands of years old is amazing to think about.

I hate to break it to you, but the last sentence is a lie. The forest you walk through is nowhere near thousands of years old. In fact, excluding specific areas like national parks and protected lands, a hundred year old tree is very rare on this Earth. Why is that? Well, the reasons are far more complicated than one may think. The people behind it all are easy to hate, but they are also the reason you are alive today.

How To Find Old Growth

old growth forest
Tillamook Head trail in Ecola State Park. Ian Collins

Before we continue, we all need to be on the same page. Everyone has to know the difference between old growth and new growth. In the simplest terms, old growth is growing plants that are old. These forests have either never been touched or not been touched in a long time by a big event. There is an overall lack of order in the vegetation. There are trees of all different shapes and sizes. All plants that have grown are not all straight and have grown at weird angles. Moss and ivy are all over the ground and on tree trunks.

How To Find New Growth

new growth forest
A typical new growth forest

While it may not be obvious, there are many differences in a new growth forest. Sometimes called a secondary forest, big events have touched these forests recently. The trees look much smaller and younger. The layout is more organized, with the trees very close together and all around the same size. There are no dead trees that new ones are growing on top of. There is little moss and ivy growing on the trunks. The trees themselves look like they could fall over at any moment. While still looking healthy, it doesn’t look nearly as strong as old growth.

Why This Even Matters

differences between wood
Top wood is new growth, bottom wood is new growth.

Now that the basics are out of the way, many might still have questions. The biggest question is why the distinction exists in the first place. Shouldn’t we just call it all a forest and leave it at that? Well, the reason is that both have an equally important role in nature. Old growth has the most apparent uses in nature. A sturdy and lived-in ecosystem like these forests is great for life to thrive. A community not disturbed by humans, old growth is a great place to study plants and animals. The number of generations in the area makes the soil rich with nutrients, making the forest self-sustainable. These old plants can also take large amounts of pollution out of the air and store them, keeping the planet clean.

New growth has its own unique benefits. While older forests are bigger, they are harder to live in. Only insects and small mammals can live in the dense brush. Newer forests have less in the way, allowing larger mammals and birds to make a home where they otherwise could not. These young forests are also just young enough to be eaten. Small animals like rabbits and squirrels can eat what they want without much challenge. Also, some plants rely on being destroyed to live on. Pinecones and other seeds need to be burned to open up and be planted, making wildfires essential. The efforts to stop fires sometimes do more harm than good. If a virus swept the area, the new forest could easily start again. This would be impossible for new growth.

What To Take Away

A careful balance of these two types of forests needs to exist. Too much old growth could be harmful to animals and make forests more volatile. The trees will survive, but not much else will. Too much new growth could lead to the planet being damaged with no way to repair it. The pollution in the air will eventually kill evertything long If there is one thing that needs to be learned, it is that mindful use of forests needs to happen. Unfortunately, some have not learned that lesson, and that has led to consequences.

Logging And You

early logging industry
A group of logger chopping down a large tree.

Humans have needed trees and forest as long as humans could live. Wood is a major resource for humans. Firewood is the reason humans are still around today. Wood was among the earliest materials to build homes, which led to the job of woodworking. Wood is one of the five main elements in Chinese culture. Countries like the United States have major industries around the use of wood. Aside from homes, the furniture industry is hugely profitable and mostly uses wood. Trees are the main ingredient to make paper, cardboard, and other stationery. Wood is still a fuel source for many engines and heaters used today. Wood even has a place in fine art, with paintings and sculptures often using the material as a base.

Obviously, a large amount of wood has to be provided to sustain all of this. Recycling is an option, but the rate of reusing wood products is simply to slow to keep up with demand. We have to resort to chopping down some forests. How much of the forest? Well, roughly enough trees to cover an entire football field are cut down every 1.2 seconds. Professionals go in, cut down the trees in an area, and leave with the logs. However, laws that make sure new trees get planted after the old ones get cut down are in effect around the world. They usually involve one new tree for every log cut, though some regions differ. Also, protected areas exist where cutting down trees is illegal. These are often national park and sacred grounds for religions. It is another effort in the ongoing sustainability movement.

Why These Laws Exist

Illegal logging
Map of where illegal logging happens

There was once a time when no such laws about replanting existed. Anyone could cut down any tree with no consequences. Humans never ran into issues with this before, as we used to be a hunter-gatherer species and only used what we needed. This included the occasional log for firewood and shelter. No one considered concepts like using wood for art. Many simply survived day to day and had no time for leisure.

As time passed and humans became more advanced, creativity about what we could do with wood advanced with us. Buildings got bigger, more people wanted those buildings, and they needed the fuel to get to those buildings. Some saw the money in this and made their own businesses. When they made a contract to clear a forest, they cut everything and got their paycheck.

By the 1800s, logging empires started forming. With engineering and machinery making wood chopping easier than ever, production went way up. This also meant that trees on earth, and old growth forest by extension, went way down. This caused many problems over the years. Firstly, the benefits of old growth mentioned before no longer exist. Animals became displaced with no home. Pollution once absorbed by the trees are now in the air. Other plants in the area that leeched off the trees died off as well. Worst of all, trees don’t instantly grow back, especially to a state of old growth.

This all led to a rude awakening for the logging companies. Many had so much work that they literally ran out of forests to cut down. Aside from the effects on nature, the logging companies could no longer find contracts. Entire empires fell apart in a matter of years and whole communities were out of jobs.

How These Laws Exist

None of this happened without warning. Many saw the writing on the wall when they looked out the window and saw nothing. Everyone knew something must be done before they fully dug their graves. This eventually led to the government stepping in on the issue. One of the earliest measures taken by the U.S. Department of the Interior is the Forest Reserves Act of 1891. This law allowed the president to declare public forests as protected reserves. No one can disturb these areas for any reason without express permission by the government.

Next came the Forest Management Act of 1897. This was an addendum to the Forest Reserves Act and allowed the secretary of the interior the ability to control what happens to these protected forests. A series of laws made afterwards clarify and redefine what these first two laws mean, which further help protect the lands.

One of the newer concepts is the Planting Act, which varies by region, but essentially states that trees need to be planted to compensate for those cut down. These have been very effective, as trees are now growing at a rate that can be considered sustainable.

Growing Pains

sick forest
a poorly thought out forest that is dying.

Despite how good these laws sound, they did not fix things immediately. In fact, many backfired in their early years, mostly for reasons beyond anyone’s control.

The first reason is the opposition from logging companies. Having to comply with these laws costs money and resources, which no one wants to do. Their main argument is that there are so many trees in the world that they will never run out, so regulation is not necessary. This is quickly proven false when they actually run out in several regions. Another argument is that logging is a massive industry with thousands of jobs, and passing these laws puts all of them in danger. While this point is a valid one, it is also mute.  These jobs are lost anyway when trees run out, so adding laws made no difference. In fact, laws about replanting trees could save jobs, as the logging industry would be able to continue for years to come.

The opposition eventually ended, but the real issues had barely started. In the first few years, many new growth forests struggle to grow. No one could figure out what they were doing wrong at first. It took several years before someone realized the problem. Everyone simply planted the seeds and walked away. Those seeds quickly suffocated under other plants. A new mandate for the trees needing to be monitored until they reach a certain height was put into effect. Trees started growing, but another problem emerged. The trees ended up looking very thin and weak. Trees falling over became a regular appearance. People eventually figured out that plants too close together competed for nutrients. That is why the trees looked so sickly. Now the rule is that the trees need to be a certain distance apart depending on the species.

Forests today

modern forest
a modern new growth forest, complete with symmetrical trees and some dead trunks.

In the modern day, everyone has a better idea of what to do. If someone is in the business of logging, they have to follow the rules. They all need to plant a tree after one gets cut down, keep all of them a certain distance from each other, and supervise them until a certain height is reached. This method is a great success around the world, with areas returning to their former green glory. Some have even made a business model around these laws. Logging companies mark areas of replanted trees. Again, the area is cleared. And again, the clearing is replanted. The process starts over and the companies see profits.

While new forests are always a good thing, they are still new growth. These forests do not have the benefits of old growth forest and will not for hundreds of years, if they even make it that long. That is why efforts to save the remaining old growth forests are happening around the world. Sanctuary programs exist, like the United States national parks system. These parks exist to protect these lands from harm. Individuals purchase old growth land just so no one else can clear it. Some governments have gone so far to make cutting down an old growth tree a crime.

These are obviously good steps to take, but they still may not be enough to save the old growth. If there comes a day where only new growth exists, we simply have to accept it and move on with what we have. So, if you find a big tree, enjoy it while it is there. That gesture does more than you realize.

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