Old Growth / Primary Forest   Lee E. Frelich
  Sep 30, 2004 06:14 PDT 

Don, and Ed:

There is not and never will be a biological definition of old growth. Since
old growth is a human construct, it is what people say it is, and that
varies among political jurisdictions.

However, if you want a simple inclusive definition for outlining forests on
the ground for preservation, then use primary forests (forests that have
not been logged). There is still some subjectivity here, since in some
regions all forests had at least some selective cutting, and you still have
to come up with a subjective criterion for amount of human disturbance that
disqualifies a stand from the category of primary forest. Also, primary
forest includes a stands dominated by young early successional forest, old
early successional forest, young late successional forest, and old late
successional forest (the latter is what most people are stuck on when they
discuss old growth).

See the discussion in chapter 5 of my book and in this paper:

Frelich and Reich, 2003, Perspectives on development of definitions and
values related to old-growth forests. Environmental Reviews 11: s9-s22.

I have a pdf of the paper I can send to anyone who is interested.


RE: Old Growth Definitions   Edward Frank
  Oct 01, 2004 19:33 PDT 


I read your paper and it is very well done. I do understand what you are
saying in the paper. My quandary is that I would like to have a page or
section on the websites dealing with the concept of "Old Growth." This
phrase is always being tossed around by this group or that agency and is in
the consciousness of the general public. A person who comes across a patch
of old trees while hiking will wonder if it is some of the "Old Growth" he
has heard about and what that means. If someone finds our websites through
an Internet search of "old growth," will we have an explanation presented
there that will be satisfactory to them? Will we have an explanation that
is comprehensible to them? Will the explanation presented turn on a light
bulb in there head - and say "aH! Ha! I understand". I have read much of
the stuff on the web defining the term. It is indeed a political question,
it most assuredly depends on tree types involved, climate, and an entire
horde of considerations couching any proposed definition. I want to have
definition on a webpage that is easily understandable to start with, then
go into greater detail of how under various circumstances other factors
must also be considered.

I do like your explanation of "Primary Forest" in the paper and that may
indeed be the way to go for the website. I will need to think about things
for awhile, figure out what good concepts are in each of the various
"definitions" and come up with something. I am particularly intrigued by
the definition from the PA DNR that talks about old growth as an ecological
system that may include bog settings and other non-forest or perhaps I
should say non-typical forest settings. I think that the dwarfed trees and
other desert plants scattered about arid southwestern terrains should be
considered as "old growth system" if not actually a forest.

Anyway thanks for sending the pdf file.

Ed Frank
RE: Old Growth Definitions   Ernie Ostuno
  Oct 01, 2004 20:15 PDT 

I always wondered about forests that were affected by natural
disturbance. A case in point: Say there is an area of old growth that is
struck by a windstorm and suffers an extensive blowdown. Is the acreage
that was affected no longer considered "old growth" even though it is
still part of the larger ecosystem that does include some surrounding
old growth? Another case: What if the percentage of trees lost was 25,
50 or 75 percent? Is the area that suffered 25 percent loss of trees
still considered old growth while the area that lost 75 percent no
longer considered old growth?

RE: Old Growth Definitions    Lee Frelich
   Oct 02, 2004 16:28 PDT 


The old-growth forest that blows down, whether 25%, 50%, or all of it, is
still primary forest and has the potential to recover to a developmental
stage with large old trees. Since all forests are created by disturbance,
this is part of the natural cycle. The most important function of reserved
old-growth forests is to see how they respond to and recover from disturbance.

Regarding what to call partially disturbed forests (and all old-growth
stands repeatedly experience partial disturbance and recovery from it),
there are a number of terms such as mature-sapling mosaic, young forest
with mature remnants, multi-aged pole forests, etc. The threshold for
calling a blowdown a stand initiation event is subjective, some people say
75% and others 90% blow down.

These disturbance dynamics are why I think we should be talking about
primary forest rather than old growth (which is just one stage of a cycle),
although old growth is so well established in peoples minds that we have to
continue to deal with it.


(no subject)   Ernie Ostuno
  Oct 02, 2004 20:13 PDT 


Thanks. The distinction between "primary" and "old growth" forest makes
sense to me as you described it. I guess we need to realize that when we
look at a forest we are seeing only a snapshot of a very dynamic

One other thing I wonder about is salvage cutting after a major forest
disturbance. What kind of effects can this have on forest

RE: Old Growth Definitions   Gary A. Beluzo
  Oct 03, 2004 06:37 PDT 


Clearly stated. I agree wholeheartedly with the language, the challenge is
to refocus the debate over natural forests to "primary" rather than "old
growth", which is simply a snapshot in the life of the primary (and
autopoietic) forest. The danger in continuing to focus on "old growth
forests" is that as these forests undergo natural disturbance policymakers
could legally (and quite logically) take them out of protection. I am still
very interested in coming up with a scale of "naturalness" to apply to
forests so that in New England and elsewhere folks can catlog forest lands
that have had some degree of anthropogenic disturbance on a continuum.

How do we refocus the policymakers?

RE: Old Growth Definitions   Edward Frank
  Oct 03, 2004 23:16 PDT 

Lee, Gary, Ernie, Bob, and other ENTS,

The concept of primary forest is a fine concept and should be used for
regulatory purposes. What I see as a challenge is how to apply the
concept in a manner that it appeals to the general public? People are
impressed by individual or groups of BIG trees or an individual or grove of
OLD trees. I do not think they are for the most part impressed or even
more than peripherally cognizant of the dynamic processes of forest
renewal. Intellectually I can appreciate these processes, but I do not get
the same emotional charge for young primary forest as I do for big trees or
old trees. Can the average person even tell the difference between a
forest that is a primary forest being regrown after a blowdown from one
that is being regrown from a clearcut? Sure many of you can, if you study
forests or are particularly familiar with the characteristics of forest
processes, the differences are apparent, but members of that group are in
the minority. The majority of the public, even those who are outdoors
people, hikers, hunters, etc., are oblivious to the differences. Even
within ENTS, most of the posts focus on the few big trees in a stand and
little on the forest structure as a whole. Big trees or old trees are where
most of the interests lie. If the general public does not appreciate the
concept of a "young" primary forest regrowing after a blowdown or fire
event, can it be expected that the regulatory or administrative facets of
government will give them much heed?

I was up to Kinzua Bridge State Park, PA today. A year and a couple months
ago at the park, a historic railroad bridge 201 feet high, across a stream
valley, was blown down by what the weather service determined was a
tornado. A large number of trees were flattened along with the bridge.
They lined up like match sticks all pointing the same was along the valley
walls. It struck me as I visited the park soon after the storm that
visitors were impressed by the destruction of the bridge, but also talked
about the way the trees had been downed. A year later there was little
talk about the downed trees. Brush had sprouted to cover much of the
damage. In a couple years the missing trees will not even be considered.
The point is after a blowdown or fire in a Primary forest of old or big
trees, people will be interested in the destruction immediately afterward,
and they may bemoan the loss of the old forest, but There will be little if
any emotional attachment for the young forest replacing the old one. It
may be primary forest, but is there a drive to protect it? Or even give it
special management considerations?

Ed Frank

RE: Old Growth Definitions   John Knuerr
  Oct 04, 2004 05:24 PDT 

J. Baird Callicott, a philosophy professor, wrote an essay entitled "The
Land Aesthetic", in which he tries to capture Aldo Leopold's thoughts on how
we come to appreciate the landscape.
In brief:
- he begins by pointing out that the Western appreciation of natural beauty
does not flow naturally from nature itself; is not directly oriented to
nature on nature's own terms; nor is it well informed by the ecological and
evolutionary dynamics. it is superficial and narcissistic; in a word, it is
He describes Leopold's land aesthetic as an appreciation that begins simply
with our ability to perceive what is pretty. To develop a land aesthetic
requires a willingness to learn things about the land that deepens our
knowledge which in turn informs our senses.
I'm pretty sure that all of us on this list have experienced this process
The challenges you point out are not limited to the issue of forest
appreciation. The greater issue is the overall dumbing down that is
occurring in our culture and the fact that most people are more and more
cut-off from significant experiences of the natural world around them. And,
the expectation is that the natural world will give them wow-experiences
that they can immediately consume (sound-byte mentality).
So, I'm thinking if we can give them an immersion experience in the forest
that includes a cognitive component on forest dynamics, we might have a
shot? The language we use doesn't need to be complex. It could be in the
form of a story (... imagine your standing in this spot 140 years ago...
what would you see?) that engages them and educates them.
Any thoughts?

RE: Old Growth Definitions   Robert Leverett
  Oct 04, 2004 05:47 PDT 


You've adroitly opened a whole new area of exploration for us on the
list that we've heretofore hardly touched upon. I have a deep stack of
Wild Earth Journals with musings on the meaning of wilderness,
wilderness experience, and a string of hot debates between J. Baird
Callicott and Dave Foreman. The two started out amiable enough but grew
ever more strident with one another. Both have substantial egos, BTW,
but I think that overall Callicott wins in the size of ego department.
He often seems to know better what significant thinkers of the past were
thinking than did the thinkers themselves. I guess I better dust off my
copies of Wild Earth.

   What we are aiming toward is an exploration of the complex mix of
science, ethics, aesthetics, politics, recreation, etc. in attempting to
discern the purposes and roles of wilderness and its old growth
surrogate. I'm sure my buddy Don Bertolette will have lots to say on the
subject. Anyway, thanks, for broaching the topic. A great one.

RE: Old Growth Definitions   Lee E. Frelich
  Oct 04, 2004 05:49 PDT 


Most tree populations in the northeastern U.S. that have not been logged go
back 3000-5000 years. That usually interests most people, especially when
you tell them that the young post-disturbance forest is carrying on a 5000
year heritage.