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Ohio now has more 'old-growth' forests than any other state. Here's why that matters

The stems of giant trees in an old-growth forest
Old-Growth Forest Network Facebook
The Old-Growth Forest Network estimates more than 99% of old-growth forests in the eastern U.S. have already been removed or radically altered. It's trying to protect those that are left.

The Old-Growth Forest Network welcomed two Ohio forests to its ranks this October: Stage’s Pond State Nature Preserve just south of Columbus and the Lindy Roosenburg Preserve near Athens.

The network now recognizes 30 largely undisturbed forests in Ohio, more than any other state. (We're neck and neck with Pennsylvania, which has 28.)

As part of the Old-Growth Forest Network, these forests are protected from commercial logging and development, and they’re made open and available to the public.

“[Old-growth forests] have enormous benefits to communities,” said Brian Kane, the network’s Mid-Atlantic regional manager. “Our work is looking at the whole forest ecosystem and ensuring that it will be there in perpetuity.”

A white sign reads "Old-Growth Forest Network." It's laying on the grass, surrounded by colorful, fallen leaves.
Athens Conservancy
Old-Growth Forest Network Facebook
The Old-Growth Forest Network is trying to protect old-growth forests across the country, and create new ones for future generations.

The network is trying to preserve one forest in every county of the country — and that’s no easy task. It estimates more than 99% of old-growth forests in the eastern U.S. have already been removed or radically altered.

What is an old growth forest?

Defining an old-growth forest isn’t easy, Kane said. The majority of trees in the forest should be fully mature and close to reaching their life expectancy.

But some trees can take about 80 years to fully mature and others need a lot longer.

“It’s not just a number cut-off,” Kane said. “We have plenty of forests in the network where the trees are 90 or 100 years old and they're not truly old growth.”

Instead, he said the network looks at whether forests have a series of characteristics that create an “ecological community.”

“We look for things such as what's on the forest floor, the decomposing logs,” he said. “We look at the soil profile, we look at pits and mounds, the areas where large trees have fallen and created deep depressions [with] vernal pools where salamanders thrive.”

Altogether, these characteristics allow the forests to support a rich array of life, and that’s one of the reasons why Kane believes they’re so important to protect.

Why protect these forests?

Unlike younger, developing forests, old-growth forests offer unique habitats. The shade of the canopy can allow heat-sensitive plants on the forest floor to thrive, and decaying trees make homes for bugs, birds and mammals.

“We look at them as enormously important for the continuation of all of the species that thrive in those ancient environments,” Kane said.

Sun shines through a canopy of colorful leaves in an Ohio forest.
Athens Conservancy
Old-Growth Forest Network Facebook
The Lindy Roosenburg Preserve is the 30th forest in Ohio to join the Old-Growth Forest Network.

Beyond their role in sustaining wildlife, old-growth forests are also important carbon sinks.

“Both the fallen trees and the existing trees and the soil contain enormous quantities of carbon,” Kane said.

And there’s a growing body of research that suggests spending time in forests can improve our health — boosting immune systems, lowering blood sugar and helping with depression.

“There's a lot more health and wellness benefits to these forests,” Kane said, “by people who are allowed to hike and walk through them, getting away from their computer screens, getting away from the roads and the sidewalks to really be in the woods and enjoy the sounds and the quiet and stillness there.”

Ohio’s old-growth forests

Ohio’s network of old-growth forests spans the state: there are now protected forests near every major city, from Cincinnati to Cleveland, Toledo to Athens, and everywhere in between.

That’s not the case in many states, Kane said.

Maine, for example, has lots of forested land, but much of it is privately owned, so the Old-Growth Forest Network hasn’t yet been able to protect forests there.

Ohio, on the other hand, already has lots of publicly accessible forests through its metro parks systems. Some of those parks are now included in the Old-Growth Forest Network.

A map shows old-growth forests across Ohio
The Old-Growth Forest Network recognizes 30 forests across Ohio.
Old-Growth Forest Network

Highbanks Metro Park near Columbus, for example, has an extensive trail network that weaves around ancient Indigenous earthworks, and it’s home to really old trees. Kane said some are between 300 and 400 years old.

“It was really great to see all of those things come together, both the cultural history, the natural history and the recreational enjoyment of the land,” he said.

In Darke County, located on Ohio’s border with Indiana, farmers set aside two stands of trees roughly 100 years ago.

“[It’s] a largely agricultural county,” Kane said. “There’s not a lot of forest there, but today, Darke County Parks has these nice walking paths through [the stands] for the public.”

Now, two more forests are part of this network.

The Lindy Roosenburg Preserve of Athens Conservancy protects 71 acres of forest and includes some trees that are more than 120 years old.

Stage’s Pond Nature Preserve is a younger forest, but Kane says it’s maturing, and therefore just as important to protect.

Eventually it will age, and future generations will have one more old-growth forest to enjoy.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.