Ancient forests can’t talk, so one determined scientist speaks for them

Waxter Forum - Joan Maloof
Joan Maloof directs attention toward the canopy during a forest walk in Sweet Briar’s Carry Sanctuary as part of the College’s annual Waxter Environmental Forum.

Moving among tall trees, Joan Maloof drew attention to the “characters” inhabiting Sweet Briar’s Carry and Constitution Oaks sanctuaries along Farmhouse Road.

There was an unwelcome intruder, the nonnative barberry bush. But she also found the leaf of a cranefly orchid on the forest floor, noted the pointy, still-springing buds on a young American beech and admired the bark of a pignut hickory.

“Just the aesthetics of trees are important to me, more and more as the years go by,” Maloof said to those who’d accompanied her and Sweet Briar’s Duberg of Professor of Ecology Linda Fink to the woods on a warm April afternoon.

The professor emeritus at Salisbury University in Maryland and founder of the Old-Growth Forest Network says she speaks for trees — especially the ancient giants that live in increasingly fewer tracts of undisturbed woods. Her nonprofit is dedicated to creating more such places and making them available to the public.

Professor Linda Fink stops to show Brea Marshall ’17 how creatures of the forest use the habitat created by fallen trees.
Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink stops to show Brea Marshall ’17 how creatures of the forest use the habitat created by fallen trees.

Maloof was on campus to present the annual Julia B. Waxter Environmental Forum later that evening, on Tuesday, April 19. As part of the forum, she and Fink conducted two forest walks, one for students and one for the public. In addition to students, faculty and staff, there were area residents, master naturalists and alumnae in attendance — including two former roommates from the Class of 1980 who coincidentally ran into each other.

According to Fink, the trees in the Carry and Constitution Oaks woods range in age up to about 250 years — giving them legitimate claim to the “old-growth” designation. Some of the bigger ones now lie on the ground, slowly replenishing the soil that nourished them.

“Those trees got to live to the end of their lives. … and that’s a good thing,” Maloof said.

Soon, the group encountered a red oak and beech growing together, intertwined.

“If all of our forests were plantations, we would never see these kinds of things,” Maloof observed appreciatively, foreshadowing one of the key messages in the slide presentation she showed later — the value of unmanaged forests.

To set the stage for Maloof’s talk that evening a short presentation on Sweet Briar’s nature sanctuaries. The idea to reserve natural areas on campus from logging and development began as long ago as the presidency of Meta Glass in 1936, Fink said.

But it was thanks largely to her predecessor as Duberg Professor, the late Buck Edwards, that Sweet Briar today protects about 440 acres by designation of the College’s board of directors. Fink, who teamed with Edwards to identify and advocate setting aside some of those acres in the 1990s, and her students still monitor the trees they contain.

“We have the biographies of individual trees in [these areas],” she said.

Despite the meticulous care and appreciation, they are not preserved through binding restrictions beyond the board’s protection — which can change its mind as it did in 1958 when Monument Hill was logged.

That’s something Maloof said she would like to see changed, urging her audience to get behind the mission of her network: To work with residents, landowners, conservation organizations and local governments to identify and permanently protect at least one mature, unlogged woodland in every U.S. county that can sustain it — and open it to the public. They won’t all be old growth now — less than 1 percent of those remain, Maloof says. But they will heal and mature over time.

“Then every child would be within easy reach of one of these forests,” she said. “We can save all the old forests we want, but if we don’t save a generation that cares about them, then they’re going to go away eventually.”

The forests harbor far more than beauty and solitude, Maloof said. She put up slides showing the decline in biodiversity since 1970, a baseline year established by what is now the World Wide Fund for Nature to create its Living Planet Index.

Joan Maloof delights in what she discovers in mature woods, including among the leaf litter.
Joan Maloof delights in what she discovers in mature woods, including among the leaf litter.

“To me that’s even more serious than the climate change issue,” she said, noting that 80 percent of our terrestrial biodiversity is found in forests.

She attributes the troubling trend line in many areas to the conversion of woodlands to pine plantations and short-rotation managed forests.

“When you cut down a black gum tree, you’re not just losing the black gum, you’re losing all the organisms that depend on it,” she said.

That’s why her third book, not yet published, argues against the notion that forests must be managed to be healthy. The tallest and healthiest trees grow in unmanaged areas, she said — and they remain home to the multitudes of mosses, snails, insects, herbaceous species and other organisms that are destroyed by logging.

“I believe there should be some forests that just do whatever they want,” Maloof said. “These are our control plots. How will we ever understand this world if we don’t do that?”

The Waxter Forum is funded through the generosity of the late Julia Baldwin Waxter ’49 and her husband, Bill. To learn how you can get involved with the Old-Growth Forest Network, visit oldgrowthforest.net.