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Project to protect old forests comes to Cortland

Ellen Abbott/WRVO

Tree lovers are uniting behind a plan by a biologist from Salisbury University in Maryland to preserve and encourage old growth Forests .  The goal, is to create a network of over two-thousand undisturbed, yet accessible, forests across the country.Biologist Joan Maloof was in central New York recently  to identify old growth Forests, which are pristine woods that haven't been disturbed by man.   

As she walked along a path at the Lime Hollow Nature Center in Cortland, Maloof described what she found. "This isn't an old growth forest, but here's some of that old woody debris .... that's so important. if you don't know forests you just think, 'Oh, that's a dead tree. It's a waste. There's something's wrong.'  But that's part of the natural cycle, when trees die, they lie right where they are, and they feed other organisms."

Maloof says especially in the eastern United States, there aren't many old growth forests.  "We only have 0.2 percent left of what was originally here, of these massive, beautiful ancient forests.  And I thought that was a shame," said Maloof.

That is why Maloof, author of "Among the Ancients, Adventures it the Eastern Old Growth Forests," decided to create an Old Growth Forest Network.  Its purpose is to identify one forest in every county where it is possible in the United States that would never be logged again, allowing it to become an old growth forest -- and then make sure it's accessible to the public.  Maloof says that out of approximately 3,000 counties in the U.S., about 2,130 can support forest growth.

So far 16 old growth forests in six states are part of the network, the latest in Cortland County, about 30 miles south of Syracuse.  SUNY Cortland biologist Larry Klotz says one of those forests boasts a tree that started growing in 1736, decades before the area was settled by Europeans. He says for him, these old trees are more than a canopy, they tell a scientific tale.  

"You can go in and take a look at their growth rings, and see that some years or some periods they grow much more rapidly.  And other years they have tighter growth rings, indicating perhaps competition with other trees or climate changes in those periods," said Klotz.

Maloof says these old growth trees also are important to the environment.  They produce oxygen, they remove pollutants from the air and water and they provide shade and habitat. And beyond that, Maloof says there are the the intangible reasons we need trees.  "There is that feeling you get when you walk in the forest, that beauty, almost a spiritual feeling that has been proven to reduce your blood pressure, even your mood, make you more creative."

And there's science behind that feeling, according to Charles Yaple, a SUNY Cortland professor emeritus of recreation.  He points to recent studies out of California.  "The compounds of forest air are very similar to the compounds in medications, pharmaceuticals, that we make and prescribe for people suffering from depression.  There's something magical in the forest air," said Yaple.

Yaple adds that forests are a treatment regimen in some parts of the world. "In Japan, physicians regularly prescribe forest air bathing or breathing -- Shinrin-yoku -- for patients suffering from depression or other psychological disorders."  

For Maloof, this daunting task of creating old growth forests across the country is especially needed for youth, who can suffer from what she calls "a nature deficit disorder."

"We need to tie them to the land.  To let them understand what the land they're living on would look like if it were undisturbed," said Maloof.

She admits it is a daunting task, that could take generations. But Maloof thinks the pressure of realizing that each county needs a representative in this network will move the project along. "If you look at a county and you say, 'you don't have one forest that's protected from logging, not one? what can we do about this.'  Then hopefully some places that are not protected now, will then get protection and recognition. And if they're not old yet, we'll set them aside."

Anyone interested in becoming part of the old growth network can reach Maloof at OldGrowthForest.net.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.