By Shannon Brennan
Twenty-three years ago, a handful of people had a vision for preserving old-growth forests in Virginia. Not that we had many.
When Europeans first came here, the land was thick with old giants, but by the time of the Civil War, nearly the entire state had been clear-cut.
Less than one-half of 1% is truly old growth. Slowly, some larger areas are being allowed to regenerate.
Old-growth forests provide critical habitat for many species, including salamanders, soil invertebrates, small mammals, songbirds and black bears. Standing dead wood is important for many wildlife species.
Gaps in the canopy are a common occurrence in old growth, allowing greater sunlight to reach the forest floor and creating three to five layers of understory, rather than one to two layers in younger forests.
Ted Harris, a former member of the House of Delegates from Lynchburg, was founding president of the 500-Year Forest Foundation and one of six directors of the Virginia Urban Forestry Council who established the foundation.
Since its formation, the foundation has obtained no-cut easements on 10 forests. It requires a minimum of 100 acres of forest and defines old growth as having a significant number of trees at least 70 years old.
The 10th old-growth forest was established earlier this year and is the first to be bequeathed to the foundation. The 140-acre forest in Nelson County is located at the forks of the north and south Tye River and backs up to the Priest Wilderness Area, crossed by the Appalachian Trail.
By Peter Coutu
Integral to Virginia’s history, the pine once dominated most of the region.
For decades, though, the longleaf has been struggling to survive in an environment no longer suited for it. The pine, which thrives under regular burn cycles, stopped getting the necessary fire treatment when earlier residents started extinguishing the blazes that would have killed off competition. And timber companies harvested the longleaf until the tree largely vanished.
At the turn of the century, fewer than 200 such mature conifers remained in Virginia.
In turn, the population of red-cockaded woodpeckers plummeted with the loss of that habitat. Now federally endangered, one could just about count the remaining birds in the state on two hands.
But a group of conservationists from multiple agencies are on a mission to save the state’s so-called “Founding Forest” and with it, the state’s most scarce bird.