Principles of Selection of Sites for
Auto-tour of Old Growth Forests
Old growth forests are considered an endangered habitat in Pennsylvania. However, just as with some endangered species, with care, effort, and enough time, forests can recover many of their old growth characteristics. While there is endless discussion about what exactly constitutes old growth, in general it means that a true old growth forest would be near climax and has suffered few, if any, intrusions by humans. It means that it would be as you would have found it prior to European colonization or perhaps even before Native Americans began imposing their imprint on it. Breaks in the canopy would be caused by falling trees, dying of old age or struck by lightning. "Tip-ups," the masses of roots turned up when a big tree falls over, would be common.
By that kind of a definition, there is virtually no old growth left at all in the Eastern United States, because disease has removed major components of most of our forests and extinction or extirpation have removed important contributions to the forest ecosystem. The chestnuts are gone, the passenger pigeons and the wolves are gone. The balance among the plants and animals is quite different than it was 500 or 1,000 years ago.
In spite of all that, there are still important forest remnants with old growth characteristics with much to teach us. They provide what we have left of the starting point, the bench mark against which our era can measure itself. Time and care can re-create what in the future will pass for old growth, in spite of its differences from the old growth of the past, so preserving future old growth sites is also an important work. That is why second-growth ravines such as those leading up to the plateau from Sinnemahoning Creek along Bucktail State Park Natural Area are included in this list. Such places are mature second-growth forests now. With time, they will become true old-growth.
Finally, it is also important to include representatives of different ecosystems in old growth, not only the typical hemlock-white pine or hemlock-beech associations of the well-known Cook Forest and Heart's Content. It is for those reasons that places are included in this tour such as Bear Meadows (a large ancient bog) and Cranberry Swamp, giving visitors a broader vision of the varied components of the entire macro-system. While it is true sometimes that "we can't see the forest for the trees," it is just as true that we should not confuse the forest with the trees. In other words, while we speak of old-growth forests in terms of the major tree species found there, old-growth is really a term describing entire ecosystems. The other plants and animals who live within the tree-defined framework are vital to the whole.
There really aren't any remnants of the horizon-to-horizon forest that was encountered by the first European settlers. Most of that was cleared for farms. Most of the remainder was logged off by the 1920s. What we have left now as "old growth" were, with one or two notable exceptions, largely the inaccessible, steep slopes or accidents of boundary overlaps. It's those that we celebrate here. They give us a fascinating glimpse of the majesty and complexity that was Pennsylvania old growth forest.