Commentary Ecosystem

Ancient Ohio forest faces an uncertain fate

As this fallen tree breaks down, a mound will form at the base of the tree. A pit is left where the roots pulled up chunks of earth. Photo by Joe Brehm
As this fallen tree breaks down, a mound will form at the base of the tree. A pit is left where the roots pulled up chunks of earth. Photo by Joe Brehm

Environmental studies graduate student Joe Brehm embarked on a journey to Dysart Woods, the largest remaining old-growth forest in Ohio. This forest has endured centuries of ecological change and still harbors a diverse array of flora and fauna. Dysart Woods is now in jeopardy of vanishing forever.

A walk through Dysart Woods

By Joe Brehm

Late spring thunderheads loomed in the western sky as I approached Dysart Woods, the largest remaining tract of old-growth forest in Ohio. Pulling into the grassy parking lot, I was struck by the incredible variety of green, white and yellow hues in the forest canopy.  Mid-spring leaves and flowers in different stages of development produced a spectrum of color opposite of autumn.

Journeying to Dysart Woods is somewhat of a pilgrimage for me. The woods resemble a world that I have never known but miss terribly. Some trees hold memories of creatures that once roamed these forests. Bison and elk, wolf and cougar, marten and fisher – all of these creatures were extirpated from Ohio by the mid-19th century. Perhaps one of the giant oaks or tulip poplars of these woods once bore the collective weight of a thousand passenger pigeons descending upon its branches. The passenger pigeon is now only a ghost that haunts these forests — a niche never to be filled again. Although these birds likely numbered in the billions two centuries ago, the last wild bird was shot by a young farm boy in 1900; the last living passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in 1914.

Dysart Woods is an extreme rarity. Less than 1 percent of Ohio’s forests have escaped the axe and plow, and Dysart Woods is the largest such patch in Ohio at 54 acres (the size of about 41 football fields). How did it manage to avoid being farmed and logged? The Dysart family owned this patch of woods as part of their family farm for 150 years. They saved what is now Dysart Woods for firewood and wildlife, and sold the 54 acre patch of old-growth to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the late 1960’s.  TNC eventually transferred the property to Ohio University for use as a land lab .

Unfortunately, it turns out that Dysart Woods is not untouched by what some consider “progress.”

What makes a forest “old-growth”?

What do I mean when I say “old-growth” forest? There are a few characteristics of old-growth that have been identified by forest ecologists such as Ohio University’s Dr. Brian McCarthy, a professor in the plant biology department. The first characteristic is that there are trees of a variety of ages. As giant trees eventually die or are blown over, an opening is left in the forest canopy. This opening allows new seedlings to sprout up in the place of the old tree. This process creates patches of trees that are of a similar age, so there are patches of different ages throughout the forest. When scientists refer to old-growth forest, therefore, they are not speaking simply about a bunch of really old trees.

Really big, old trees are certainly part of an old-growth forest, however. More specifically, old-growth forests have a variety of species of trees that are greater than 1 meter in diameter at breast height, or DBH.  At Dysart Woods there are red and white oaks, tulip poplars, black cherries, sugar maples and others that have reached this girth.

A final characteristic of an old-growth forest is what forest ecologists call “pit and mound topography.” Like the first characteristic, this is also tied to the fate of fallen trees. As trees are blown over or fall after they die, much of their root structure is ripped up into the air, bringing with it large amount of soil as well. This creates a pit where the roots and soil had been, and creates a mound where the base of the trunk eventually breaks down into earth.  Pit and mound topography is very visible in a forest such as Dysart Woods that has been undisturbed in hundreds of years.. A 50-year-old forest on the other hand, which has sprung up from abandoned farm land, will not show the mounded earthen graves of massive trees. This is because the land was flattened for farming and no new mounds have formed.

Old-growth forests are important for many reasons. The deceased giants that have fallen to the forest floor provide habitat for an incredible diversity of insects, fungi, rodents, birds, and amphibians such as salamanders. The patches of different aged stands of trees make for a variety of habitats in close proximity — a sure recipe for diversity. Also, ecologists are only beginning to understand organisms such as bacteria in the soil and the niche they fill in these ecosystems. In short, forests such as Dysart Woods have all the necessary ingredients for a healthy and complete ecosystem. This is why such places are so important (and also depressing) — they are living examples of what Ohio should look like and point out what is missing elsewhere.

A walk through the Old-Growth

The large flowers of White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) are an informal indicator of a healthy forest. It can take Trillium plants a decade or more to mature to a point where they can produce flowers.
The large flowers of White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) are an informal indicator of a healthy forest. It can take Trillium plants a decade or more to mature to a point where they can produce flowers.
Regardless of whether one understands why Dysart Woods is an old-growth forest, it is simply beautiful. As soon as I climbed out of the car, a male American redstart flitted about the forest edge, singing and foraging, its black body punctuated with bold patches of orange on its neck, wing and tail. The forest floor was spotted with brilliant red patches of fire pink (Silene virginica), and white dabs of Trillium grandiflorum. Golden ragwort (Senecio aureus) and wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) added distinct yellows to the mix.  White, blue and yellow violets grew low to the leaf-covered ground as well. The colors of these wildflowers were accentuated by the darkening sky of an imminent storm. It appeared as if each flower had absorbed some of the sun’s glow and was radiating its own colors back to the darkening world.

Birds were also abundant on this evening walk. I startled a barred owl that took flight from the open ground and alighted on a low branch. Its earthy colors blended in perfectly with the shadowed forest behind it. Songbirds such as wood thrushes, ovenbirds, and hooded warblers called out from low perches near the forest floor. Scratches in the leaf litter beneath oaks and beeches revealed the workings of turkeys scraping the earth in search of nuts and bugs. Along the final ascent toward the parking lot, I heard a familiar call note, chik burrrr. I immediately began scanning for the bright red plumage of the scarlet tanager. This bird is in stiff competition with fire pink (Silene virginica) for the “most incredibly red thing in the forest” award. Despite its bright colors, it can be quite a challenge to find, sticking close to the tree tops. But it continued sounding out call notes, and so I was able to catch a nice glimpse of the beautiful and elusive scarlet tanager.

An uncertain future

After walking through this old forest in the evening silence and breeze of the oncoming storm, it is easy to imagine an older and simpler world. But even this refuge of old oaks and silent owls has been penetrated by “progress.” Despite protests from Ohio University and environmental groups, the coal lying underneath Dysart was mined in 2007 after a long battle  between OU, the Buckeye Forest Council, and the Ohio Valley Coal Company (OVCC).  Ultimately,  the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, issued the necessary permits for OVCC to mine under Dysart.

Because of the mining, the water table is in jeopardy of falling drastically. A significant drop in the water table at Dysart would likely mean death for the long-lived giants who have presided over this forest for centuries. Shannon Cook, an Ohio University student studying under Dr. Dina Lopez, is keeping tabs on the water table, and it is falling. While OVCC will pump water back into the coal mines after they have finished mining, it is unclear how the hydrology of Dysart Woods will be affected in the long term.  I hope the cost of progress at Dysart Woods will not be so great as to rob future generations of a walk through the past,  but there is nothing else to be done except wait and watch.

Also check out…

Writers Meredith Barnett and Michelle Shaw by a Tulip Poplar
Writers Meredith Barnett and Michelle Shaw by a Tulip Poplar

For an environmental science journalism course in Spring 2009, Ohio University alumna Meredith Barnett and graduate student Michelle Shaw wrote an article about the legal battle concerning the mineral rights to Dysart Woods. “Click here” to read more.

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