Atlanta’s Surviving Old Growth Forests.

Last month, I went to Emory University’s White Hall to hear a talk by Joan Maloof. She is a forest ecologist and a professor emerita at Salisbury University in Maryland. She also founded the Old-Growth Forest Network, which proposes to create a nationwide network of old-growth forests that would remain forever unlogged and uncleared, but which would be open for the public to visit.

Needless to say, the talk was about trees. Specifically, trees and old-growth forests in Atlanta. It was presented by EcoAddendum, a nonprofit with this mission statement:

Eco-A’s mission is to raise awareness about Georgia’s rich natural environment, and through education, to reconnect people with the natural world.
Our programs seek to restore health and well-being to people and communities as well as the trees, plants and native ecosystems of Atlanta and the Southeast.

I can’t find any mention of a Georgia connection in any online biographies of Maloof, but she spoke about Atlanta like a local. Perhaps she moved here after retiring from Salisbury University, or she’s originally from here.

This post is distilled from my memory of the event and from my live-tweets from White Hall, where the event was held. Any errors or meaning-changing omissions are entirely my fault.

I estimated White Hall holds 300-400 people, and the place was completely packed. I was lucky to find a seat, and it was all the way in the back row.

Maloof is passionate about her subject, and her enthusiasm and optimism made her talk a real pleasure to listen to. She also had many slides, which presented charts, maps, photographs, and other data. I’m sorry I can’t reproduce those here.

There are fewer trees in the United States than there used to be, of course. Our nation has less than one percent of its virgin, never-cut forest left. But many forests have only been cut once, and they are rebounding. This rebound can be fostered and cultivated. Of the US’s 3,140 counties, 2,370 can support forest growth.

Dr. Joan Maloof. From the author’s website.

Forests once covered forty-six percent of all land. That number today is down to thirty percent. That’s a recovery from early in the twentieth century.

Atlanta has more urban tree canopy than any other major U.S. city. This fact sounds surprising to many people, because Atlanta has fewer parks than many cities of comparable size. Most of Atlanta’s trees are not in parks, however.

Atlanta was founded much more recently than most major East Coast cities; what is today metropolitan Atlanta was an old growth forest as recently as 1820. Most big cities on the Eastern Seaboard were settled much earlier, and were built out quickly inland from the ports that were their raison d’etre.

Places in metropolitan Atlanta that weren’t turned into farms or that got skipped in suburban expansion patterns contain living remainders of the original old-growth forest.

Hillsides (Atlanta is very hilly) and areas that flood often don’t generally get developed, but trees in such terrain are still there.

Some trees look damaged and maybe even are, so they don’t get harvested for lumber. Left to themselves, they often heal from or adapt to the damage, and they can persist to live to be very old.

Houses that were built before the invention of air conditioning often were built in the shade of large old trees to help keep them cool.

Thanks to all of these factors, Atlanta has both preserved much of its tree canopy and saved many remaining trees from the original old-growth forests from before the European arrival.

Old-growth forests have qualities and confer benefits not shared by other types of forests.

They draw more carbon out of the atmosphere than young forests. They also remove toxins, like ozone.

Biodiversity is much greater in old-growth forests:

Old forests have a greater variety of frog and salamander species.

Vegetation in the understory is more diverse in old-growth forests. A second-growth forest that has been cut down and grows back never again reaches a similar level of biodiversity.

Many species of orchid partner with fungi that are only found on old-growth trees.

Speaking of fungi, Dr. Maloof said that the trees in old-growth forests are covered and connected by a network of different kinds of fungus that allow for communication of sorts among the trees. Minerals and other needed compounds can be transferred from one tree that has an abundance to another tree that has a lack. Dr. Maloof called this phenomenon the “wood-wide web.”

Some of the old-growth remnants in the Atlanta metropolitan area include Fernbank Forest, Deepdene Park, Herbert Green Park, Cascade Springs Nature Preserve, and the Lullwater Conservation Garden, among many others.

In the lobby outside the auditorium, Dr. Maloof was selling and signing her latest book, Natures Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests. I picked up a copy before I left the event. It’s a slim volume, under 200 pages. I’ll review it here when I read it.

After Dr. Maloof’s talk was another, an “Atlanta Forest Overview” by Kathryn Kolb, the director of EcoAddendum. The evening concluded with a discussion moderated by Maria Saporta that included academics, members of NGOs, and one of Atlanta’s “resilience officers” speaking about the local green space and efforts to husband and extend it. I was unable to take notes for that portion of the evening, so I can’t provide a recap here.

I was made aware of this event by the Atlanta Science Tavern. Thanks to them!