Watoga Old-Growth Forest Exploration Outing

By Larry Thomas

As Cory and I mentioned in the August Highlands Voice, the Conservancy has revived the outings, with three of the four planned outings completed and one remaining for 2022. We also have a revised plan for outings for 2023. The second outing, which I’m talking about below, was the Watoga Old Growth Forest Exploration Outing. It was planned before and overlapped with the Old Growth Forests Executive Order signed by the President, which required completion of an inventory of old-growth on Federal lands and a plan for protecting the United States’ Forest, especially old-growth forests.

The second outing occurred on August 7th, when 16 people met ecologist/naturalist Doug Wood in Watoga State Park at the Ann Bailey Overlook Trailhead. It turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to learn and experience “up close and in-person” old-growth trees at the head of a hollow within the park boundaries.

Doug, along with Ken Beezley, a professional forester, explained the events of the day along with a narrative of how the stand of old-growth trees had survived the efforts of three different logging companies who logged the area, including the very top portion of the hollow. A mistake on the loggers’ part left the trees at the top of the hollow which we got to experience.

Doug then explained what we would see; these are characteristics to look for when trying to find old-growth forests: 

  1. scattered, dominant canopy trees greater than 20 inches diameter-at-breast-height or dbh (>120-150 years old), 
  2. dominant canopy trees have “stag-headed” crowns with large horizontal or near horizontal branches (>45 degree angle from the main trunk), 
  3. canopy, sub-canopy, understory trees, and shrubs of varying sizes, reflecting multiple ages, 
  4. multiple canopy tree species, but very few shade-intolerant tree species, except in canopy gaps, 
  5. large logs on the forest floor, 
  6. scattered, large dying trees and standing dead snags, 
  7. usually, small canopy gaps created by standing dead and fallen trees as well as other natural phenomena, like insect infestation, soil slips, and windfall, 
  8. few if any cut stumps (rotting or otherwise) can be seen, 
  9. few if any visible signs of old logging roads or skid trails, 
  10. 100% ground cover by leaf litter, except on large rock faces, and except soon after a fire, 
  11. the presence of wildlife species that are mature-forest specialists
  12. rotting stumps that appear to have been uncut have an associated uncut rotting log next to them (remnants of the naturally fallen tree), 

It is not necessary to know the distant-past disturbance history of an old-growth forested watershed that is currently providing high quality water and aquatic habitat. So long as the eleven old-growth characteristics typify the watershed, and so long as the typical ecosystem services and ecological functions of old-growth are provided by the forested watershed, then the category of old-growth is not so important. To further determine if an identified old-growth tract is one that has never been cut, not even selectively in the distant past, he recommended researching courthouse deeds, interviewing old-timers, and looking for the following characteristics: 

We then hiked about a mile and a half to the head of the hollow where we found the old-growth trees that had been missed by the loggers so long ago. As we approached the area, the old-growth trees were quickly evident. Along the way, Doug and Ken continuously pointed out many interesting facts about things we saw. Of particular interest during the hike were trees that had contracted what is commonly known as the Oak Wilt fungus. This was indicated by the fallen diseased leaves around and close to the affected trees.

Bretziella fagacearum is the new name for the Oak Wilt fungus https://mycokeys.pensoft.net/article/20657/. Oak Wilt fungus is another invasive alien species which is considered one of several significant diseases that threaten the health of forests worldwide. On a positive note during the hike, Doug pointed out one of his favorite mushrooms, the edible Cantharellus cibarius, commonly called Golden Chanterelle. It is also known as girolle. They are completely wild, which means they cannot be commercially grown. Doug mentioned he has a secret place to find them and he wasn’t telling anyone where that is. 

Upon reaching the head of the hollow, we immediately started to identify trees which appeared as old growth. We stopped at each tree and Doug pointed out the species of tree and performed the measurements and observed other characteristics which confirmed that the tree qualified as old growth. We found trees that measured from 48 to 52 inches in diameter-at-breast-height. They were certainly giants.

Doug also pointed out the importance of high-quality soil in carbon sequestration. Soil Carbon Sequestration | Regenerative Energy

We then found a fallen giant Oak and Doug pointed out that it was very important to leave it where it fell as it was still storing carbon. That tree measured 52 inches at the point that we determined was breast-height. Some of us thought it was much bigger until the tape confirmed the measurement. It just looked so huge lying there.

Participants certainly learned the importance and benefits of our forests and the soils in carbon sequestration as we work hard to mitigate climate change.

WVHC thanks Doug, Ken and everyone who made this outing a huge success as we endeavor to provide meaningful outings for our members, supporters, and the public.