What If the Old Forests had not Been Cut Down

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By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

I recently had someone ask me how different the forests would look today had the early settlers not cut them down. It’s difficult for humans around the world to imagine an old growth forest because there aren’t many left. Fortunately, we have regained many forests through the last few centuries, but how different are they than what could have been if nothing had been touched?

 

An old growth forest is a forest with trees older than 150 years. These dense forests are complex intertwined ecosystems that support a large amount of biodiversity, or different forms of life. For thousands of years, native indigenous people lived in harmony within these forests. When the settlers began to arrive in the early 1600s, they cut down many old growth forests. They used the trees for building material and fuel and the land for farming.

 

Due to deforestation, the biodiversity of not only the trees but also many species has declined over time. Once a species goes extinct, it cannot return. A permanent loss of organisms has a profound effect on the ecosystem; the beautifully woven web of interdependence within ecosystems becomes weaker. This leaves the whole forest more vulnerable to widespread extinction, forest fires, and disease.

 

Today we have new growth forests in Connecticut. Of course, any forest is good, but we lack the number of species seen many years ago. We have lost 65 plant species in the continental U.S. since European colonization. That number is estimated to be larger due to limited ecological information from the early colonization period. Each plant has animals that depend on it which in turn caused the decline and extinction of other animals, fungi, and plants.

 

So to answer the question: “How different would the forests look today had they not been cut down by the early settlers?”, the answer is that they would be denser. Denser with many different trees of different sizes, with many different species living together in balance. Allowing the forest to regrow will allow stressed species to repopulate. Although we cannot regain lost species, through time evolution will create new species to populate the forests in a different and exciting way.