Forests growing back in U.S. face man-made tests

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010

PINEY GROVE, VA. -- Here, in a forest of woodpecker-holed pine trees, is one of the rarest things in the American environment.

A second chance.

The United States can now hit "reset" on one of its greatest environmental mistakes: the destruction of the enormous woodland that once canopied the continent from Maine to east Texas. By the late 1800s, much of it -- including this tract of woods southeast of Richmond -- had been cut down for agriculture and timber.

Then, farms were abandoned. Old seeds sprouted. Unlike many other environmental mistakes, this one began to fix itself: The forest grew back, though burdened with too many deer, too little fire, and armies of invasive bugs.

Now, new forests like this one in Piney Grove are a test, a practical exam for American environmentalism 40 years into the Earth Day era.

In some places, scientists are trying to fix man-made flaws that could eventually destroy forest ecosystems. In others, the test is whether the government and private interests can save the forest from becoming suburbs and strip malls.

"We're at a once-in-forever moment," said Lawrence Selzer, president of the Conservation Fund. He said this generation has to remember that the woods serve as critical natural filters for air, water and greenhouse gases.

"Since Earth Day, we have begun to think of them more as wildlife and recreation sanctuaries," Selzer said. "We're beginning to recognize forests as something far more fundamental and profound, forests as part of the critical infrastructure of our country."

Between 1630 and the nadir of Eastern forests in the late 1800s, the East lost about 1,000 acres of forest a day. Seeking timber and cleared farmland, settlers cut Vermont maples, Maryland oaks, Georgia pines, erasing a kind of forest that residents can barely fathom now.

But then, people began abandoning rocky, stingy farmland for the West, or for coastal cities. Neglect was all nature needed: By 1997, the forest had reached 68 percent of its former range.

"All woods ain't woods," said Stephen W. Syphax, a National Park Service official. In this region, one of the few remaining virgin forests is Belt Woods, a state-owned, limited-access tract in Prince George's County. It includes trees 15 stories tall and 12 feet around, and underbrush thick with birds.

"People start whispering" in such places, Syphax said. "That's what I think of as church."

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