Once an old-growth forest is cut down, can it be recreated? After almost all the large trees are gone and the land is cut up by roads? After the soil is exposed to direct sun and rain and erosion has lowered its productivity? After the streams are filled with sediment and the fish populations plummet? Can the forest really be brought back to anything like it was before?
In 1978, the Redwoods National Park in N. California had a large swath of over-logged lands added to the original old-growth park. Congress added the cutover lands with a caveat: All roads should be closed and filled in and the forest had to be restored like the old-growth around it.
With a large budget for restoration, an amazing transformation has taken place over the last 30 years. It is the largest example of full scale restoration in the Redwoods. It can be done.
But even without large budgets, restoration of some or most of the old-growth characteristics of cut over forests can be accomplished in decades—not centuries. Most forests in the U.S. have been cut at least once. For example, 96% of the Redwood forest has been cut.
Old-Growth Again manages 700 acres of average quality forests that had 95% of the Redwood volume cut in the 60’s. By the mid 90’s, the forest had too many hardwoods (uncut when the land was harvested) and endless young trees of average to poor quality. Instead of about 80 to 100 trees per acre of all sizes and ages, we inherited over 1,000 mostly small and suppressed trees per acre just waiting for a fire to set them off. Most were dying or going to die from a lack of growing space.
The roads were leaching soil into the streams. Poorly constructed roads were collapsing in the winter storms. You couldn’t see a foot in front of you because most trees had grown low lying branches that were in your face. It was the furthest thing from the cathedral-like open spaces under an old-growth forest canopy.
We started in 1995 by thinning out the poorest quality trees and the over-represented tree species (mostly hardwoods and some Douglas-fir). It was an acre by acre “hands-on” thinning from below. A couple chain saws, manual loppers and a pole saw is all we used. We fixed the worst erosion problems by adding lots of natural structure to the soil and thinned most of the lower branches away to lower the fire hazard and open up the understory. It took two men 3 1/2 years working 2 days per week to finish the first 40-acre thinning.
When complete in 1999, a strong contrast with neighboring parcels was obvious. The neighbors noticed, the government noticed, our friends noticed. We began to receive requests to work on neighboring lands and modest financial offers to help buy nearby parcels and restore them. A portable mill was purchased to mill some of the downed material and a furniture company was born. In the last 9 years we’ve grown to manage 700 acres and thinned and planted nearly 300 acres to date.
It will take another 5 years to complete the first round of thinning and planting on all the acreage. But, the thinned and planted lands are already significantly transformed. If we never did anything else, the forest will grow back to Old-Growth Again with good spacing, significantly restored species composition, improved tree quality and partially restored soils. The fire hazard has been reduced, wildlife habitat improved and the forest opened from below and closed from above as it should be. (For example, birds can now fly through the forests where before it was mostly an inpenetrable maze of branches and dying trees.)
If the thinning, planting and soil building is repeated two more times over the next couple decades, the forest will return to being multi-canopy and full of large mature trees with the general structure of the prior stand essentially restored. Then the passing decades will add the larger old-growth trees whether or not the land is managed again. And, this is after yielding a modest timber harvest each entry to help pay for the restoration.
It doesn’t take a lot of money to restore forestland if you are willing to do the work yourself. It does take a lifelong commitment to getting it done in balance with nature. If you own a few acres and want to spruce them up a bit or restore them fully, take a look at the links below.
The link below shows a typical regenerating young Redwood grove 30 years after heavy logging and before being thinned. Next to it is another typical young Redwood grove after thinning. Startling before and after. The work in the “after” photo was done by one person in one full day with a chainsaw and a pole saw. A lot can be done on any forestland if the owners want to put the time and energy into it:
To read more about forest restoration and how to duplicate our results on any land, please visit:
Or, our 8-minute video shows the process in action.
As always, thank you for your continuing financial support. If you have questions or comments, please let us know.