Virginia adds new lands to old-growth forest portfolio

Joan Maloof, executive director of the Old-Growth Forest Network speaks at an event in Richmond marking the entrance of the James River Park System's acreage into the network. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)

Virginia’s bank of old-growth forest grew by 280 acres Wednesday after the Capital Region Land Conservancy formally recognized the induction of the James River Park System’s parklands, under easement, into the national Old-Growth Forest Network.

Today, less than 1% of the East Coast’s forests are considered “old growth,” with fewer remaining in the South than the North. Definitions of the term vary, but the classification generally refers to forests that have continuously developed over more than 100 years without major disturbances, have an extensive canopy and support various layers of tree growth.

Over the years, old-growth forests have been cut down for logging, agriculture and other development. In Virginia, perhaps the most pronounced disappearance has been of longleaf pine forests, which once covered an estimated 1 million acres of the state.

The James River at the Pony Pasture. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)

Research has found that besides promoting biodiversity, older, larger trees absorb and store more carbon than their younger, smaller counterparts. A 2017 study found that old-growth forests can also act as a “buffer” for bird populations that are sensitive to warming temperatures.

“The older a forest gets, the better it is at cleaning the air, cleaning the water, providing habitat,” said Joan Maloof, executive director of the Old-Growth Forest Network.

While the James River Park System forest is currently estimated to be less than 100 years old, its induction into the network is expected to allow the existing forest to develop into old-growth stand.

The conservation easement, which is held jointly by the Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation, Enrichmond Foundation and the Capital Region Land Conservancy, permanently prevents development of the land.

Last year, an old-growth forest in Bath County known as “Miracle Ridge,” which included a 300-year-old sugar maple tree named “Ona,” became a flashpoint in efforts to stop the construction of the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline.