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Old growth forests – in the city?

Doll's Eyes, kathryn kolb

Doll's Eyes, an uncommon wildflower found, thrives in Beecher Hills Nature Preserve. Credit: Kathryn Kolb

By Guest Columnist KATHERYN KOLB, director of EcoAddendum, which raises awareness of Georgia’s natural environment

The greater metropolitan area of Atlanta was predominantly old growth forest less than 20 decades ago. For those of us who have lived a few decades, this seems perhaps not such a long time. For trees and forests and ecosystems, whose maturity is measured in centuries rather than decades, it is but the blink of an eye.

Kathryn Kolb

Kathryn Kolb

The area of Georgia between the Ocmulgee, Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers, including what is today the City of Atlanta, was given to the new United States by members of the Muscogee Creek Nation in 1821 through the Treaty of Indian Springs. During the 1820’s this land was sold through a lottery system for pennies per acre. Parts of properties established at that time are still intact today, and some of these contain remnants of the original forest.

Other major eastern cities, such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, began to develop over a hundred years before our region was settled. Urban areas grew from dense street grids, designed for travel by horse or by foot. But Atlanta remained small and quite rural well into the 20th century, so some scattered remnants of the original forest survived, especially on rocky or steep, “un-farmable” slopes.

When Atlanta’s population did grow exponentially in the 1950’s (after the invention of air-conditioning), development trends had changed, following new highways out to the suburbs, skipping over the old greenspaces on hillsides and stream corridors then considered “un-buildable.” In our area, the “silver lining” of sprawl is that pieces of the original forest can still be found deep in the urban zone, making Atlanta truly and uniquely “the City in a Forest.”

Doll's Eyes, kathryn kolb

Doll’s Eyes, an uncommon wildflower, thrives in Beecher Hills Nature Preserve. Credit: Kathryn Kolb

Hallmarks of these original, old growth forest remnants are of course the older trees. Sometimes we find trees that sprouted before Europeans settled here and it’s not uncommon to count 170 to 200 or more rings on oaks felled today in some neighborhoods. Occasionally hollow or damaged trees, not deemed worthy of a sawyer’s sweat, were spared the blade and live on today, ironically, while their robust forest compatriots were lost. Another type of elder tree can be easily overlooked – trees with large multiple trunks that at first-glance seem less than a century in age, but can in fact be much older beings, whose powerful roots in less disturbed soils work slowly to grow back the great forest, even after their original trunks were cut.

And let’s not miss the forest for the trees, because another clue to discovering our ancient forest is found in the native plants and wildflowers such as Trillium, Bloodroot, Wild ginger, Black cohosh, Mayapple and many more, that we usually have to drive to North Georgia to see.

Bruce and Dione Morton family, kathryn kolb

Bruce and Dione Morton stand with their family in front of giant Tulip Poplar tree in Hampton Beecher Nature Preserve. Bruce Morton was a critical leader in preserving over 400 acres of greenspace in city of Atlanta, including the Hampton Beecher Nature Preserve. Credit: Kathryn Kolb

How rare to find these designerly beautiful gems barely 10 minutes from the heart of the City! Many old growth forest species grow very slowly – on ancient forest time – taking decades to produce a few dozen plants in the old rich soils. So many of our native plants and trees can no longer survive in most urban and suburban places because our soils have been damaged or destroyed. What was common in a short walk from any Native American home is a rare find today.

Indeed, much of the life and regenerative power of an old growth forest is found in its rich irreplaceable soils – soils built by a forests over thousands of years, soils that can harbor seeds and sprout them sometimes decades later. We are just beginning to learn about the importance and vast complexity of soils. One of the most respected biologists of our time, E. O. Wilson, sees soil as biology’s new frontier, the “heart of life on Earth.” * It goes without saying that these soils are lost forever with every scoop of the bulldozer.

Healthy soils harbor millions of microorganisms, most of which are yet to be named, let alone studied. But scientists do know that healthy trees, and probably 90 percent of all plants, survive through complex relationships with fungi. Networks of mycorrhizal fungi keep trees healthy, sequester carbon, and even allow trees to communicate with each other. NASA satellites have even detected tree-fungi relationships from space. Old soils full of microorganisms that have evolved over thousands, and likely millions, of years are essential partners in supporting the rich bio-diversity of Atlanta’s native forest. We are learning that it takes a forest to raise a tree.

Unlike almost any other major city on the planet, Atlanta still harbors pieces of its original forest. But our region is growing fast, and many of the quietly forgotten green places are being filled in. We now have a window of opportunity to rediscover, treasure and preserve these forest havens, found on public and private lands in almost every Atlanta neighborhood – sometimes even in our own backyards!

Let us become aware of how special Atlanta’s urban forest really is, and how lucky we are to have inherited this forest through the accidents of Atlanta’s short history. Let us preserve, educate, restore and celebrate!

* E. O. Wilson quote from “Within One Cubic Foot,” National Geographic, February 2010

Northern Red Oak, Beecher Hills, Kathryn Kolb

This Northern Red Oak, in Beecher Hills Nature Preserve, is a state champion. Credit: Kathryn Kolb

Champ Tulip Tree, Kathryn Kolb

This Tulip Poplar, in the Lullwater Conservation Garden, is an Atlanta champion. Credit: Kathryn Kolb


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  1. jay scott August 2, 2016 9:45 am

    the statement that the area “was given to the United States” is a bit off.  It makes it sound like a housewarming gift, which it was not.Report

  2. Wormser Hats August 2, 2016 1:13 pm

    @jay scott  It was “given to the United States” by and for the benefit of Chief William McIntosh (who subsequently paid with his life).Report

  3. ParkRenewalDay August 3, 2016 11:21 am

    Their are pockets of old growth throughout Atlanta including the greenspace area of Dearborn Park in Decatur. Friends of Dearborn Park has been clearing invasives for many years now. It’s amazing these small pockets of old growth that are dispersed throughout the city, but many are in danger of development or being choked by Ivy.Report

  4. Wormser Hats August 3, 2016 11:52 am

    ParkRenewalDay  the problem of invasive species in our region is largely dismissed by an ignorant public and  -at times – even reinforced by short-sighted public policy and environmental advocacy organizations. 
    There are several species of trees that thrive on disturbed or neglected lands – both private and public.  From city and county parks to the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area.  In fact, you’ll often find public lands and the policies governing their stewardship are the refuge for invasive species. When it comes to trees like the familiar mimosa and tree-of-heaven, advocates for our urban canopy take a narrow “trees-before-troublemaker” view and will often defend the existence of a tract full of nuisance weeds, before consenting to their removal (or even replacement with native species). 
    The solution: the Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council’s categorized lists of invasive species ought to become the hymns of the gospel for public policy in our metro-area parks and greenspaces. Encouraging stewardship by public officials, our citizens, garden clubs, and other non-government organizations need to do more than merely roll-up-our-sleeves and pull weeds, but work more to educate and assist our neighbors in managing their patch of weeds, too. 
    The only way we’ll ever succeed at controlling invasive plants is to be better-organized than the weeds seem to be at prevailing in our communities.Report

  5. junehodges August 3, 2016 12:39 pm

    We have a white oak in our backyard ( about 7 miles SW of Five Points)  that is about four feet wide at its base….it was probably a sturdy sapling when Billy Sherman paid a visit to these parts.  A red oak twice that size (I have a photo of my father and two other men reaching around its circumference ) was taken down in the mid 90s after it died of disease. I am constantly trying to defend the white oak from encroachment of English Ivy creeping in from the backyard next door, which has all but been COMPLETELY taken over by the stuff.  Large trees have been smothered by these vines,  some dying. (One fell across our adjoining fence last year. ) I just cringe and shake my head when I see this stuff sold in containers at garden centers.Report

  6. Joan Maloof August 3, 2016 8:24 pm

    Wonderful reminder Kathryn. Thank you for “Speaking for the Forests.” JoanReport

  7. David Burg WildMetro August 3, 2016 10:43 pm

    Lovely article, and it is so good to see some attention paid to nature in the city.  I offer the following comments in a spirit of supplementing the information she reveals.   Old trees and remnants of old growth forests survive in urban areas around the world.  As the author notes for the Atlanta region, generally there is more old forest growth in cities than was left in suburbs or nearby agricultural areas.  
       Sometimes, as reported here, this has to do with leaving wild vegetation on rocky, wet, sandy or other inhospitable soils.  Another major global factor was the pattern of development.  In areas with large land holdings it was a mark of wealth to leave areas untouched, partly out of a desire of estate owners to emulate the “game parks’ of the aristocrats of Europe.  In Europe many such forests and savannas once owned by the nobility became famous public parks such as the network of Royal Parks in London and the ancient oak woodlands of Stockholm. 
           Even New York City has mature wild woods in the north end of Central Park and the Bronx, contrary to its general reputation, has more acreage of nearly uncut ancient forest than all of Connecticut.  Druid woods in Baltimore, Cobbs Creek in Philadelphia, Stanley Park in Vancouver, the Fontainebleau forest outside Paris…the list of patches of old growth in urban areas around the world is long.  In Asia and parts of Africa, in addition to former royal estates, sacred lands near temples also preserved urban patches of ancient woods.  
          Atlanta also has certain threats in common with other cities.  Of course development and new highways are usually the greatest danger, especially in neighborhoods without active protection advocacy by local residents.  An insidious threat is posed by alien invasive species that are shaping the future or urban wild lands.  Even a brief walk in Fernbank or other local Atlanta natural areas shows that regeneration by ancient trees is often prevented by kudzu and other species that do not “play nice”.
         I was especially glad to see this article talk about flowering plants and the soil.  To protect these special areas we need to look at the whole picture of all species, at multiple scales of time and space.   Though there will be differences between urban sites and sites in a more wild setting, natural areas often have unique features.  Saving them is an important part of a complete protect the planet for nature and for people.    
    David Burg, President, WildMetroReport

  8. ParkRenewalDay August 5, 2016 5:58 pm

    Park Pride has been very helpful in our fight, however, it’s very difficult to get public/neighbor participation on clean up days. Community Bucket has been helpful in the past as wellReport

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  10. timonberg73 November 26, 2016 5:12 am

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