It’s amazing how much forest has been clear-cut. Today I took a day trip out to Mt. Rainier National Park, only to see hundreds of acres of forest in the hillsides mauled down in huge expanses in the areas around the park. Even the areas where, from afar, look as if there is full forest, the trees are only five to ten years old with no undergrowth, no snags, no habitat.

A time-series map from the University of New Hampshire.

A time-series map of old-growth disappearance from the University of New Hampshire.

Forestry is also full of illusions. For example, there is a pervasive beautification tactic that was visible all along the roadsides in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. I noticed this during my trip about three months ago along the coast. Logging companies will often leave a 50 yard barrier of tall trees along the sides of roads, just thick enough to block the view of clear cut wilderness everywhere else. This way, commuters and tourists will notice less destruction beyond the roadside, and assume that more of it is lush and verdant than it really is. In reality, these wild areas are so much smaller than you think.

It’s hard to believe that no one actually knows how much old-growth there is in the United States. A 2009 Scientific American article says that the Forest Service reports 4.3 million acres of old growth exist, the Wilderness Society estimates 2 million, and the National Commission on Science for Sustainable Forestry concluded 3.5 million. If we take the middle number, that means roughly 6 percent of all forested area in the US are old-growth.

3.5 million acres = 5,468 square miles. This is a little less than the area of King County, Whatcom County and Thurston County put together.

Scientific American:

It is hard to say whether the remaining pockets of scattered old-growth in areas besides the Pacific Northwest will remain protected, but environmentalists are working hard to save what they can in northern California, Oregon and Washington. The outgoing Bush administration recently announced plans to increase logging across Oregon’s remaining old-growth reserves by some 700 percent, in effect overturning the landmark Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 that set aside most of the region’s remaining old growth as habitat for the endangered spotted owl.

Besides that, most of the protected old-growth forests exist in places that are hard to reach by truck, and freeze over in the winter. So it is only too convenient for the logging companies that they’re protected. Most of Mt. Rainier National Park today was covered in heavy snow still, and it’s May. The roads to all major trail heads are still blocked off. All of the warmer areas adjacent to the park are free-game for logging, and most of it is already logged. That means all the animals who wander down from the mountain during the colder months really have no good places to go.

There are people doing something about the eradication of old growth areas. While I was in Eugene, Oregon about three weeks ago I met some environmental activists who are hosting a summer of forest activism in the forests near the Wilammette Valley. You can attend the camp for the whole summer, a week, or just a few days. If you’re in the area they would be worth visiting. Check out