Change & Renewal in Sigrist Woods

Old-growth forests are certainly among nature’s most awe-inspiring treasures – treasures we seek to protect and pass on. Sigrist Woods, along with other small parcels like Johnson Woods, are some of this region’s last remnants of true old growth. Because they are “protected,” we sometimes wishfully think of them as unchanging, but this is not the case. When the summer storm of 2013 struck down many of Sigrist’s large, old trees, those who loved the forest were understandably saddened by the loss. From an ecological perspective, however, this was an important natural event that will help keep the forest healthy for generations.

Ecological succession is the process by which a community of plants and animals undergoes more or less orderly and predictable changes following a disturbance to the ecosystem. Typical and relatively common natural disturbances include things like wind-throw from strong storm events, excessive flooding, soil saturation leading to landslides, and of course wildfire.

In nature, it is a matter of “when” major disturbances will happen rather than “if.” Even if it takes hundreds or even thousands of years, every ecosystem will eventually experience some degree of major disturbance.

Minor disturbances are happening in forests and grasslands all the time. A single tree falling changes the conditions of the area it once shaded. Taken together with all the other fallen trees from previous years and decades, a patchwork of successional stages emerges. Bare soil is visible beneath a newly fallen tree, and grasses and “weedy” plants grow vibrantly in the new-found sunlight. On the other hand, an area around a tree that fell a couple decades ago will have young trees well on their way to shading out the shrubs and forbs beneath them.

This is the way nature maintains a healthy balance of both mature and new growth (and every age between). An ecosystem with a full range of age classes of its key species and even areas harboring different species is a more dynamic, biologically diverse, and more stable ecosystem than one comprised almost exclusively of one species and age. Albeit aesthetically and perhaps even philosophically more pleasing, an old-growth forest is inevitably destined to lose some or all of its “old” in order to make room for “new” to maintain optimal health and stability.

Please join us during this year’s Earth Day Celebration on Saturday, April 20th, when we officially reopen the Sigrist Woods trail. Those familiar with Sigrist Woods prior to the storm may be surprised to find an open, “weedy,” field where thickly canopied trees once grew – but will hopefully remember that this is still the place you love, just at a different stage in its ever-changing lifecycle as a natural woodland.

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