MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So we know the D.C. region is home to plant life of all sorts. Fruits and vegetables, of course. And you see them everywhere, trees. Trees, forests, they've been in the area a long time. Way before any of us were here. Way before our ancestors even. But the forests we see now aren't the same ones those ancestors might've seen. In other words, those first forests are long gone. In Virginia we're actually on our fourth forest, at least.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Environmental reporter Sabri Ben-Achour visited a stretch of woods in Western Fairfax County to learn what happened to those very first forests and to see what's growing now.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
Here in Western Fairfax County, it's easy to miss the forest or the trees, quite literally. At first blush, like any other forest, it's full of trees. But this forest has much more to it than that.
MR. JIM MCGLONE
Tulip poplar, white oak.
With just a glance, Virginia forester, Jim McGlone reads the bark of the currently leafless trees like a storybook. Every bump and ridge tells him something.
That one over there that has a lot of knurls on it, is a northern red oak. If you look at the bark, you can see it's, kind of, like, got ski slopes on it.
Some of the trunks here are 30 inches thick. And more than a 100 feet tall. But don't think this forest is ancient, it's not at all.
I would say, it's somewhere between 60 and a 100 years old.
None of the forests in Fairfax County and in much of the east coast are much older than this. Few are what could be called, truly mature and McGlone says, "Not a single one in the county is old growth." And how do you know that?
There's a process as you go from a bare field to a climax forest called succession.
By looking at what's growing and what's not growing and by consulting a little bit of history, McGlone traces the age of this forest. He points across the road to a neighbors field.
Now, over there, what you've got is a pasture. And if they stop maintaining that as a pasture, rather quickly it would be invaded by eastern red cedar. Which is a pioneer species.
Pioneer species grow fast and need a lot of light. Virginia pines and tulip poplars are a couple of common ones here. They race into the sky, hundreds of feet sometimes and dominate the new forest for anywhere from 50 to a 150 years. As they grow, the soil changes. Squirrels and Blue Jays arrive and bury hickory nuts and acorns. Those germinate and wait. And eventually the pioneers die. In the distance, two lonely pines are swaying on deaths doorstep. They're the last of their generation.
After about 40 or 50 years, the pine will fall out and succeed to the hardwood, the oaks and the hickories typically which would be your mid successionals (sp?) and then they can, depending on the species of oaks like white oak will last for 400 or 500 years.
But those, too, will give way. And below them, slow growing giants that don't need a lot of light bide their time in the shade.
All of these trees with the really smooth bark are beech. Shade loving, American beeches. In a few hundred years, this will be their forest.
And eventually, what we get to, if it's undisturbed, is maple, beech and holly in this area.
With each generation comes a different set of insects, fungi and birds. This entire process, creating a mature forest from start to finish takes a long, long time.
You know, it could take a 1,000 years to get there.
And we are not there in Virginia or anywhere near here, not even close.
Virginia has gone through a number of deforestation events. I mean, first the American Indians cleared a lot of land for agricultural fields.
Then colonists arrived and cleared forests for tobacco, then wheat. Forests came up only to come down again. Then came the civil war.
Pretty much all of Northern Virginia was clear cut during the civil war.
Dairy farming in Fairfax County took down what, if anything grew up after that until in the 1950s and '60s as dairy farms moved south, the forests started to grow back for the third or fourth time.
By 1972, we had about 70 percent canopy cover in Fairfax County.
A wave of urban development took that down to about 40 percent now. Fairfax County wants to bring the canopy cover up to 45 percent, in part to help with air and water quality in the county. Forest filter both the air and the drinking water. But McGlone says it's really up to individuals. Most of the forests are not owned by the government or even developers.
It's surprisingly difficult to get people to plant trees on their property. You wouldn't expect trees to suffer from nimbi but they do. They're -- people love trees as long as they're not in their yard.
But for those who do help build the forests, McGlone says, one needs to think in tree time. The trees people plant now won't take long to mature. But growing a fully developed forest takes much, much longer than the trees. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
You can learn more about preserving our areas forests and get tips on finding a few slivers of that old growth forest on our website metroconnection.org.
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