The Origin of the Old-Growth Forest Network

As told by founder Joan Maloof


Dr. Joan Maloof, founder of the Old-Growth Forest Network, standing with “The Great Oak” in Temecula, CA. Photo by Jamie Phillips.

Dr. Joan Maloof, founder of the Old-Growth Forest Network, standing with “The Great Oak” in Temecula, CA. Photo by Jamie Phillips.

The beginning

I began my journey into the American forest as a scientist. I enjoyed studying the natural workings of this amazing planet – the systems that enable the trees and flowers and animals to subsist on their own with no help from humans.

But when I looked around for natural places to study I found that almost everything had been, and continues to be, affected by humans. I also became aware, painfully aware, that the oldest forests - some of the most natural and biologically diverse places on earth—were being logged and converted into managed forests (monoculture tree farms) destined to be cut again and again.

left-alone places

I am not opposed to harvesting trees for board and fiber, but as an ecologist I know that when we do we are sacrificing biodiversity. What I came to realize is that we are also sacrificing beauty. A certain amount of sacrifice may be necessary – all animals influence their surroundings – but there should also be places left to nature’s processes, if only so we may witness how nature works; if only so we may enjoy the beauty and the wonder of such places. It is these left-alone places that are refuges for birds, and butterflies, and animals of all kinds. We humans depend on them to clean our air and water and protect our climate.

writing books to spread the word

What could I do to help ensure that some forests would be left alone? I realized that as a scientist I could do very little, but as a writer I could share what other scientists had learned about the importance of ancient forests. So I made the transition from scientist to writer, and wrote Teaching the Trees: Lessons from the Forest. The first chapter of that book describes visiting an eastern old-growth forest, a forest that had never been logged.

My readers, few of whom had ever witnessed an old-growth forest, were fascinated and wanted to know how they could get to visit such a forest. Old-growth forests are so rare in the east, you see, that for years it was thought that none were left standing. There are a few, but very little information exists about how to find them. So that became book number two: Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests, reflections on one old forest in each of the twenty-six eastern states—with directions.

Creating an organization

In my journeys to these forests, and in my journeys through the forestry literature, here’s what I have learned:

  1. Almost all of our original forests have been logged or otherwise disturbed. (Less than 1% left in the east, 5% in the west.)

  2. The majority of Americans will never get to see an old-growth forest.

  3. There is no national organization or government agency working to protect the remaining ancient forests and preserve recovering forests.

Thus began my transition from writer to founder of an organization.

The idea for the Old-Growth Forest Network was born in 2007 during my forest travels. The organization would identify and help protect one forest in each county of the U.S. where forests could grow (approximately 2,370 counties out of 3,140) and let people know where they were located. In this way, I believe, we could help stop the destruction of what old-growth remained, help some forests recover, and enable more Americans to experience an old forest.

growing the network

But it took until 2011 to leave my university position and start working full time to establish the Old-Growth Forest Network. The death of my husband, Rick, in 2010 had a big role in this transition.

With the help of my board, we started building the Network and educating others about it. In that first year we formally added twenty forests to the Network, we gained 600 supporters, and I gave twenty-three talks – including talks at Longwood Gardens, the U.S. Botanical Garden, Cornell University and Penn State.

The Network now is a registered 501(c)3 charitable organization, known and supported by thousands of tree lovers throughout the country. We have now dedicated over 100 forests and we continue to expand the Network across the U.S.

The forest is not only something
to be understood, it is also something
to be felt.
— Joan Maloof

saving community forests & assisting private landowners

Local activists frequently contact us to help them in their struggles to protect threatened forests. Often these forests are the last left in their community. They typically are privately owned, county- or city-owned, and threatened with development. We’re adding our voice to theirs through letters to decision makers and our newsletter to forest groups around the country, and offering technical advice when we can. We intend to become even more helpful to these local groups.

Many of our oldest and most beautiful forests are privately owned. Thus we also advise private landowners about their forests and help them realize their preservation goals. We began our private forest program in Easton, Maryland at the ancient and beautiful Hope House Woods, which, with our help, will soon be protected by a “Forever Wild” easement, meaning it will never be logged. The information we are developing for private landowners could be particularly helpful when properties change hands due to death or sale.

In 2018, we published the How to Save a Forest Toolkit, which is useful for private landowners and community groups—or individual concerned citizens wishing to garner momentum in their communities in order to save a threatened forest. It is our hope that the Toolkit will empower more people with the tools and information necessary to save more forests.

the future, and how you can help!

The Old-Growth Forest Network is needed and we are excited about our work for a healthier planet, for now and for the future. We welcome you to join us and help ensure there are ancient forests for generations to come.