A fallen tree across a creek
Fallen trees are one sign of an old-growth forest. They signify that trees have lived long lives and fulfilled their purpose.

An old-growth forest in the Poconos gains national recognition

| July 7, 2023

More than a dozen acres of trees in the Poconos that have stood for well over a century last week gained admission into an exclusive club after being recognized as an old-growth forest. 

At 100 to 150 years old, the trees in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area might be considered well beyond their AARP years, but they are still working hard, combatting climate change, helping to filter water and supporting a broad range of habitat for diverse wildlife.

The stand of trees — a blend of oak, beech, hickory and hemlock — are the first in Pike and Monroe Counties in Pennsylvania to be recognized as old-growth forests. They were honored by the National Park Service and the Old-Growth Forest Network with speeches and an informational hike at Lower Hornbecks Creek trailhead off Route 209 on June 29.

Brian Kane, the mid-Atlantic regional manager of the Old-Growth Forest Network, which promotes the preservation of these forests, said this section of woodlands at the National Recreation Area joined 27 other sites designated as old-growth forest in Pennsylvania. 

The network counts 215 old-growth forests in its inventory across the country, with Pennsylvania now leading the states.

According to the network, less than 5 percent of Western and only a fraction of 1 percent of Eastern original forests, on average, remain standing. Over the past 300 years, most of the forests in the Poconos were cut and cleared at least once, the Park Service noted. 

“Pests, diseases, and other factors have changed the way our forests look today compared to those that were here one, two, or three centuries ago,” it said. “But that doesn’t mean one can’t get a glimpse into the past.”

The recreation area’s superintendent, Doyle Sapp, took note of the historical events that the trees have lived through: wars, political assassinations, the sinking of the Titanic, the civil rights movement — and the introduction of the first Oreo cookie.

Beyond their sheer longevity, however, old-growth forests are notable as “champions against climate change” for how they sequester carbon dioxide, Kane said. They also support a diversity of wildlife, particularly owls and salamanders.

Kara Deutsch, head of the recreation area’s Resource Management and Science Division, said there might be pockets or individual trees that are older than 150 years but this collection of old-growth forest stands out as “important parts of the natural heritage of the Delaware River Valley.” 

Identifying old-growth forests

Volunteers and informed citizens often are the ones to nominate a section of woodlands for inclusion into the Old-Growth Forest Network, Kane said. (In this case, it was a Monroe County man, Bill Sweeney, who made the nomination.)

How do you tell what is an old-growth forest?

Kane said circumference — a traditional measure of age — on its own is not a surefire way to tell. Some species of trees can have a circumference of 15 inches while others can have a circumference of three feet but both could be more than a century old. 

Instead, researchers assess a blend of characteristics and take in the entirety of a tree’s ecosystem.

Among the elements considered: circumference, height, diversity of wildlife species, especially rare and endangered ones; location (old-growth trees tend to be in deep ravines, which made them historically harder for loggers to reach); and irregular terrain known as “pit and mound,” depressions created by fallen trees and piles of decomposing ones.

Fallen trees can be a sign of longevity in that they have fulfilled their purpose in the forest, Kane said. Another sign of old-growth trees are ones with gnarly canopies that look like antlers. They’ve been cracked by storms or hit by lightning, for example.

Old-growth in Pike and Monroe Counties 

Anna Grismer, an education technician with the Park Service, led a group of hikers over a multitude of bridges and along a trail to highlight this stand of old-growth trees.

Walking two astride along some narrow stretches of the trail, or single file across slender bridges that crossed rushing water, about 30 hikers made their way to Indian Ladder Falls.

Grismer stopped at points to speak about the complexity of woodlands and the relationship they share with plants and animals, which take their cues from the trees about when to hibernate or take shelter from a storm. She noted that researchers have identified at least 60,000 different species of trees worldwide.

The trees recognized as old-growth forests in the recreation area are in the Hornbecks Creek drainage in Delaware Township in Pike County, and Mt. Minsi in the Borough of Delaware Water Gap in Monroe County. 

Mt. Minsi is known for its combination of mature mixed hardwoods and old-growth oak-dominated forests atop the Kittatinny Ridge and large hemlocks within the ravines, the Park Service said.

The Hornbecks Creek drainage is recognized for its stands of mature mixed hardwoods in the uplands and eastern hemlocks through the ravine.

The creek rambles through the forest and tumbles over rock outcrops, forming two waterfalls as it makes its way to the Delaware River.

Other old-growth forests nearby include Henry’s Woods – Jacobsburg State Park in Northampton County

“These protected vestiges of old-growth forest are important parts of the natural heritage of the Delaware River valley, and we are honored to preserve them and to see them recognized as the special places they are,” Sapp said. And, then quoting President Theodore Roosevelt, he added, “To exist as a nation, to prosper as a state, to live as a people, we must have trees.”

Chris Mele

Chris Mele

Chris Mele is a reporter and editor with more than 30 years of experience in news, specializing in investigative and enterprise reporting.

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