The Forest and the Golden Seeds

by Michael J. Caduto

2002 All Rights Reserved

(802) 649-1815 (tel. & fax)


We all know the parable of the goose that lays the golden eggs. A thief steals the goose and, blinded by a vision of the wealth he might obtain, kills the hapless fowl to get at the riches inside. In the end, both the goose and the golden eggs of the future are forever destroyed.

Vermonters now stand on the verge of such a decision. The 12,500-acre core reserve in the West Mountain Wildlife Management Area, which is less than ten percent of the total of the 133,000-acre Champion lands purchase, is the ecological goose that could lay the golden eggs for all of Vermont’s forests to come. The golden eggs that would be produced in this ecological forest reserve are the seeds that bear the genes of longevity, seeds that are only found in old growth forests amid the ancient trees that have lived to a ripe old age.

Some sportsmen, foresters and camp owners object to setting this land aside as an ecological reserve because they resist setting a precedent and fear the repercussions of creating a relatively small area that is off limits to logging. These individuals risk letting short-term gains and concerns get in the way of preserving a resource that would benefit every Vermonter and all of our children for generations to come.

A forester attending a conference in Maine recently said, "You know what happens when you leave a tree alone, you just leave it alone? Well, it just dies." In fact, that tree doesn’t die until it has completed an ecological cycle from seed to soil. In an ecological reserve trees are allowed to live out their natural lives. Forest ecosystems mature to a point where the cycle of life and death becomes self-regulating and establishes a balance. Under these conditions, the process of natural selection takes hold. The only lineages that survive belong to trees that are hardy and long-lived—the ones that are able to continue for many generations.

Old growth trees are pillars of endurance—the traits that enabled them to survive are encoded in their genes. Storms did not uproot them. Insects, diseases and droughts could not defeat them. Some even lived through fires and hurricanes. These survivors produce seeds that bear the hardy genes of the forest’s future. If trees are cut down before they live to old age, we will never discover the genes that enable the survival of the most vigorous and productive trees, the ones that contribute the most to the long-term health of the forest. The same ancient trees or forest stands that are slow-growing—the ones that, to a forester’s eye, are "over-mature" and beyond economic productivity—may harbor the very individuals whose genetic code holds the key to the future of our forests. Even a tree’s individual character is a genetic expression—the graceful sweep of its branches, the pattern of ancient bark, the direction that the grain of an ancient tree spirals as it grows, or whether it twists at all.

The forests that now surround us are the product of generations of trees that have grown in this region since after the glacier retreated some 14,000 years ago. But the seeds that re-established these post-glacial forests were produced by ancestral trees that evolved over millions of years. The trees we see today are the progeny of those individuals that adapted to the changing environment and survived. Similarly, trees in the 12,500-acre ecological reserve would be allowed to mature and respond to the changes that come, such as global warming, other forms of air pollution and any number of new insects and diseases that will be introduced from other continents. This reserve will become an ecological island where natural selection can occur undisturbed—a place that will produce the seeds that will help to assure the survival of forests throughout Vermont.

Mature forests are both resilient and biologically diverse. At the heart of old growth forests are the complex interrelationships between plants, animals and microbes that eventually begin to function together as a living organism. Trees in a mature forest ecosystem are joined underground by a woody web of roots that have grafted together. These roots connect to a vast network of symbiotic strands of soil fungi called mycorrhizae (my-coe-RYE-zee).

But the soil web of forest roots and fungi is fragile. Pesticides can poison the forest fungi. Compaction by heavy equipment, or even a single log dragged through the soil, can crush or sever the strands of the web. Depending on the exact climate, the severity of previous cutting and degree of soil disturbance, it can take 100 to 200 years for Vermont’s forests to recover and develop their old-growth character.

In addition to the environmental and economic by-products of an ecological reserve are the intangible fringe benefits. Over time a forest ecosystem becomes a world unto itself whose feeling of timelessness works its magic upon us, envelops our senses and enriches our spirits. Surrounded by giants of wood and leaf, their crowns arching overhead, we are gripped by the mystery of our own role in nature’s fabric.


Michael J. Caduto of Norwich, Vermont is an ecologist and author with a B.S. in forestry and wildlife management and an M.S. in natural resources. Prior to moving to Vermont full-time over 20 years ago, Caduto was Land Manager for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, where he designed, oversaw and implemented multiple-use plans for Audubon’s properties statewide.


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