Ask a hundred people to locate the oldest forests in the country, and ninety-nine of them would probably point vaguely west, somewhere toward California’s massive redwood stands. But tracts of old-growth forest—trees that have reached maturity with minimal ecological disturbance—exist in every state east of the Mississippi River. And one by one, naturalist Joan Maloof is working to protect them all.
Armed with an old pickup truck and a mattress, the former professor of biology and environmental studies at Maryland’s Salisbury University spent two summers exploring old-growth forests in all twenty-six Eastern states, from Alabama’s Sipsey Wilderness to Kentucky’s Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve, chronicling the journey in her 2011 book, Among the Ancients. The book serves as a road map to some of the country’s most beautiful, most biologically diverse, and least known wild places, and it became the catalyst for her biggest adventure yet, creating a national old-growth forest network. Modeled after the national park system, the nascent network is the first comprehensive attempt to catalog and preserve undisturbed forests by setting aside one site in each county where forests naturally grow (2,370 counties in all) to remain unlogged and open to the public. “It isn’t just for Georgia or Maryland,” she says. “It’s to make it easier for everyone to visit a nearby forest, a forest they can build a relationship with and watch their children do the same.”