The Temperate Hardwood Forest
Where in the world does the temperate hardwood forest grow?
The primeval range of temperate forest strongholds were found in
America’s eastern forest was the last of the three to be cut down to make way for agriculture and industry, some of it as late as only 150 years ago. Consequently, America East’s forest remnants offer the world its last and best chance to preserve a world-significant biome. To succeed, large unbroken forest blocks need to be re-united, and the forest’s original biodiversity restored through protection and restoration work.
When a forest becomes too disrupted through over-cutting, browsing, and soil erosion, it becomes severely diminished in overall species. In such an ecosystem, trees are often one of the last species to disappear. Although much of the East is still covered with trees, the vast majority of eastern woodlands have considerably less than half of their original species diversity. Ancient and fully intact temperate hardwood forests are extremely rare today, occupying less than ½ of one percent of their original range in the United States.
What makes the temperate hardwood forest biome distinctive among the world’s biomes?
Incredible species diversity. The temperate hardwood forest boasts a natural diversity of plants and animals surpassed only in the tropics. In its most pristine condition, a rich old-growth Appalachian Forest can support a breath-taking 100,000 species of plants and animals, of which only two hundred fifty are trees. A forest is much more than the sum of its trees, indeed. You can’t have a forest ecosystem—with its diverse wildflowers, birds, salamanders, lichens, insects, mosses and mushrooms—without trees. But you can have trees without intact forest.
Heavy precipitation. All temperate hardwood forests need a lot of rainfall. They grow in relatively lush climates in which the precipitation falls all year around—in the summer as rain, and in the winter as snow. The eastern forest’s arteries are its rivers and streams, sheltering stunning aquatic diversity.
Very high aquatic diversity. America’s eastern forest’s aquatic diversity is the highest in all of the temperate world. Our native forest shelters half of the world’s crayfish species, nearly 10% of its turtles, nearly 40% of its salamanders, and almost 30% of its fresh-water mussels. One watershed in Tennessee has more fish species than all of Europe. The eastern United States has nearly 350 species of fresh-water mussels compared to only ten found in Europe, and only a handful of species in western United States.
Stunning spring wildflowers. Because the temperate forest’s dense leaf canopy shades the forest floor all summer long, there are only four weeks in spring during which sturdy spring wildflowers can burst out of the ground, flower, and refill their energy reserves before the trees block life-giving sunlight. By June these highly ephemeral flowers have gone to seed and dormancy. They will wait another year for their place in the sun, having one of the shortest growing seasons on the planet. The unified timing of this mass flowering is one of nature’s most beautiful forest spectacles, and no other forest type can quite rival it. This is quite different from tropical rainforests, where the blooming seasons of flowers are scattered throughout the entire year.
Gorgeous fall color. All temperate hardwood forests glow in colors of reds, yellows and apricots just before the leaves fall, providing an autumn spectacle unrivaled by tropical and boreal biomes. America East takes the prize of having the most colorful autumn display even among its sister forests due to the presence of a few common species boasting unusually outstanding color, notably the sugar maple, white ash, red maple, poison ivy, sumac and sassafras.
What makes America's eastern forest unique in the world?
America's Eastern Forest offers natural spectacles you can’t see anywhere else in the world such as explosive hatches and ear-splitting songs of the 7-year cicada, clouds of duck and geese as they migrate seasonally along the eastern seaboard, immense mast crops of oak acorns and hickories, bushels of autumn paw paws, massive salamander and frog migration and spawning right after the first spring thaw, and glowing neon-colored New World warblers returning each spring to the forest canopies from South America.
Here are two spectacles that we once claimed but now have lost: one out of every six birds in the world was once the eastern forest’s passenger pigeon; and one of the world’s only temperate parrots—the Carolina Parakeet, once graced our forests with its noisy chatter and colorful wings.
One Great Forest
Most people don’t know that the temperate hardwood forests of the northern hemisphere are really one forest separated geographically. If you were to be suddenly transported into an eastern Chinese forest, and you opened your eyes, the trees and flowers you would see would look nearly identical to those of home—tulip trees, hemlocks, rhododendrons, ginseng, may-apple and jack in the pulpit. You wouldn’t know if you had landed in China or in the Carolinas.
The Invisible Forest
We live in an increasingly nature-disconnected world, where the average citizen can recognize over three hundred corporate logos but not three species of native trees, and where the media has taught us more about the tropical forest than the temperate forest in our own backyard.
To the vast majority of forest citizens, our native forest is invisible. Unseen are the sentinel box elders, growing in a scraggly fence row behind the urban factory. Unrecognized is the lone white oak left in the pasture to shade the cows. Unnoticed are the native honey locusts, stripped of their thorns, growing in grated holes in the asphalt of a local strip mall. Nevertheless, these are truly remnants of the temperate forest, descendents of wilderness. Even in unlikely places, the forest is with us, still growing among us, whether recognized or not.
The Arc of Appalachia is one of a handful of groups working to create contiguous blocks of forest land in the east. Especially by connecting existing preserve lands with green corridors, we can reunite the large blocks of land needed to sustain a healthy forest eco-system. By increasing the acreage of preserve land that is simply left to exist and is not managed or disturbed by human activity, we also increase the ability of the Forest to recover and mature.
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