"virgin forest", a useful and pleasing term

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Ranger Dan
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"virgin forest", a useful and pleasing term

Post by Ranger Dan » Sat Apr 14, 2012 2:01 pm

There have been many negative comments about the term "virgin forest". I think it is not an undignified practice to occasionally use unscientific terms, especially when we are called upon to regard the forest for aesthetic appreciation. To some, a definition of "virgin forest" would exclude all human influence such as introduced species or human-induced climate change, and of course to those people there is no place on the planet that is "virgin". I have always thought of the term simply to refer to forest on land that has never been logged, and so it seems to me that the term simplifies the issue of how to refer to the status of a stand of forest, young or old, on land never logged. Somebody tell me if there's a better term for that. "Primeval", "original", "primordial"? "Never-logged" is an awkward and unclear term I feel forced to use instead (my 10-year-old stand of pines has never been logged, but I wouldn't call it "never-logged").

Virgin forest isn't necessarily full of old trees, if it has experienced stand-replacing fire, for example, which occurs naturally nearly everywhere. Much of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is that way...stands where trees relatively recenlty have been killed by fire and replaced by young regeneration, but on land never logged.

My Washington state Forest Service timber beast colleagues despised the term "virgin forest" because to them it seemed a sissy term that took the idea of the extractable "forest resource" outside of their familiar utilitarian concepts and into an uncomfortable, unmanly aesthetic ether where trees are not thought of as lumber. They always referred to de facto virgin forest that had burned within the time of European-American habitation as "second growth", even if the fire was of natural origin, and even where some ancient trees survived. I see no relevance to the word "second" in this case (and how do they?). By their own insistance, all the forest there has burned time after time for centuries, which to them conveniently did away with the suggestion that any of their extractibles could qualify as "virgin".

I always enjoy talking about the Virgin Forest in the company of the timber beasts whenever I visit a U.S. Forest visitor center. It's at least as effective as fingernails on a chalk board. They don't like to hear "old growth" either. I was told during a recent visit to a visitior center for Pisgah National Forest that there is no old growth forest there. In other words, already screwed, so we can do with it as we please.

I think it would be preferable for those of us who cherish the groves of ancient trees to err on the side of oversanctification, and call them Virgin Forest.

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Will Blozan
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Re: "virgin forest", a useful and pleasing term

Post by Will Blozan » Sat Apr 14, 2012 3:34 pm


As an ecological purist, I will never use the term "virgin forest" until I see one. Only the rarest fragments of forest not impacted by mis-managing humans would ever come close. Carolina hemlock bluffs come to mind provided they have not received human fire protection or HWA.

An unlogged forest that has lost American chestnut, eastern or Carolina hemlock, Carolina parakeets, ivory-billed woodpeckers etc. is not virgin in my mind. Labeling it virgin negates or glosses over the impacts of humans. An unlogged stand of table mountain pine, longleaf pine or any other fire driven forest ecosystem that has had its fire regime disturbed would also not be virgin even though not mechanically disturbed. Same for floodplain forests that no longer flood due to dams or diversions.

Extreme I know, but this topic will have a huge spectrum of responses and opinions.


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Josh Kelly
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Re: "virgin forest", a useful and pleasing term

Post by Josh Kelly » Sun Apr 15, 2012 11:02 am


Thanks for the thoughtful response about virgin forest. I occasionally use the term myself, mostly in communicating to lay people that understand "virgin" means ain't-never-been-logged.

I, also, like bringing discussions of nature into the realms of aesthetics, emotions, and values. I find these areas to be less abstract than the utilitarian view of forest as board feet, biomass, and the false presumption of human control of nature. Huge influence - yes; control - never. If we had any measure of control, the clearcuts I regularly tour would be full of red oaks instead of red maple and poplar. It is our quest for control of nature and each other that leads to so many of the unintended tragedies we see around us, but that is best left to another thread.

It's sad that so few of the employees of Cherokee, Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests recognize the amazing old-growth stands they are responsible for. Many of these stands do not live up to the stereotype of having huge trees, but some do. The fact is that these three national forests collectively have nearly 100,000 acres of old-growth, and each forest has sites that should be famous, even without the already famous Joyce Kilmer. I encourage any NTS that encounter the ignorance of employees of those forests about old-growth to politely inform them that there are excellent examples of old-growth on their forest. Evidence of those stands can be found in the Forest Service's land acquisition records, in their own FS Veg data base, in the Region 8 Guidance on Protecting and Restoring Old Growth Forest, Mary Byrd Davis' "Old Growth in the East", and in scientific literature.

Thanks for your perspective!

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Re: "virgin forest", a useful and pleasing term

Post by Don » Sun Apr 15, 2012 2:45 pm

Ranger Dan-
Like Will and many others, the search for the right word or phrase has eluded us. My UMASS prof in paraphrasing
United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to describe his threshold test for pornography in Jacobellis versus_____ "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be ... But I know it when I see it", Dr. David Kittredge said "I can tell when I walk into it [old-growth], and when I walk out of it", but he too also struggled in coming up with a definition, back then (1990's).

For my part, I take neither extreme (for example, Hunter who takes the purist stance and claims that man's influence is everywhere pervasive, a rather exclusive defintion; or at a similar time, the USFS which was trying to establish a country-wide minimum criteria, which oddly enough functions to be an inclusive definition, characterized by numeric limitations).

I would proffer a definition that recognizes the difference between natural and unnatural...which gets into it's own morass early enough (g). By this I mean that man by himself is as natural as ANY other critter on earth. Period. Even men in tribes. But somewhere along the way, man's nature in a larger society, and a technological one at that, and in my view differs from 'natural man'.

For an example, an area (for instance a watershed) that has as it's most significant disturbance, cyclic wind events such as hurricanes...would qualify for further contention, as "old-growth". Still in contention though is the level of influence by man, either natural, or as defined above, unnatural. Another criteria would have to be age (a criteria hinted at in the phrase "old-growth" itself), and in my imperfect world I'd classify that to recognize the the proportion of the old-growth's ecosystem's component's age maxima. This works across regions, as a definition of old-growth in a temperate NW US forest with Douglas fir (1200-1500 years) predominating would be a very different thing than say that of an an eastern forest dominated by Fraser fir (less than 200 years).

Where it gets 'touchy' is say in the Southwestern US, where bimodal climate regimes called a Monsoon have for millenia created a natural fire regime based on more or less random (speaking spatially and temporally) lightning downstrikes match any in the nation. When did the arrival of indigenous peoples' use of fire for their needs, become significant in comparison to lightning sourced fires? Equal? More prevalently man-caused?

That's a little easier, as considerable study has been applied towards this historical reference condition. Another question to ask is: Can the efforts of the Grand Canyon National Park's fire staff and fire scientists' reintroduction of a more natural fire regime (using only wildfires for resource benefit) restore the ponderosa pine ecosystem (PPE) to a vector that will take closer to where the PPE might have gone without unnatural man's influence?

Sorry if I've rambled...but Aldo Leopold's right, everything's connected to everything else!
Don Bertolette - President/Moderator, WNTS BBS
Restoration Forester (Retired)
Science Center
Grand Canyon National Park

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Re: "virgin forest", a useful and pleasing term

Post by Chris » Mon Apr 16, 2012 12:20 am

Lots of good thoughts, but I actually have another problem with the term itself [I realize some, perhaps lots will groan].

Virgin is a term used to describe human and in particular, female sexuality. It isn't not descriptive whatsoever for a forest, unlike unlogged or old-growth that is at least to some extent. I don't know for sure, but my guess is the origin is very loaded [nature is feminine; western society has tended to highly value/demand female virginity, therefore a virgin landscape is more pure, better].

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Re: "virgin forest", a useful and pleasing term

Post by wodewose » Fri Jan 26, 2018 4:06 am

Concept like "virgin forest" and "pristine wilderness" overlook the legacy of indigenous people's management of the landscape. Of course not every place in North America bore the hand of man, but many places did. But certain zones, most of the piedmont for instance, was, so far as we can tell, managed intentionally by humans with fire. This selected for thick-barked hardwoods like... you guessed it, Chestnut, Oak, Hickory, etc.

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