Old-Growth Forests in New York State Protected by Law

ALBANY, New York, September 8, 2008 (ENS) - Old-growth forests in the state of New York are protected for the first time under a bill signed into law Friday by Governor David Paterson. The law applies only to state forests, not to forests on private lands or national forests in the state of New York.

The measure was co-sponsored by two Buffalo-area Democrats, State Senator Mary Lou Rath and Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, "in the interest of heritage preservation and ecosystem conservation, for the benefit of present and future generations," as the bill states.

"These old growth forests, if they're cut down are probably never going to return. It will be generations if at all. They are irreplaceable in our lifetime and those of our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, said Michael Hettler, counsel with Senator Rath's office, who drafted much of the new law.

"It would take 150 years if they're left alone, and that's harder and harder to do," Hettler told ENS in an interview. "We've got to keep what we have."

The law recognizes the role of forests to cool the climate, stating that part of its purpose is "to maintain the ability of old-growth forests to sequester carbon, thereby helping to avoid an increase in the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."

It is also intended to "maintain the ability of old-growth forests to transpire water and to provide shade and large woody debris to streams, rivers, and creeks; to provide habitat for endangered and threatened species that are dependent on or associated with old-growth forests; and to encourage, as appropriate, the retention of old, large, dead, dying or deteriorating trees that provide necessary habitat for wildlife and nutrients essential for forest health, and retain moisture that enhances water quality and quantity."

"I think this is something that protects an asset for posterity - an asset that was left vulnerable," said Hettler.

The law was two years in the drafting stage and was originally conceived as a bigger bill that brought in private lands as well, offering a tax deduction for landowners who conserved old-growth forests.

But that was deemed not to be possible, particularly with a tight state budget this year.

"We figured let's get started and protect the state land," Hettler explained.

New York does not have many large old-growth forests left, but there are a lot of small ones, spread all across the state. Scientists estimate that close to 350,000 acres of old-growth forests remain in the state of New York.

To qualify for protection as an old-growth forest under the law, the parcel must be, among other criteria, at least 10 acres and include "an abundance of late successional tree species, at least 180 to 200 years of age in a contiguous forested landscape that has evolved and reproduced itself naturally, with the capacity for self perpetuation."

It must show limited signs of human disturbance since European settlement.

"People used to think these forests were all gone, but over the last 10 to 15 years, we realized it isn't all gone," Hettler said.

Entitled the Bruce S. Kershner Old-growth Forest Preservation and Protection Act, the law is named after the late old-growth forest authority, naturalist and author, Bruce Kershner of Buffalo, who discovered 200 old growth forests in eastern North America. These include the second tallest hardwood forest in eastern North America outside of the southern Appalachians, New York state's oldest forest, and the state's largest assemblage of old growth - the Niagara River corridor.

Kershner published a dozen books, including "Secret Places of Western New York and Southern Ontario," and the "Sierra Club Guide to Old Growth Forests of the Northeast."

He was funded by the Audubon Society to write a "Guide to Western New York's Ancient Forests," and served as conservation chair of the Buffalo Audubon Society.

Kershner was a member of the Western New York Old Growth Survey Team and acted to prevent the logging of old-growth in areas such as the Zoar Valley south of Buffalo and Allegany State Park.

His friend and fellow naturalist Fred Breglia, director of horticulture and operations with the Landis Arboretum, who worked with the legislators to draft the bill, said, "This law will change the way we look at our old forests."

{Photo: Bruce Kershner at Buckthorn Island State Park, New York by Joshua Kershner, 2006}

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