Young forest habitat at New York’s Mongaup Valley Wildlife Management Area. Photo by: Gregory Cerne, via the Ruffed Grouse Society.

Mention old-growth forests and most people think of giant sequoias in California, centuries-old Douglas firs and western redcedars in British Columbia, red pines in Ontario, or massive live oaks in the Southern US. These charismatic megaflora certainly are impressive, and forests of old-growth are invaluable for their biodiversity. However, young forests—with trees and shrubs up to 10 or 20 years old—also can be attractive, especially when plants are in bloom, and have high biodiversity, sometimes higher than old-growth forests. For many wildlife species, young forests are crucial habitat.

Such habitat, also known as early successional habitat or early seral habitat, is so important that in 2011 a group of US government agencies, universities, timber companies, and conservation organizations—including SFI—and other partners created the Young Forest Project (YFP), which is dedicated to “growing wildlife habitat together.” The group’s website explains:

Most people know that wildlife needs mature forest. They understand that grasslands and wetlands are also highly valuable to our region’s wild creatures. Another type of habitat is less well known, yet every bit as important if we are to have diverse wildlife and a healthy land.  

It’s called young forest, and it’s essential for many different animals from small reptiles to large mammals. Many birds need this habitat, too, including ones that breed and nest in mature woods. Young forest is used by rare species of wildlife and by those that are more abundant. 

Some of the animals that need young forest are ruffed grouse, American woodcock, and whippoorwill; bobcat and Appalachian and New England cottontail; and box turtle, wood turtle, and green snake. White-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and a broad range of songbirds also rely on the food and cover offered by young forest. 

A related organization, The Northern Young Forest Initiative, focuses on an ecoregion encompassing most of New England, the Adirondack Mountains of New York, and Atlantic Canada. Several states, such as Connecticut and New York and have groups that focus on the species of most concern there. National forests in the US also are working to create more young forest habitat, such as the Early Successional Habitat Creation Project on the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont.

Some groups criticize cutting mature forest to create young forest. For example, the Southern Environmental Law Center has objected to the Southside Project on the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina, where there is a shortage of early successional habitat. Some groups have criticized the creation of young forest habitat on the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area, in a project developed by New Jersey Audubon and the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife.

As on the Nantahala National Forest and Sparta Mountain, many areas of the US and Canada have an abundance of mature forest habitat and a deficit of young forest habitat. Why?

“In the past, natural forces caused an ebb and flow of many thousands of acres of regrowing forest and shrubland,” explains YFP. “But we no longer let fires burn unchecked or beavers build dam complexes that flood vast areas of woodland and kill trees—two natural processes that once gave rise to much young forest.”

I would add that the end of intentional Indigenous burning also has been a significant factor in the shift from a mosaic of habitat ages to more mature forest cover.

On the national forests in California and in Western Oregon and Washington, recent unusually large wildfires have burned extensive areas of mature and old-growth forest—mid-and late-successional habitat—and created vast swathes of early successional habitat. Outside of the burned areas, smaller patches of young forest are scarce, due to a century of fire suppression and the decline in timber harvesting since the 1990s. In this region, white-tailed deer prefer feeding in forest openings of 20 acres or less; elk prefer areas from 20 to 45 acres. Openings of this size are few and far between. The balance in these national forests has shifted from a scarcity of young forest habitat to too much of it in patches of tens or hundreds of thousands of acres.

In short, while we may revere our mature and old-growth forests and appreciate our young forests, it’s important to remember that there can be too much of a good thing.


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