Monday, April 4, 2016

Land of the Giants: Dysart Woods

If ever an Ohio forest reached a level of fame, it would be the embattled Dysart Woods near Belmont.  The largest stretch of untimbered woods in southeast Ohio has long been a battle ground for conservation.  The original owners wanted it preserved and sold it to The Nature Conservancy 1962. However, the mineral rights were recently held up in Ohio's court as subject to the claims of a coal mine, deep beneath the forest.

Fifty of the 455 acres in the parcel are "original forest" according to TNC's publication.  Original forest is another way of saying old-growth forest.  It is a forest of significant age, more than 100 years old and possibly much, much older. "Original forest" suggests the land has never been timbered. 

Reflecting on the kiosk. Photo by Susan Nash.

Dysart is the land of the Giants as advertised on the brochure at the welcome kiosk.  While I have seen trees both bigger and older than those in Dysart, it is still a mighty impressive forest. Hikers have a choice of trails. The forest viewed from the red trail seems a bit higher in quality than the blue trail, but either provide a pleasant walk in the woods.

A magestic Tulip tree, Lireodendron tulipifera towers above the trail.  Photo by Susan Nash.
Dysart Woods is mostly comprised of tulip tree, beech, and oaks- both red and white. Spring wildflowers were greening the forest floor, but they were delayed by our early April chill.  Mayapples, Dutchmen's britches and violets were all starting to poke through the forest duff. 

A hallmark of an old-growth forest is a mixed age of trees.  Not only were there giants, an abundance of mid-sized and young trees also grow in the stand.  While the oldest of giants, like fallen soldiers, lay upon the ground. Decay is a decades-long process in trees of this size.  The forest depends on the fungus and beetles to break down wood fibers. Hungry fauna will assist the destruction by clawing or pecking those grub-laden logs. But this decay is part of the greater good. It feeds the forest.

Catkins had fallen with the previous night's wind. Photo by Susan Nash
High in the tree tops above, Red Maple bloomed and catkins were forming.  We found a branch with immature green catkins and pondered its possibilities.  It just didn't add up. What could it be?
Robert Wiley, of 
Good Grounds Environmental LLC.

Marking the American Chestnuts planted in a nearby field.

Fortunately, as the trail dumped us out of the woods, we came upon a friendly pair of ecologists. Robert and Hunter Wiley were surveying a nearby field which has been part of an on-going American Chestnut study by Ohio University.  They easily recognized our catkins when plied by our curiosity.  The vegetation was from a chestnut tree! The Wileys knew of several growing down in the forest we had hiked.  

To a weedpicker like me, it felt like winning the lottery!  No wonder I didn't recognize the immature tree. Since American Chestnuts were virtually wiped out by a disease 60 plus years ago, my experience with them is very limited. It sure made me smile to think a young forester's efforts to replant chestnuts in Dysart were starting to pay off.  Oh, to live long enough to see that tree unfurling its white flower-lined catkins high above the other hardwoods!

Each Chestnut in the field is flagged for inspection.
As the Wileys set about their work, we wandered back down the road from which we had come. Our steps were a little lighter as optimism filled the air. Maybe, someday, this forest would once again boast chestnuts.

Its not a perfect world and I wish O.U.'s main planting on the hill was a more biodiverse setting.  To me, finding a chestnut reintegrated into a woodland is far more exciting than an unnatural looking monoculture planting. Still, high from from finding a chestnut hidden within the forest, my mood was elevated beyond my own over-analyzing. Good news in any form, is good news indeed.

Can there be any better news than American Chestnuts growing in Appalachia?  It feels like a well-deserved win for Dysart to me.


  1. There are indeed still American Chestnuts growing in Appalachia. I have personally seen groves of old growth chestnuts in the mountains around Norton, Virginia, as well as the locals harvesting the fallen fruits.

    A young Forester

  2. More good news indeed! We must celebrate every victory of nature: the return of Bald Eagles, American Chestnut sprouts and land conservancies to protect them! It is not all gloom and doom.