Over 260 people participated in the 7th Eastern Old-Growth Forest Conference on September 21-23, 2023, at the Geneva Point Center in Moultonborough, New Hampshire. The conference and field trips attracted participants from around the Eastern US and Canada who enjoyed fine autumn weather at this rustic camp on Lake Winnipesaukee. Extension administrative staff and Natural Resources Steward Rebecca Dube reached out to NH Big Tree volunteer and conference organizer David Govatski to ask about the hopes and thought processes behind the first Eastern Old Growth Forest Conference in 19 years.
RD: Hello David. Tell me, what was the impetus for this conference?
DG: A discussion up on Mt. Sunapee! A group of old-growth forest enthusiasts were hiking in these old forests around the state on weekends. The group included Vicki Brown, John Pastore, Chris Kane, Christine Tappan, Sarah Robb Grieco, Leslie Randlett and myself. On one of our hikes, we visited Mt. Sunapee State Park, guided by Chris Kane. Chris, a forest ecologist, had conducted an inventory for the NH Natural Heritage Bureau in 1977 and realized that many trees were big and old. His research concluded that this northern hardwood-red spruce forest was exemplary.
Chris showed us this amazing Sunapee old-growth forest, and we, too, were in awe of this remarkable place. We stopped for lunch at a windswept viewpoint overlooking Lake Solitude. I mentioned to the group that many people were interested in learning more about these old forests and that we should consider a conference to share current research findings and visit several such forests as part of the conference. Chris Kane was an organizer of the 2004 Eastern Old-Growth Forest Conference, and I attended as a forester. I suggested we find a venue in the White Mountains and maybe attract 60 people to a two-day event.
Organizing a conference is not an easy task. Christine Tappan and Vicki Brown, who know how to think big, suggested we have a conference for as many as 200 people! We formed a Steering Committee and invited Mary Tebo Davis and Steven Roberge of UNH Extension to join the Steering Committee and host the conference. Having an entity like UNH Extension was vital to the event. UNH Extension served as the fiscal agent, provided a great website, shared the conference on social media, and managed all the logistics (along with Christine Tappan), including registration before and during the event. Mary and Steve not only knew what it took to organize and run a conference, but they also had other staff who performed vital tasks behind the scenes.
We started organizing in 2022 and recruited others to our team, including forest ecologist Justin Schlawin from Maine and Liz Thompson from Vermont. They had lots of experience, and contacts with some of the leading old-growth forest researchers and managers across the eastern United States. We also invited Bob Leverett of Massachusetts to play a critical role as an advisor. Bob Leverett is the father of eastern old-growth forest inventory and helped organize the previous six conferences.
RD: What were you hoping people would take away from the conference?
DG: Our goal for the conference was to connect, educate, inspire and motivate both professionals and others to value and protect these spectacular and ecologically significant places. Attendees said they enjoyed the community and newly discovered “tree tribe,” and want to continue that connection in local and regional groups before the next conference. Interest was so high that plans are already underway to hold the next conference in VT in 2025!
We knew the threats facing all forests from climate change and wanted to share the latest findings on carbon storage and carbon sequestration. All the organizers knew from personal experience about the human health benefits of being in natural areas. Christine Tappan organized a fantastic track of speakers on health and wellness for the conference.
We wanted to be more than a scientific conference; art was a great addition. We had a jaw-dropping art photography exhibit and reception on old-growth forests by professional photographer Mitch Epstein of New York. For those who have tried, it is not easy to photograph big trees but Mitch did it! Sarah Koff was another artist who had us making block prints of an old oak tree.
We all know that breaks and social gatherings are an excellent way to make contact with others and ask questions. We had an outside barbecue, two evening socials, and two campfire gatherings where we made s’mores and talked about old-growth forests around the campfire. We were happy to have chosen the Geneva Point Center in Moultonborough for the conference. Geneva Point has a great staff, a rustic setting, adept at hosting conferences, offered a variety of lodging options, and was on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. No one complained about the loons or owls calling at night.
RD: What benefits do old-growth forests bring, and why are they important?
DG: The benefits of old-growth forests are many. We know that old-growth forests and old trees are carbon storage powerhouses. We know the biological diversity of these forests is very high. We need these forests for our mental and physical wellness. We all need to experience the sense of awe from walking through such a forest. From a scientific perspective, these forests provide knowledge of forest dynamics and resilience.
Some of the oldest trees we have identified come from old-growth forests. These old trees include a 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine in California, a 2,600-year-old bald cypress in North Carolina, a 1,600-year-old northern white cedar in Ontario, and a 560-year-old hemlock in Pennsylvania.
We have very few old-growth forests left, and we are trying to protect the ones we have. The State of New Hampshire and the White Mountain National Forest are conducting inventories to determine what we have on public lands in New Hampshire. Interested private landowners are also asking how to manage a portion of their forest for old-growth features.
RD: How can people learn more about old-growth forests?
DG: Two websites have a lot of information. The NH Natural Resources Stewards have published several articles on old-growth forests in New Hampshire on the UNH Extension site. The Old-Growth Forest Network -- which is building a network of forests as well as an alliance of people who care about forests – lists old forests by state and hosts all of the presentations from the conference.
David Govatski was one of the organizers of the 2023 Conference and has visited and studied old-growth forests across North America. He worked as a silviculturist for the US Forest Service before his retirement. David is a naturalist, NH Big Tree volunteer, and lives with his wife in Jefferson, NH.
- Highlights of the Eastern Old-Growth Forest Conference
- Eastern Old-Growth Forest Conference 2023 presentations (PDF)
- Finding Old-Growth Forests in New Hampshire
- Top Old-Growth Forests to Visit in New Hampshire
- Video: The Lost Forests of New England – Eastern Old Growth
- Magnificent Dry River Old-Growth Forest is a Hidden Gem in Crawford Notch State Park
- Towering Trees in Tamworth: Big Pines Natural Area
- Saving the Old Growth Forests of Mad River Notch - A Century Ago
- Explore the Valley of the Green Giants in Randolph, NH
- Find and nominate old-growth forests at Old Growth Forest Network