There are trees in some parts of the United States that are older than William Shakespeare. The Pacific Northwest old-growth forests, which stretch for hundreds of miles through parts of Northern California up to southeast Alaska, are home to trees that scientists believe may date back to around the time Jamestown was first settled—about 400 years ago. The oldest trees could date back to the time of Jesus.
Western hemlocks, Sitka spruces and Douglas firs dominate these forests, with some examples reaching nearly 300 feet tall. There are also countless animals, insects and birds calling the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest home, including the northern spotted owl. In total, there are approximately 40 species of animals that are either endangered or threatened who rely on the old-growth forests in the northwest corner of the country.
The exact definition of an old-growth forest varies (even among similar organizations), but a general consensus among environmental groups defines them as a forest that’s more than 150 years old, consisting of both living and dead trees, with a diverse ecosystem free of clear visible human influences. In recent years, the study and preservation of old-growth forests has been especially important to environmentalists due to the ability of old-growth forests to absorb ozone-destroying carbon dioxide. And while the number of old-growth forests has been dwindling over the last century due to industrialization, examples still exist on nearly every corner of the Earth.
Here are five old-growth forests that are among the oldest and most beautiful in the world:
Tarkine: Tasmania, Australia
Deep in the heart of the Tasmanian interior in Australia lies one of the world’s largest—and most threatened—rainforests. The Tarkine is the second-largest temperate rainforest on the planet and home to one of the oldest living organisms on Earth, the great Huon pine. Fossil records show that this strong, slow-growing tree can live up to 3,000 years. It also has a distinctive sweet smell that has long made it attractive to the aboriginal people who have lived in these forests for over a millennium. The forest also includes trees that date back hundreds of years and animals that can only be found in this region, such as the Tasmanian Devil.
Yakushima: Osumi Islands, Japan
While it’s recently been in the news for volcanic activity, the southern Japanese island chain of Osumi is also home to one of the most diverse old-growth forests in the world. The 200-square-mile island of Yakushima is an “eco-paradise” with nearly 2,000 species of flora, including the Yakusugi, also called the Japanese cedar. These cedars can grow as tall as 160 feet and live up to 3,000 years.
The Jomon Sugi is the most ancient of these Japanese cedars. It's thought to be 7,200 years old, making it one of the oldest trees in the world. In fact, Japanese cedars in this forest are so old and so big that many locals consider them sacred.
Tongass National Forest: Prince of Wales Island, Alaska
America’s largest national forest is also home to some of the country's oldest trees. At 16.8 million acres, the Tongass on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska is nearly as big as Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts combined. This temperate rain forest holds more biomass (organic matter) per acre than any other rain forest in the world. It is the greatest remaining collection of old-growth trees in the nation and represents nearly a third of all old-growth temperate rainforests left in the world.
Unfortunately, a long history of logging in the region has threatened both the flora and fauna of Tongass. The Audubon Society estimates that perhaps up to half of the forest has been logged over the years. Recently, though, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Tongass cannot be exempted from the "Roadless Rule" established by the Department of Agriculture in 2001, which means the area must be protected from road construction and logging.
Kakamega Forest: Kakamega, Kenya
The only rainforest left in Kenya is fighting to survive. The Kakamega Forest in the western part of the country is only 89 square miles, but it was once one of the largest old-growth forests on the planet. Half of the forest has been lost in the last four decades, as a result of human settlement, war and overuse of forest resources. However, the Kakamega is still home to 300 species of birds, the Colobus monkey and 700-year-old fig trees.
Białowieża Forest: Poland & Belarus
Europe’s last old-growth forest straddles the borders of Poland and Belarus. The Białowieża Forest is only about 580 square miles, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in age—there are trees here that date back thousands of years. (In fact, there are so many old trees that ones that first blossomed during the Middle Ages are still considered young.) It isn’t just the trees that make this forest exceptional, however: The wildlife is notable too, especially the revived European bison.
Excessive hunting and logging brought this large mammal to the verge of extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But in 1951, the Polish Communist government began breeding and protecting the bison. Today, there are thought to be 1,500 roaming this forest.
Both the bison and the historic nature of the forest have earned the forest the distinction of being a World Heritage Site.