Back to Our Roots
A Trek Through the History of Ohio's Forests
by Jean Backs, Editor
Forests are one of Ohio's most inviting landscapes. For the modern hiker, the passage from the forest edge into the heart of the woods feels like a comforting embrace. Stress melts away as welcome solitude soothes the soul and quiets the mind. Further along the path, the hypnotic undercurrent of rustling leaves muffles the harsh sounds of civilization outside. Time seems suspended in the soft, filtered light on the forest floor.
A sudden trill overhead or crackle in the underbrush signals the exciting prospect of a wildlife encounter. Even the most familiar trail offers a fresh perspective each season, from the pastel bed of delicate spring wildflowers and summer's cool canopy of refreshing green, to autumn's curtain of blazing reds and luminous yellows.
Today, a hike in the woods is a leisure pursuit, but when dense forests covered most of the Ohio territory over two centuries ago, trekking through the woods was a matter of survival. Prior to exploration and settlement by Europeans, 95 percent of Ohio was blanketed in forest cover.
The embrace of this wilderness was more intimidating than intimate. A sudden crackling in the underbrush could be the pounce of a mountain lion, the advance of a wolf pack, or the charge of a mother bear protecting her cubs. Resounding bird calls could be the signal of an ambush by concealed enemies. Getting lost in reverie could be a fatal mistake.
It's difficult to fully appreciate the immensity of the forest that greeted Ohio's first explorers, and the profound impression it left on those who attempted to inhabit it. The trees we consider to be giants today would have been commonplace then, and a few historic big trees were so enormous they stagger the imagination. Renowned French explorer and botanist Francois Andre Michaux was awestruck by the forests he encountered near Marietta in his 1803 journey down the Ohio.
"In more than a thousand places of the territory I have passed over, at different periods, in North America, I do not recollect to have seen one which can be compared to this in the vegetative power of its forests. The best lands in Kentucky, and in that part of Tennessee situated beyond Cumberland Mountains, yield very abundant harvests, but there the trees do not attain a bulk or an elevation comparable to those on the banks of the Ohio." 1
Perhaps the largest tree ever described in Ohio was a gigantic hollow sycamore in northern Scioto County on the farm of Abram Millar. The tree was 21 feet in diameter and 60 feet in circumference at its base. The opening of the cavity was 10 feet wide at the base. In June 1808, neighbors gathered with their horses to perform a remarkable stunt. Thirteen of them advanced on horseback into the trunk, and at the same time sat there with perfect ease; the other being on a skittish horse did not venture in, but there was room for two more to be perfectly secure from a falling shower of rain. 2 Sometime after this incident, two prized bulls pastured in the field near the tree began to fight inside the cavity. One was cornered against the wall and gored to death. The tree was subsequently cut down and the remaining stump was used as a hog pen, until the hogs contracted cholera. Finally, the last of Ohio's big sycamore was burned to the ground.
Despite the enormity of the task, Native Americans cleared hundreds of acres near their villages to plant corn. Early pioneers yearned for the open sky and bright sunlight, and clearing trees for their homesteads was the top priority. Open areas were needed to plant a garden, raise livestock and protect the household from the encroachment of wild animals. The trees themselves provided precious building materials and fuel. To clear large tracts of land, many trees were girdled by cutting a groove around the entire circumference of the trunk, and allowed to topple when the wind gusted.
Prior to the flood of settlers from the colonies, Ohio's Native American population was estimated at around 15,000. Little by little, Ohio's growing population began to make a dent in the forest cover. By 1800, about 42,000 settlers had tamed their corner of the Ohio wilderness. The Ohio territory achieved statehood in 1803, and within a decade the population had increased dramatically to 200,000. As the fledgling state shook off its image of frontier wilderness, the nearly complete forest cover began to dwindle.
Before long, felling trees was no longer a matter of individual survival, but a consequence of agriculture, industry and transportation. The enormous trees and endless woods that were once the hallmark of the region were viewed as an impediment to progress. Ambitious farmers claimed and cleared hundreds of acres of forests to feed the legions of city folks. The development of the canals in the 1830s provided a means of exporting lumber. In the 1840s, the highly successful iron industry in southeast Ohio swallowed entire tracts of forest in charcoal-powered blast furnaces.
By 1850, Ohio's population had grown to nearly two million, and the demand for forest products, as well as cleared land, kept pace. Ohioans had so completely vanquished the wilderness that by the early 1900s, the forest cover dropped to a mere 10 percent (about 2.75 million acres) statewide, and virtually all of this land was in private ownership. Leaner woodlots and fewer trees on the margins of farm fields meant more erosion, more sediment and less clean water.
Alarmed at the steep decline in Ohio's forest resources, politicians and citizens joined forces to amend the Ohio constitution in 1912 to create a system of state forestry reserves. The reserves would provide for improvement of forestry practices, protection of watersheds, and development of areas for public outdoor recreation. Land purchases soon followed. In the 1920s, some lands purchased for the forest system were identified as "forest-parks". The areas given this designation were especially scenic and possessed some interesting geologic features. The forest parks included Mohican, Hocking Hills, John Bryan, Nelson Ledges, Findley, Hueston Woods, and Beaver Creek.
During the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930s, federal initiatives such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Land Utilization Program of the Works Progress Administration provided for the purchase of more land, the development of recreational facilities, and the planting of millions of trees. Meanwhile, the chestnut blight was claiming entire groves of the king of the forests, the American chestnut. The loss of this species was devastating to wildlife that dined on its abundant and nutritious nuts, as well as land owners and manufacturers who favored the durable, high quality wood.
Despite the demise of the chestnuts, by 1940 Ohio's forest cover had begun to rebound. The most dramatic difference was occurring in the southeast region of the state, where abandoned farms and forests denuded for charcoal were being transformed through natural succession and aggressive reforestation efforts. When the Division of Parks and Recreation was created in 1949, the forest parks became Ohio State Parks. State park areas were carved out of additional state forests including Scioto Trail, Shawnee, Blue Rock, Pike (Pike Lake), Tar Hollow, Zaleski (Lake Hope) and Athens (Strouds Run).
Continued conservation on public lands, the planting of over 500 million seedlings, and smart stewardship of privately owned woodlots in the past 100 years has been tremendously successful.
Today's forest cover is more than 30 percent statewide, and many of the seedlings planted in the past century are the mature trees we now enjoy in state parks and state forests.
Ohio's contemporary landscape is a beautiful, diverse and productive patchwork of forest and field, prairie and wetland, urban and rural swatches. Many of our state parks and neighboring state forests still offer vistas of forested rolling hills, stretching uninterrupted to the horizon, a soul-stirring sight reminiscent of the Ohio frontier.
1 Thwaites, Reuben Gold, editor, Early Western Travels 1748-1846, A.H. Clark, Co., Cleveland, Ohio, 1904
2 Howe, Henry, Historical Collections of Ohio, the Laning Printing Co., Norwalk, Ohio, 1888
Today's Big Trees
Imagine a forest filled with these beauties! You can visit many of Ohio's state champion trees at our state parks, forests and nature preserves. Ohio's Big Tree list includes the top three largest trees of each species. The rankings are based on measurements of the tree's circumference, height, and average crown spread.
State champion trees in our state parks include the largest:
- EASTERN RED CEDAR at John Bryan, near Roberts Cemetery
- NORTHERN WHITE CEDAR at John Bryan, over the Little Miami River
- EASTERN HEMLOCK at Mohican, just below Little Lyons Falls
- AMERICAN CHESTNUT at Malabar Farm, uphill from the sugarbush
- BOX ELDER at Wolf Run in the picnic area near the dam
Zaleski State Forest, near Lake Hope State Park, boasts the state champion eastern white pine, as well as the state's largest sourwood tree. Hocking State Forest's Little Rocky Hollow is home to the top contenders for the state champion eastern hemlock and yellow birch. Goll Woods Nature Preserve in Fulton County features the largest black ash, as well as the second largest rock elm. Johnson Woods Nature Preserve in Wayne County lays claim to the largest shagbark hickory.
Some other biggies in our state parks include the state's third largest black tupelo off the Sugarbush trail in Hueston Woods' Big Woods, and the number three eastern hemlock near the picnic area at Ash Cave in Hocking Hills State Park.
More runners up for champion trees include the second largest river birch in Zaleski State Forest, the third largest big tooth aspen in Tar Hollow State Forest, and the second largest eastern white pine in Mohican- Memorial State Forest.