After decades of studying ancient forests, we’re less confident of what we know about them than we were thirty-five years ago. For the last 20+ years I’ve been working with long-term permanent study plots in old-growth forest in Michigan. I began with the hope that an exceptionally deep data-record would allow me to test hypotheses about mechanisms behind equilibrial dynamics. Now I’m convinced that our initial assumption — that these ecosystems represented a sort of steady-state, climax ‘baseline’ — was flawed, and the natural landscape is much more dynamic than we imagined. If that’s the case, what are the implications for concepts of nature conservation and ecological restoration? What is to be conserved or restored if there’s no detectable natural baseline condition?
I will review about the findings of my old-growth research with a focus on new results, talk about some new work using new technologies to try to understand whether these forests are carbon sources or sinks, and wind up with some exploration of what this all means for forest conservation priorities under climate change, Pleistocene rewilding, and the cloning of extinct species.