When we talk about old-growth trees our minds may generate an image of a tree like this western red-cedar (above) or one of the mighty drive-thru California redwoods. The definition of old-growth varies depending on such factors as the species of the tree, the latitude at which it grows, geographical region, plant associations, soil productivity, elevation, and which federal or state agency you ask.
If you ask, as I did one morning, a slightly hung-over college student to guess how big an old-growth tree is, you might get an answer like this: "Big. Really big. As big as my brain is right now."
In Rare Bird, I spent a lot of time in the old-growth coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest tagging along with biologists who were studying the marbled murrelet, a seabird that nests in these forests. It was a constant challenge to avoid saying "big," "really big," and "wow." Which is understandable because an old-growth tree is awesome and we are appropriately left speechless or nearly so. But this does not help the marbled murrelet whose survival depends on our understanding of its habitat--the forests we describe in shorthand as "old-growth." Few of us--slightly hungover or not--are not likely to provide any details.
Until the 1980s, scientists were hard-pressed to come up with a solid definition of an old-growth forest. During the controversy over the protection of the northern spotted owl and the logging of its habitat (old growth? second growth?), a seven-page definition emerged and was then distilled into this working definition: a forest that "has been largely unmodified by timber harvesting, and whose larger trees average over 200 years old or greater than 31 inches (80 cm) in diameter at breast height." This gets distilled down even further to 80 cm dbh.
To complicate matters, for the purposes of a major scientific study on marbled murrelet nesting habitat on Washington state trust lands, marbled murrelet nesting trees were defined as being >48 cm dbh ( >19 inches dbh (2008 Science Team Report). Scientists have discovered that marbled murrelets will nest in trees younger than old-growth--trees described as "mature"--if these trees have the right size nesting platforms. The right size is 4 inches or greater and that size may occur in younger trees where nest branches are deformed/enlarged by mistletoe.
For the generalist-naturalist, 80 cm dbh is a good rule of thumb.
What does 80 cm dbh even look like? Does 32 inches dbh make it any easier? Sure--imagining a tree with a trunk 4 inches shy of a wooden yardstick creates a visual impression--but not one as huge as I expected. Was the Douglas-fir in my backyard old-growth? How was I going to measure the diameter of this living tree? For that matter, why do scientists measure a tree's diameter instead of its circumference? I wasn't going to wait for an answer. Nor was I going to wait for a blow-down and a chainsaw.