More than 15,000 contiguous acres of Appalachian woodland will be permanently protected as a new state forest and state wildlife area, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources announced last week.

More than 15,000 contiguous acres of Appalachian woodland will be permanently protected as a new state forest and state wildlife area, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources announced last week.

Scale and importance are often vague concepts when talking about a bunch of trees in southern Ohio, so let's put this into perspective.

About 90 minutes from Columbus, the Vinton Furnace State Experimental Forest and State Wildlife Area is enormous - the largest single block of forestland still available for protection in Ohio.

Doubling between 1940 and 1994, Ohio's forest cover has continued to increase, thanks in part to hands-on land management. So the forest's size was a main reason that ODNR, nonprofit groups, corporate donors and federal agencies spent four years working to snag it from private owners.

"Vinton is important for a number of reasons," said David Lytle, chief of ODNR's Division of Forestry. "It's an unbroken block, which is exceptionally rare in Ohio. By itself, this makes it a unique property."

Vinton Furnace is among the most biologically diverse areas in the state. Residents include bobcats and timber rattlesnakes, both listed as endangered species in Ohio, and the area lies at the heart of the rare cerulean warbler's breeding range.

"The most important songs of praise will come in spring, when the cerulean warbler returns from its winter in South America and sets up a nest here," said Josh Knights, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Ohio, in a recent release.

Rich flora and fauna have drawn scientists to the area. They've conducted research on reclusive animals, rare plants, hardwood management and soil ecology. The forest has hosted studies published in more than 200 scholarly articles.

Eventually, Vinton Furnace will be similar to nearby state forests at Zaleski and Tar Hollow - a place where hikers, birders, horsemen, researchers and timber companies learn to coexist and conserve. It's currently open to the public, though infrastructure remains somewhat slim.

"This will be a forest just like our others," Lytle added. "Over the next several years, we're looking to make permanent trails and make more opportunities for access."

Got some extra time to get into the great outdoors this holiday season? Check out the interactive Ohio Adventure Map at columbusalive.com/venture.