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Clearing a path to the future

SUTTON - As if to prove Mark Clarke's point, a young deer stepped out of the woods into the recently logged area and began browsing on tender young growth.

Clarke, wildlife manager at Braxton County's Elk River Wildlife Management Area, had just spent several minutes telling 75 Division of Natural Resources biologists and wildlife managers how a 100-acre timber sale had dramatically improved wildlife habitat.

"The impacts were almost immediate," Clarke said. "Deer moved in and started browsing on all the new growth. I started hearing whip-poor-wills calling where I'd never heard them before. I started seeing woodcock. Grouse are starting to move in."

DNR officials made the Elk River sale with wildlife in mind. Like many of the state's older, larger wildlife management areas, the 18,225-acre tract had grown into mature forest, overloaded with tall trees but harboring precious little young growth.

"Mature forest is great for some bird and animal species, but not so great for others," said Gary Foster, the DNR's game-management supervisor. "We came to realize that a lot of our WMAs had become poor habitat for species that rely on what we call 'early successional forest.'"

For those unfamiliar with the term, "early successional forest" is forestry-speak for areas where large trees have been cleared and young trees and shrubs and plants are sprouting.

The logged areas at Elk River, spread along a remote ridge in 10- to 20-acre swatches, are already waist-high in dense green growth after just one full growing season. Young oak, poplar and hickory trees dominate the mix, along with greenbrier, blackberry, pokeberry, sassafras and other wildlife-food favorites.

DNR officials would like to create similar areas on many of the state's 65 WMAs.

"We have management control over approximately 285,000 acres of forestland," Foster said. "Our current plan is to authorize 12 to 15 cuts a year. Those cuts would average about 100 acres apiece for a total of roughly 1,500 acres a year."

The Elk River sale, which yielded 1.1 million board feet of timber, earned the DNR more than $100,000. Foster said, however, that profit wasn't the goal.

"The primary motivation behind doing these cuts is to improve wildlife habitat," he explained. "It's great that some of them will make money that we can plow into even more wildlife-management programs, but we'd be doing these cuts even if they cost us money."

Foster said agency officials have known for years that wildlife habitat was declining on many WMAs, and especially on those acquired 50 to 60 years ago. "We've been working for a couple of years now on a plan to convert some of that poor habitat to early successional habitat," he said. "Now we're starting to act on the plan."

The Elk River cut was, in essence, the DNR's pilot project for future cuts. The timber company, working in conjunction with Clarke and staff forester Terry Jones, used a variety of cutting methods.

"We did clear cuts, selective cuts, shelter-wood cuts and what I call 'variable retention' cuts," Jones said. "We also created water holes and savannahs."

Wildlife managers from throughout the state toured the site as part of a DNR-sponsored two-day workshop. Jones explained why each type of cut was used in its particular location, which tree and plant species had sprouted in each location, and which wildlife species were benefiting from the new growth.

He also explained how cuts of less than 50 acres would probably fail.

"Most of these areas have deer on them, and if there are enough deer, they'll hit that new growth - particularly young oak trees - hard enough to prevent regeneration. You have to make the cuts large enough, and create enough young new growth, that the deer can't eat it all."

Arranging a timber sale seems a lot easier than it really is. Jones said DNR officials have to consider the environmental impacts, especially if endangered species are involved; they have to consider whether cultural or historical landmarks might be affected; they have to gain approval from the DNR director and from the governor. They have to put the contract out for competitive bids, and the state's attorney general has to sign off on the process.

"It's a 16-step process," Jones said. "There's a lot more to it than just contacting a timber outfit."

Paul Johansen, the DNR's assistant wildlife chief, believes the prospect of creating better habitat for wildlife, and thus for hunters and other nature enthusiasts, helps make the laborious process worthwhile.

"This is one of the most exciting programs I've been involved with," he said. "The potential to put good wildlife habitat on the ground is tremendous."

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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