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."