By Ken Ward Jr.
Two years ago, Westvaco Corp. opened a new company forest south of Adolph in Randolph County.
But this 8,400 acres of land isn't just for timber cutting to feed Westvaco's paper mills in Maryland and Virginia. This forest is for research.
Roger Sherman, a Westvaco public affairs forester, described the project in an article published in the October edition of "Wonderful West Virginia" magazine.
"How has logging affected the ecology of the forest?" Sherman wrote. "Has it been good or bad for wildlife? How about fish? Can timber harvesting be done in ways that benefit non-timber values of the forest?
"Westvaco Wildlife and Ecosystem Research Forest is dedicated to the idea that in-the-woods research will help answer these and many other questions and lead to better forestry and better wildlife habitat."
But why should Westvaco - or any West Virginians - care if a timber company cuts down an isolated grove of old oak trees in a state forest? Or if loggers chop away at habitat vital to the survival of a rare salamander?
Lots of West Virginians are still out of work. Timber is among the fastest growing industries in the state. And, as one gubernatorial candidate said, it's all about jobs, right? Shouldn't we cut timber where we can?
Bill Maxey, director of the West Virginia Division of Forestry, scoffs at the idea that timbering threatens Appalachian biodiversity.
"Some would argue that modern forestry practices are detrimental to endangered and threatened species of plants and animals," Maxey wrote in West Virginia University's Public Affairs reporter.
"But, if the early timber exploitation by high grading, followed by uncontrolled wildfire, did not eliminate threatened species, why would today's more conservative forest management and protection practices pose such a problem?"
Well, for starters, certain species - like salamanders - can, like a canary in a coal mine, indicate the overall health of an ecosystem. In that way, biological diversity can warn humans about environmental problems that could endanger our own well-being.
Scientists, however, still understand very little about how various species interact. No one knows for sure how the disappearance of some bug or flower might later affect trees, or air quality, or human life directly.
Edward O. Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard University scientist, says researchers don't know if the total number of species alive on earth is 10 million or 100 million.
"Because scientists have yet to put names on most kinds of organisms, and because they entertain only a vague idea of how ecosystems work, it is reckless to suppose that biodiversity can be diminished indefinitely without threatening humanity itself," Wilson writes in his book "The Diversity of Life."
"Field studies show that as biodiversity is reduced, so is the quality of the services provided by ecosystems, " Wilson writes. "Records of stressed ecosystems also demonstrate that the descent can be unpredictably abrupt.
"As extinction spreads, some of the lost forms prove to be keystone species, whose disappearance brings down other species and triggers a ripple effect through the demographies of the survivors," he writes. "The loss of a keystone species is like a drill accidentally striking a powerline. It causes lights to go out all over."
What is biodiversity?
Biological diversity can sound like a complicated concept. But it's really very simple to understand. It's the number of different kinds of living things and their genetic variability of them.
Most forest ecologists and biologists agree that West Virginia hardwood forests are among the most biologically diverse in the world.
Botanist Lucy Braun of the University of Cincinnati named these forests the "mixed mesophytic." Phytic means plant and meso, in botany, means a not too-wet or too-dry, not too-cool or too-hot, growing environment. Mixed, in this instance, means that there are large number of big, dominant trees making up the forest canopy.
The mixed mesophytic is found along the moist western side of the Appalachian Plateau in both the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee and in the Alleghenies of West Virginia below 2,500 feet. It is the oldest forest in North America. It contains the continent's largest relatively unbroken block of deciduous woodland.
Forest ecologist Robert Mueller, writing in the journal Wild Earth, describes this forest as, "diverse with a number of species each of magnolias, oaks, hickories, walnuts, elms, birches, ashes, maples, basswoods, locusts and pines. There is also tulip tree, black and sweet gum, black cherry, American beech and Canadian hemlock. The most characteristic type indictors are white basswood and yellow buckeye.
"These major canopy species are accompanied by even more diverse understory tree, shrub and herbaceous layers as well as many fungi and mosses," Mueller writes.
"Typical components of the understory are the small trees musclewood and sourwood, shrubs such as spice bush and paw paw, and the herbs ginseng and goldenseal," he writes. "Mesophytic plants, including the trees, tend to have soft, juicy leaves that on death rapidly decompose and, as distinguished from those of xeric oak forests, form only light litter but contribute to building rich soils."
Forester Owen Cox writes that, "The biological diversity of Appalachia is, indeed, still rich. A patch of climax forest may contain three dozen tree species.
"West Virginia is home to at least 21 species of lungless salamanders," Cox writes. "A square yard of forest may contain more than a dozen species of non-woody plants or herbs. And Appalachia is home to approximately 400 species of fish."
Cox continues that, "because of the diversity of aspect, elevation, geologic and climatic conditions, the central Appalachian forest contains many smaller biologic communities that contribute to its biodiversity.
"The most prevalent are the glades or natural openings resulting from water deprivation," he writes. "The greatest area of natural openings, however, consists of moisture -rich glades, high-elevation bogs, ferns, swamps, and other wetlands. Small forested wetlands are also common found in conjunction with flood plain topography, artesian springs, perched water tables or sinkholes."
Why should we care?
Why should we care? What difference does it make if a few species of animals or plants - or even half the species that fill Appalachian forests - disappear?
George Constantz, a biologist and naturalist who lives along the Cacapon River, answers this question in his book, "Hollows, Peepers, and Highlanders: An Appalachian Mountain Ecology."
"First, the number of species in a particular place indicates that ecosystem's health. Polluted streams have bullhead catfish, carp and a few other hardy species an untainted Appalachian stream will support dozens of fish.
"Second, we feel greater delight in a landscape hosting many kinds of organisms than in one that is species-poor," he wrote. "How do you feel at dusk surrounded by fireflies, listening to the whippoorwill, and smelling trailing arbutus?
"Third, we don't have the slightest idea which species will serve our future needs. Scientists have explored the drug potential of only about 2 percent of the world's plant species. Who would have ever predicted that the horseshoe crab would become crucial to hematology? Would the passenger pigeon's liver have been the ideal system for studying human liver cancer?
"Finally, human-caused extinctions betray the attitude that other species were put here on earth for our benefit, to exploit as we see fit.
"We will not transcend this selfish heritage - and therefore will not be able to take credit for the next act in the evolutionary play - until we vow to maintain biological diversity."
Wilson also addresses the question on a global level.
"Let me count the ways," Wilson responds. "New sources of scientific information will be lost. Vast potential biological wealth will be destroyed. Still undeveloped medicines, crops, pharmaceuticals, timber, fibers, pulp, soil-restoring vegetation, petroleum substitutes, and other products and amenities will never come to light.
"It is fashionable in some quarters to wave aside the small and obscure, the bugs and weeds, forgetting that an obscure moth from Latin America saved Australia's pastureland from overgrowth by cactus, that the rosy periwinkle provided the cure for Hodgkin's disease and childhood lumphocytic leukemia, that the bark of the Pacific yew offers hope for victims of ovarian and breast cancer, that a chemical from the saliva of leeches dissolves blood clots during surgery, and so on down a roster already grown long and illustrious despite the limited research addressed to it."
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