Photo by Lawrence Pierce
A new study by the West Virginia Division of Forestry suggests some bothersome trends about the amount of timber being cut.
By Ken Ward Jr.
Back in August, West Virginia Division of Forestry officials declared that a new study had found state forest growth was "in the green."
They concluded that "timber volume in West Virginia forests grew from 67.1 billion board feet in 1987 to an impressive 70 billion board feet in 1995."
Forestry Division Director Bill Maxey said, "West Virginians can be encouraged that by using sound forestry practices, this renewable resource has the capacity to support the current rate of harvest."
Sounds great, right? There's just one problem. Maxey's conclusions weren't the truth - at least not the whole truth.
Maxey's two-page news release and an accompanying, three-page list of "background information" put the best possible spin on the study.
Maxey barely mentioned the fact that in 1987, 3.7 trees were growing for every one that was cut. But by 1995, only 1.3 trees were growing for every one cut.
Some foresters consider this statistic, known as the growth-to-removal ratio, a crucial measure of forest health. The closer the ratio gets to 1 to 1, the closer the state moves toward cutting too many trees.
The change in ratio between 1987 and 1995 didn't get much publicity. But it sparked concern among foresters, the timber industry, the U.S. Forest Service and the few citizens who knew about it.
"You can't sustain that kind of change over the next four or five years," said John Peters, project leader for forest inventory analysis at the U.S. Forest Service experiment station in Radnor, Pa. "I wouldn't say it's not a problem. I'd be concerned."
"It's a warning sign," said Rory Fraser, a West Virginia University forestry professor. "The ratio that we have at the moment is not as optimistic as they projected."
Indeed, a closer examination of the Forestry Division report shows troubling trends the agency doesn't talk much about. In some ways, West Virginia forests are already being cut faster than they can grow back:
- Seven of the 18 hardwood species studied declined in volume over the seven years examined. Three of seven softwood species included in the study also declined in volume.
The 10 species dropped by an a total of more than 190 million board feet per year, or about 1.3 billion board feet over the seven-year study period.
- Three of four classes of oaks - trees that are valuable for making lumber and furniture and for sustaining wildlife - declined the most.
Overall, oak volume statewide declined an average of more than 140 million board feet a year. The volume of oak trees that died or were cut down was nearly 1.2 times oak growth.
- Statewide, logging accounted for more than 57 percent of the timber lost. Trees that died from fires, insects, disease or were cut down to make way for shopping malls or subdivisions accounted for the rest.
- In the most heavily logged part of the state, the northeastern region, the problem is most pronounced. Logging accounted for 65 percent of the timber decline there.
In that region, total growth to removal of all species is just 1.14 to 1. For every board foot of oak growing in the northeastern part of the state, 1.6 board feet are lost.
In early 1995, public concern over a New York company's proposal to build a $1 billion pulp and paper mill in Mason County was reaching its peak.
Mill critics turned their attention more and more from the project's dioxin emissions to the mill's huge appetite for wood. According to Parsons & Whittemore Inc., the mill developers, the facility would chew up more than 2 million tons of wood a year. That amounts to about 2,000 acres of forest - an area roughly the size of Blackwater Falls State Park - every month.
Gov. Gaston Caperton strongly supported the mill. Caperton also backed three other chipboard mills that had already located or were in the process of opening in West Virginia.
Together, the three chipboard plants and the pulp mill would require an 80 percent increase in the amount of timber cut in West Virginia. They would need the equivalent of nearly 50,000 acres of forest a year. At that rate of cutting, an area the size of Putnam County would be cleared in less than five years.
Forestry Division officials also supported the new projects. Their agency is charged, in part, with promoting growth of West Virginia forest products industries. So division officials have been eager to assure residents that the state has plenty of timber for the new mills.
But even Maxey, a former Westvaco Corp. forester, expressed concern about the industry growth. So Maxey ordered his agency to conduct a study of timber growth, logging rates, and tree mortality from insects and disease.
Normally, such studies, called inventories, are conducted only about every 12 or 15 years by the U.S. Forest Service. The last such inventory for West Virginia covered data through 1987 and was released in 1989. It showed that West Virginia grew 3.7 times the amount of timber logged.
The amount of timber cut annually in the state, however, doubled between 1987 and 1995.
"I'm guessing that the growth rate is about 2-to-1 now," Maxey said when he announced the Forestry Division's study in February 1995. "But it's time to quit guessing and start getting a better handle on what's out there.
"I'm concerned about keeping tree growth and timber harvesting in balance," said Maxey. "The last growth survey by the Forest Service was done in 1988, and the next one won't be taken until 2002 or 2003.
"We ought to be able to maintain a sustainable harvest even with these new developments," Maxey said. "But I've suggested to the governor's office that there's no longer any reason to give incentives to primary forest industries. Any incentives should be going to value-added industries" that process West Virginia wood within the state.
A positive trend?
In one way, the new study showed a general positive trend.
The amount of sawtimber, those trees 9 inches in diameter and larger, increased. Sawtimber is the kind of trees that can be cut and shipped to sawmills to be made into lumber, furniture or other products.
Between 1987 and 1995, the total volume of sawtimber in West Virginia increased 4.4 percent, from 67.1 billion board feet to 70 billion board feet.
"The state's forests are still very productive," the Forestry Division said. "Growth and, therefore, productivity, are recognized as a major indicator of forest health, even though removals due to harvesting, land conversion, insect, disease, and weather phenomena have increased during the last seven years."
But three species of trees accounted for nearly three-quarters of the net increase in timber volume over the last seven years.
Red maple increased by nearly 100 million board feet per year. Ash increased by more than 78 million board feet per year. And yellow poplar - the main species that will be used by chipboard mills that have started up in the last year - increased by more than 120 million board feet per year.
The Forestry Division study also examined the growth-to-removal ratio of sawtimber. It showed that West Virginia grew 420 million more board feet of sawtimber than was logged. For every tree that was cut, 1.34 trees were grown.
"A 1:1 ratio of net growth to removals is considered sustained yield," the Forestry Division report said.
"This means that the forest renewal growth will support the current rate of harvest perpetually," the report said. "The current net growth to removals ratio reflects a positive annual board foot volume increase in sawtimber."
Maxey launched the Forestry Division study because he thought that the growth-to-removal ratio had decreased from 3.7-to-1 to 2-to-1. So the results were worse than he feared.
Asked about that, Maxey had a new explanation for why the 1.3-to-1 ratio wasn't that bad.
"We had a lot of new mills and the existing in-state mills have increased their production," Maxey said. "It's what you would expect in a maturing forest.
"Think of this inventory as your bank account, and the growth is your interest," Maxey said. "If you're getting 3.7 percent interest, you're making money. If you're getting 1.34 percent interest, you're making less, but your bank account is still growing. You're still flush. You're not losing money."
Forestry Division officials are also quick to point out that West Virginia has about 6,000 board feet of timber for every acre of forest. That's far more than some surrounding states, like Ohio, which has about 4,000 board feet per acre, they say.
"Even if we overcut more than 1-to-1 and got down to 5,000 board feet per acre, we'd still have more than Ohio," said assistant administrative forester Ed Murriner
"What do we want to sustain it at?" Maxey asked. "We can sustain it at 6,000 or 4,000.
"The public has said that on Forest Service land, it wants more, but on the private land, it's really up to the private landowner to decide. They can do what they want with their private lands."
What about the oaks?
Oak trees, especially red oaks, are among the most valuable commercial trees in West Virginia. Oaks are also important for wildlife, providing plenty of acorns for animals to eat. And most people enjoy walking in the woods and just looking at big, old oak trees.
But oaks are among the trees that could be in trouble, according to the Forestry Division's study.
Foresters separate oaks into four classifications. They are select red oaks, select white oaks, other red oaks, and other white oaks.
Between 1989 and 1995, three of the four classes of oaks declined in volume. Total oak volume dropped by nearly 1 billion board feet over the period, or more than 140 million board feet a year.
One oak classification, select white oaks, showed an average annual increase in volume. That increase, however, was only 33 million board feet a year. The growth-to-removal ratio for select white oaks, meanwhile, was 1.19-to-1, slightly less than the statewide average for all trees of 1.34-to-1.
Select red oaks appeared to be in the greatest danger. They dropped by about 82 million board feet per year, or about 574 million over the seven-year study period. About 1.38 board feet of oak was harvested or died for every board foot that grew during the period.
In the northeastern region, the oak problem was even more dramatic. Overall, oak trees were cut or died at a rate 1.6 times faster than they grew. Nearly three-quarters of the oak decline in the region was from logging.
The Forestry Division report called for more examination of these volume reductions. But the agency also suggested the problem was insects, disease and weather, not timber cutting.
"The state must scrutinize current mortality to determine if it is temporary due to recent disasters," the Forestry Division report says. "Natural competition within the maturing forest is also contributing to tree mortality. Since 1989, slightly more than 4.5 billion board feet was lost because of mortality.
"The gypsy moth continues its onslaught," the agency said. "Deer herds are reducing the young tree regeneration in some parts of the state. Droughts, windstorms, ice and snow damage have also taken a heavy toll.
Actually, a large percentage of the loss in oaks can be attributed to timber harvesting, according to the Forestry Division study.
Timber cutting caused more than 62 percent of the decline in total volume of all oaks, according to the study. For select white oaks, the percentage was even higher, nearly 75 percent. Timber cutting accounted for two-thirds of the decrease in select red oak volume and nearly 65 percent of the decrease in other red oak volume, the study said.
John Peters, the Forest Service inventory chief, said, "It would seem reasonable that maybe the bulk of that change was due to the harvest."
Fraser, the WVU forestry professor, has examined these numbers. He said, "The inference is that we are cutting down trees faster than we are growing them.
"What the numbers indicate is that the rate of removal of oaks is greater than the rate of growth of the oaks," Fraser said. "We need to be careful that we don't deplete the stock. We need to be concerned about this."
Is positive growth enough?
Timber industry officials, and some government agency foresters, cling to West Virginia's positive growth-to-removal ratio as proof logging can continue to grow. As long as more trees are grown than are cut down, they say, the forests are in good shape. Timbering is sustainable, they say.
"When it starts becoming a problem, then we'll address it," Maxey said. "I'm not saying you don't start looking ahead or planning ahead. I just don't see growth and removal colliding."
Bob Whipkey, an assistant administrative forester for the state, said, "We are aware that there is a limited potential on the harvest. You want to reach a balance at some point. We're saying we're not there right now."
Tom Frieswyk, a forester with the U.S. Forest Service, said, "The growth-to-removal ratio declined quite a bit during the period, but it's still a positive. As long as it's still a positive, it's sustainable as far as total volume."
But Steve Hollenhorst, who teaches land-use policy and recreation management at West Virginia University's forestry school, said he believes the growth-to-removal ratio doesn't tell the whole story.
"Looking at cut-to-growth ratios is not enough," Hollenhorst said. "It's a good start, but we have to look at what we need to sustain tourism or wildlife populations, too.
"Not all values are compatible," Hollenhorst said. "Not all biodiversity is compatible with a maximum sustained yield of the resource. Not all tourism values are compatible with a maximum sustained yield of the resource."
Rick Landenberger, a WVU forestry doctoral candidate and environmental activist, agreed. Landenberger said the state needs to look at questions beyond the simple calculation of growth and removal rates.
"It seems to me that the more meaningful question is what we as a society want from our forest resources," Landenberger said.
"Perhaps a low-diversity landscape of young forests is not so appealing, particularly when one considers the environmental and social costs associated with such a scenario," he said. "Yet that is basically where we are heading if the current harvesting trend continues. This is an unavoidable mathematical fact, since it is impossible to both continue to increase harvesting as we've been doing and maintain the current proportion of older forests."
Landenberger said the state might be able to maintain a positive growth ratio over the next few years, if timber companies grow lots of fast-growing poplar and pine for pulp mills and chipboard plants.
"But what about sustainable native wildlife?" Landenberger said. "Young, rapidly growing stands of disturbance-loving species such as poplar and red maple are much less valuable as habitat than older red and white oak forest any deer, turkey or bear hunter knows that.
"What about the value of older forests for many non-game species?" Landenberger said. "What about the other, equally important human values of forests, such as water quality, flood control, aesthetic value, or recreation?
"The growth-to-removal ratio says absolutely nothing about these."
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