Gazette photos by SHELLEY EADES
Kumbrabow State Forest in Randolph County was a mess of timber roads and log landings like this one over the summer. Loggers cut more than 1 million board feet of timber from the forest.
Large birches, maples, beeches, hemlocks and red spruces attest to the undisturbed nature of the woods. Mixed with these giants are their offspring, so the forest contains not only a rich variety of dominant species, but also a mixture of ages of trees.
While this may not strike you as unusual, in fact, it is becoming uncommon in eastern forests because of an extensive history of disturbance, primarily logging.
- James McGraw, writing about Kumbrabow State Forest in his book "Fifty Hikes in West Virginia"
By Ken Ward Jr.
PICKENS - Bulldozers and log skidders hauled some of the finest cherry and oak trees West Virginia has to offer out of Kumbrabow State Forest earlier this year.
Muddy timber roads and hillsides littered with tree stumps are hidden away from the citizens who own this forest. Red and white signs warn that visitors have to stay out of the cutting area, for their own safety.
Activists like Norm Steenstra believe that the Division of Forestry's rush to cut timber at Kumbrabow State Forest shows a bias toward the industry.
A group of activists, led by West Virginia Environmental Council lobbyist Norm Steenstra, marched on anyhow. During an outing on a hot day last June, they decided to find out what the loggers had done to their land.
"The first time I came here, right here stood the most beautiful trees and now they're all gone," Steenstra says. "Now this is an ugly damned place up here."
Three years ago, outdoors enthusiasts and state government foresters battled bitterly over a state Division of Forestry proposal to cut more than 1 million board feet of Kumbrabow's timber.
Environmental groups wanted to halt the cut. They said it would destroy the possibility of using Kumbrabow's magnificent forests for hiking, camping and fishing.
John McFerrin, a lawyer for the opponents, warned that if the timber was cut, "Instead of being able to hike through magnificent stands of trees, they will have the opportunity to trudge through the litter of logging (limbs, tops, etc.) among the trees w hich are left after the loggers are gone.
"Instead of enjoying the forest in its natural state, they will get to visit a forest cut through with a major logging road and filled with smaller roads used to drag trees to the main road."
West Virginia Forestry Division officials said that if 160 acres of Kumbrabow's trees were cut down, the forest would be improved.
Big old trees that fill the forest were already sick, they said. Invasion by the gypsy moth could make them even more sick. The trees needed to be cut down before they die and go to waste.
Forestry Division Director Bill Maxey promised in court, "The timber operation will have absolutely no effect whatsoever on any of the streams in the area and will have absolutely no effect at all on the watershed.
"The timbering that will take place will in no way effect the aesthetics of the area in any adverse way, and will in fact enhance the aesthetics," Maxey testified. "The growth of other trees will be enhanced and there will be no interference with the r ecreational uses of Kumbrabow State Forest. This harvest is necessary for a healthy and productive forest."
The fight went all the way to the state Supreme Court. In March 1995, the Forestry Division won. The trees were cut. Now, environmentalists and outdoor recreationists point to Kumbrabow as a symbol of what they say is wrong with the state timber industry and regulation of it.
The West Virginia Environmental Council used the Kumbrabow battle to push for a ban on timbering in state-owned forests. Currently, only one state forest, Kanawha State Forest outside Charleston, is safe from timber cutting under state law.
"The Division of Forestry is completely managing the forests for timber production, rather than the other resource values," said Jim Kotcon, a lobbyist for the environmental council and the West Virginia Sierra Club.
"They need to have a long-term, multiple-use management plan and a change in the administration and philosophy of the Division of Forestry."
Steve Hollenhorst, who teaches land-use policy at the West Virginia University forestry school, examined the Kumbrabow controversy in an article for the WVU Public Affairs Reporter.
"Forestry officials believe the main issue was whether or not timber ought to be harvested on state forests," Hollenhorst wrote. "But, actually, the main issue was the process that the Division used to make the decision.
"The Division's traditional "trust us, we know best" approach proved distasteful to many people who use the forest," Hollenhorst wrote. "As far as they could see, no attempt was made to develop alternative plans or to assess the environmental and social impacts of those alternatives.
"They saw no attempt to consider amenity values that flowed from the forest's remote, rugged character. Thus, a decision process that was once construed as good management was now interpreted as a flippant disregard for citizen opinion."
Kumbrabow is a 9,500-acre state forest in the mountains of Randolph County, just south of the now-famous Swiss town of Helvetia. The forest was named for former Gov. H.C. Kump, construction company owner A. Spates Brady and lawyer E.A. Bowers.
The West Virginia Blue Book says Kumbrabow is "noted for its rugged natural beauty and highland terrain. Kumbrabow State Forest offers excellent hunting and fishing. A natural trout stream is stocked during season, and deer, bear, turkey and ruffed grous e abound on the forest and in surrounding woodland.
"There are five completely furnished rustic vacation cabins, picnic sites and a six-site campground with fireplaces, firewood, drinking water, tables and toilet facilities scenic hiking trails and children's playgrounds."
State law says that Kumbrabow and the other eight state forests in West Virginia are supposed to be managed "for conservation and preservation of wildlife, fish, forest species, natural areas, aesthetic and scenic values and to provide developed and unde veloped outdoor recreational opportunities, and hunting and fishing for citizens of this state and its visitors."
But the state Forestry Division wants to cut more timber from these forests. In a report issued Nov. 1, the division advocated increased logging on state-owned forests and more timber sales by the U.S. Forest Service from the Monongahela National Forest.
The report said state government should "encourage a higher and more reasonable timber harvest level from the 1.2 million acres of public forests in West Virginia to reduce the drain from private land."
State forests are not protected from development like state parks are. Logging, mining and oil and gas drilling are allowed in state forests.
Since 1985, the state has sold private timber companies nearly 12 million board feet of timber from state forests. The sales have produced more than $1.5 million since 1985, according to state Division of Forestry records obtained under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
About 15 percent of the money generated, or $244,000, funded efforts to protect state forest roads and trails from erosion and other damage, Maxey said. The rest went into a special fund to pay for forest fire control across the state, Maxey said.
Bob Whipkey, an assistant administrative forester who oversees state forests, notes that without the timber sale money, the Forestry Division would need more general tax revenue from the Legislature to do its job.
In four separate sales since 1985, nearly 4 million board feet of timber have been cut from 713 acres at Kumbrabow, according to state records. The sales produced slightly more than $1 million in revenues, records show.
One-third of the state forest timber sales since 1985 have come from Kumbrabow. The 713 acres cut in Kumbrabow represent only 7.6 percent of the forest's total acreage.
Statewide, Kumbrabow makes up only one-eighth of the state forest land. State forests that are larger than Kumbrabow have had far less timber cut from them, according to state records.
Seneca State Forest covers nearly 11,700 acres in Pocahontas County. In the last 10 years, there has been only one timber sale there, a 50-acre cut in 1990.
Coopers Rock State Forest outside Morgantown includes more than 12,700 acres of land. It has also had only one timber sale in the last 10 years, a 10-acre sale in 1989.
The 1993 Kumbrabow cut was the second million-board-foot sale from that forest in four years. It was the final straw for recreationists and environmental groups.
In late August, five individuals and the Mountaineer Chapter of Trout Unlimited filed a lawsuit in Kanawha Circuit Court to try to stop the Forestry Division plan.
The lawsuit alleged the Forestry Division illegally failed to obtain permission for the timber sale from the state Public Lands Corp., which manages state public properties.
State law requires Public Lands Corp. approval for coal mining and oil and gas drilling on state forest land. To obtain such permission for the Kumbrabow timber sale, the Forestry Division might have had to allow public input, including public comment pe riods and public hearings.
Lawyers for the Forestry Division said state law does not require Public Lands Corp. members to approve state forest timber sales.
The law, they said, "specifically states that state forest timber is authorized to be sold, provided that the approval in writing of the Governor is obtained, and that this timber may not be sold for less than the value thereof as appraised by a qualif ied appraiser."
Forestry Division lawyers noted that they are charged by law with "promoting existing forest products industries and promoting new forest industries.
"Aesthetic values are certainly to be protected, preserved and enhanced so too are the requirements of the development of the timber industry," they wrote in court documents.
The state Supreme Court unanimously agreed.
"Developing existing forest product industries would logically include timber production to the extent that the decision to sell also comports with the Division's overall statutory mission," then-Justice Richard Neely wrote in March 1995.
"Experts testified that the proposed sale enhances multipurpose use of the forest by facilitating: regeneration of the Red Oak component creation of trails for hikers, bikers and hunters fire roads fire breaks and economic benefit for West Virginia," Neely wrote.
After they lost the timbering battle, some environmentalists tried another tack to help protect and improve Kumbrabow.
Earlier this year, they tried to form a private foundation to do just that. Citizens across the state have formed such groups to help protect and improve their local state parks and forests.
The proposed bylaws of the Kumbrabow State Forest Foundation state the group would "solicit, receive and accept contributions, gifts, grants ... contributing to and for Kumbrabow State Forest or any entity created out of Kumbrabow State Forest and/or any agencies involved with the management of Kumbrabow State Forest and to be involved in any master plan for the development of Kumbrabow State For est."
The bylaws said the group would also, "generally aid in the recreational, aesthetic, conservational, ecological, educational, historical, research and natural resources of" Kumbrabow .
In an April 3, 1996, letter, state Natural Resources Director Charles B. Felton rejected the formation of the Kumbrabow State Forest Foundation.
" Your proposed constitution and bylaws for a foundation at Kumbrabow State Forest have been received by my staff, and found not to be in conformance with guidelines for a nonprofit organization under 501 C(3) of the Internal Revenue Service code of 1954," Felt wrote.
"Accordingly, the Division of Natural Resources does not recognize this organization as a state forest foundation under the provision of Rule 25 of the State Park General Rules and Regulations," Felton wrote.
The purpose of forming a foundation at a state park or forest is to provide assistance in developing needed projects and fund-raising to augment the area's budget, as well as to generally support the organization.
"It is not a forum to share in the management of the area, or to serve as a lobby organization," Felton wrote. "It is apparent that this organization is intended to do both, from the review of the constitution and bylaws."
Some of those involved in the foundation proposal think they were rejected because of the fight against the timbering proposal. Of the 16 foundation board members, three were plaintiffs in the timber lawsuit. One was the lawyer for the timbering opponent s. Others included Steenstra, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy leader Cindy Rank and environmental activists Bill Ragette, Richard diPretoro, Denise Poole, Mike Withers and Carroll Jett.
Steenstra says he believes some of the improvements the group hoped to make, such as adding more hiking trails, went against the Forestry Division's plans for timbering on Kumbrabow.
"The more trails we have in here, it would slow down the next timber cut," Steenstra said. "People won't see the cuts if there aren't as many trails. I don't think most people in the state realize that they can cut on public lands and subsidize the industry that way."
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