Gazette photo by SHELLEY EADES
Forests in West Virginia are becoming more and more fragmented by timbering and development. Some people wonder what we are losing when areas like this one at Kumbrabow State Forest are logged.
By Ken Ward Jr.
LEAD MINE - Charleston businessman Ted Armbrecht enjoyed examining a slice of wood drilled out of a giant oak tree. Counting the rings, he figured out it was more than 80 years old.
Morgantown activist Adam Polinksi just wanted to spend some more time outdoors, hiking and looking at big, old trees.
Moorefield timberman Mark Sturgell hoped to learn more about what makes environmentalists tick. He thought maybe he could convince them his industry isn't so bad.
The West Virginia Sierra Club brought people with opposing interests together a few months ago for a hike in the Tucker County woods near Camp Horseshoe.
Rick Landenberger, a graduate student at the West Virginia University forestry school, led the group through a pasture, across a creek and up a hill to the top of a ridge.
"Notice what's happening," Landenberger told them. "There's bigger and older trees as we get up on top of this ridge and farther away from the logging grade."
Landenberger, a former U.S. Forest Service employee, pointed out one old black birch tree.
"See the flakes on the bark?" Landenberger asked. "That's how you can tell it's old. When trees get old, you can often tell simply by look at the bark."
Hiking along a narrow trail, Landenberger pointed out the classic characteristics of old-growth forests.
Old trees grow tall, with long trunks free of low branches. Upper limbs spread out horizontally from the trunks. Fallen, decomposing logs crisscross the forest floor. There are gaps in the canopy from trees that have fallen. There's an abundance of fungi and lichen.
Logs in a stream form pools and rapids that create habitat for fish and other aquatic life. For the most part, there are no signs of human disturbance.
"These are clues you would use to tell if it's an old-growth forest," Landenberger said. "It's very much a putting-the-clues-together kind of thing. These clues are essential information, and form the basis for defining old-growth ecosystems."
The people on the outing found they had something in common. They all liked the forest.
"Everyone I've ever gone into these stands with has had a positive experience about how different it is and how remarkable it is," Landenberger said a few months after the trip.
"Many people feel when they go into the forest, they are more relaxed," he said.
"Forests are wonderful places to experience different smells, the sound of wind blowing between big, old tree canopies. It really turns into something that is almost indescribable in words."
What does all this have to do with the timber industry?
First, West Virginia loggers are cutting twice as much timber as they did 10 years ago, according to state Division of Forestry studies. The increase in cutting is expected to continue, especially as a new pulp and paper mill is built in Mason County.
Second, many experts, including some in the logging business, aren't sure the forests in West Virginia can take the increased timber demand.
The problem isn't that trees won't grow back. Appalachian hardwoods sprout quickly from seeds. Where they don't, the timber industry does plenty of planting.
But some fear increased pressure for more wood to feed chipboard factories and pulp mills could turn the state's forests into little more than tree farms.
Loggers could move into what little is left of the true old-growth forests in West Virginia. Instead of thick groves of old trees in a mature forest with a variety of animals and plants, West Virginia could be left with fields full of smaller trees grown as crops to feed the new plants, they fear.
If that happened, where would people go hiking and camping? Would wildlife or hunting game populations suffer? Do people want to go mountain biking or whitewater rafting through forests of small pulpwood trees or immense forests of stately oaks?
State-sponsored studies show tourists spent more than $2.6 billion in West Virginia in 1995. That's $500,000 more than the $2.1 billion the timber industry pumps into the state economy every year, according to a West Virginia University study.
"What is all the relationship between all that cutting and what we will have as far as old growth forests in the future?" Landenberger asked.
"That question is not being addressed because of the lack of public involvement and because of the lack of an open-ended and broad-based planning process that will address it."
The West Virginia Development Office and the state Division of Forestry encourage more timber cutting.
The West Virginia Development Office tells potential wood products developers that, "With 12.1 million acres of timberland and 60 billion board feet of inventory, the forest resources of West Virginia seem endless. The state sits at the geographic center of the world-renowned Appalachian Hardwood belt. Climate and soils combine to provide an ideal growing environment for hardwoods."
A Forestry Division report issued in August said, "West Virginia's woodlands now support more timber than they have since the 1920s."
The volume of trees in the forest grew from 67.1 billion board feet in 1987 to 70 billion board feet in 1995, the Forestry Division said. Commercial-sized tree growth exceeded removals by 421 million board feet a year, the division said.
Despite this progress, West Virginia forests are still recovering from the clearcutting that left them scarred and bare at the turn of the century.
"Most of today's Appalachian forest is an archipelago of second-growth woodlots in an ocean of pasture," biologist George Constantz wrote in his book, "Hollows, Peepers, and Highlanders: An Appalachian Mountain Ecology."
"Logging, farming, road cutting, and other human activities have fragmented the forest.
"This habitat fragmentation lowers the odds that native populations will survive and therefore decreases the diversity of indigenous species," he wrote. "Throughout the world, habitat fragmentation is one of the most serious causes of the present extinction crisis."
Mary Byrd Davis in her book, "Old Growth in the East: A Survey," identifies only 11 documented stands of old-growth forest in West Virginia.
Only five of these are larger than 50 acres. They include a 100-acre stand in Ritchie County and the 133-acre stand of virgin hemlock at Cathedral State Park in Preston County.
Timbering certainly isn't the only human activity, or inactivity, that has destroyed or continues to destroy old forests:
Much of the early deforestation in West Virginia occurred when farmers cleared their land. Forests are cleared today for strip mines or to make way for housing developments, shopping malls and parking lots.
Haphazard land use planning in most of West Virginia and the lack of any type of zoning reduces the chance that old-growth forests will be protected.
Acid rain from power plants that line the Ohio River is believed to make trees weaker and more likely to die from insects or disease. So-called exotic species like the gypsy moth are eating West Virginia's forests.
But timbering is still a big threat. Three new chipboard plants already operating and the proposed Mason County pulp mill would require the equivalent of 50,000 acres of forest every year.
Almost all the timberland in West Virginia is owned by private individuals and corporations. There is little, if any, overall long-term planning for how forests will be treated. The state has no mechanism for deciding what trees located where should and shouldn't be cut down. Private individuals or companies can make decisions on how to use their own land with little regard for how that land fits into the larger landscape of statewide forest resources.
Logging that is not done properly can ruin streams. Water runoff picks up soil and packs streams with sediment. Fish and other aquatic life can be killed. Banks can be left bare and open to erosion.
Even if logging is done properly, it can fragment forests and lead to loss of wildlife and biodiversity.
Timber industry officials argue the new plants and mills in West Virginia can be supplied by treetops and branches that are currently left in the woods.
David A. Perry, a forestry professor at Oregon State University, cautioned against this method of feeding big timber plants.
"Nutrient concentration of tree trunks is quite low, while that of small branches and foliage is relatively high," Perry wrote. "Whole-tree harvest, in which crowns as well as trunks are removed in the interest of efficiency and "complete utilization," removes far more nutrients than simply harvesting the trunks.
"Recent studies of various areas in the eastern United States have shown particularly high calcium losses in whole-tree harvest," Perry wrote. "Removing old, unmerchantable logs ... eliminates what in some forest ecosystems is an important source of future soil organic matter."
And in West Virginia, many people worry that logging of smaller and smaller trees to feed chipboard mills and pulp and paper mills could cause further damage to forest ecosystems.
Steve Hollenhorst, a professor who teaches recreation management and land-use policy at the WVU forestry school, is among those who fear these developments.
"If we remove sawlogs from our forests at an unsustainable rate, and if we overbuild the side of the industry that uses the low-value resource left behind after logging (i.e. the oriented strand board mills and pulp mills), the outcome is clear," Hollenhorst wrote in an article for the Gazette.
"The amount of sawtimber cut and used for high-value products will eventually decrease. With the decreasing harvest of sawlogs, the OSB and pulp mills will in turn be forced to meet their needs with small trees (not waste material) cut from ever younger and younger stands," Hollenhorst wrote.
"This is the scenario that has played out in eastern Kentucky, where much of the forest never matures past 20 to 40 years. This is the scenario that we all need to work together to avoid in West Virginia."
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