Last year, West Virginia had the honor of hosting the National Association of State Foresters Annual Meeting in Charleston. Foresters from around the world, along with their families and staff, spent nearly a week enjoying the beauty of the Mountain State.
Throughout their visit, I heard numerous conference attendees express their appreciation of our state’s beautiful mountain terrain, so I was afforded many opportunities to share the incredible history responsible for the abundance of forestlands that compose West Virginia’s magnificent landscape today.
In the late 1880s, lumber industrialists made their way south of Pennsylvania into West Virginia in pursuit of an abundant supply of natural resources to meet the demands of the industrial revolution. Upon their arrival, they found virgin forests comprised of tree canopies so dense that sunlight could not reach the forest floor.
Leaf duff — dead leaves — was several feet thick. The successional habitat to provide shelter and food for wildlife was sparse to the point of virtual nonexistence. West Virginia was ripe with species like red spruce, white pine, hemlock and yellow poplar — a timber jackpot for these early entrepreneurs.
West Virginia’s timber was clear-cut, converted to lumber and used to build cities and towns. Almost immediately after West Virginia separated from Virginia, its magnificent virgin land was not only aggressively harvested, but repeatedly ravaged by wildfire. The early settlers and lumberjacks constantly found themselves fighting new wildfires, often returning to fight rekindled wildfires.
The biggest fire recorded in West Virginia’s history is believed to have been sparked on Aug. 28, 1908. Over the following three months, at least 710 wildfires burned more than one-tenth of the entire state’s surface. Nearly 6,000 men fought tirelessly to contain and suppress the wildfire. Not a single county was spared from the enormous flames.
While some may view the clear-cutting method utilized by the early lumber industrialists as greed, the reality is that clear-cutting is an important part of West Virginia’s history and is responsible for the vast timber stands we see today. Whether it was greed or foresight, the first clear-cuts launched a sequence of events that would unknowingly benefit West Virginia and its residents for centuries.
When the initial cuts were completed and the fires were suppressed, sunlight could finally reach the forest floor. The sun dried any remaining leaf duff and exposed the seeds trapped for years to water, oxygen and the temperatures needed to germinate into new, healthier trees.
While any wildfire occurrence is undoubtedly devastating to a community, it can still contribute significantly to restoring forest health. The benefits of fire are the reason prescribed burning is a method of forest management. Prescribed burns are used not only to remove weeds and underbrush to reduce the risk of wildfire, but to also manipulate species regeneration that encourages desirable tree and plant growth for the future.
Although forests are always at risk of wildfire, over-mature forests have a much greater risk due to the accumulation of fuel on the forest floor and the lack of access created through managed harvesting. The fact that younger, healthier trees have a better chance of survival only confirms the necessity of properly managing our forestlands.
For far too many years, West Virginia’s state-owned forests did not benefit from a sound silvicultural management practice. Not only was the volume of harvested timber insufficient to promote healthy growth and wildlife habitats, the forests were in a condition that made them ripe for major fire devastation.
There’s no question that most of the logging and land management techniques of the area’s early settlers and industrialists were not environmentally friendly. They simply did not have the knowledge. The settlers lacked the benefit of environmental impact statements, studies or scientific advancement to suggest more acceptable practices.
However, their lack of information is responsible for the forest we see standing around us now. It was logged, it burned and then it gradually grew into the vast timber stands that currently compose West Virginia’s landscape.
Today, West Virginia forests are managed mainly through selective cutting designed to remove mature, diseased or inferior trees without disturbing healthy species. It is imperative we do everything necessary to protect our landscape so our children and grandchildren can enjoy and benefit from healthy forestlands that grow faster, sequester more carbon-dioxide, and provide wildlife with adequate cover and plentiful food sources.
Over the last several decades, our state has benefited from important environmental findings. Loggers are now required to successfully complete a certification process, be professionally licensed and participate in continuing education courses geared toward adhering to best management practices. Additionally, a field of professional state foresters repeatedly visit logging sites to ensure operators are closely following the laws and regulations implemented to protect the forest from unnecessary environmental risks.
As a result of information that was not available in the old days, we have made great strides in establishing appropriate standards that promote growth and regulate industry in a way that protects the state’s only renewable natural resource and ensures water quality without hindering one of the state’s major economic drivers — the forest-products industry.