THURMOND — With less than 1 percent of the forests encountered by settlers in the Eastern United States escaping the ax and saw in the centuries that followed their arrival, a movement is taking shape to preserve the few remaining patches of virgin woodland still to be found in the region, including four in West Virginia.
“With European settlement, trees started falling almost immediately,” said Joan Maloof, a biology professor at Salisbury University, in Maryland, and director of the Old-Growth Forest Network. That’s understandable, since wood and fiber were needed to survive on the frontier and to help fuel and house the Industrial Revolution that followed.
But as logging crews worked their way westward, clear-cutting vast tracts of Eastern timber to sustain the young nation’s growth, “few people were interested in saving any of it, until fairly recently,” Maloof said.
Most of the remaining old-growth forest in the Eastern United States is found on terrain that was too difficult for loggers to reach or send to the sawmills, or on land that was involved in property disputes during logging’s boom period.
As a result, in places like Fayette County, where 53,000 acres of virgin forest was standing in 1919, only a few tiny scraps of old-growth forest remain, the largest of which might be an 11-acre stand of untouched red and chinquapin oaks, bitternut hickories, buckeyes and black locusts found at a former farmstead in the New River Gorge National River. On Wednesday, that tract, now known as the Stone Cliff Old-Growth Area, became the first of four old-growth stands in West Virginia to be recognized by the Old-Growth Forest Network.
“We’re trying to identify old-growth forests in every county of every state,” Maloof said before Wednesday’s dedication ceremony. In the Eastern United States, though, many counties have no remaining old-growth, causing the focus of the effort to widen to a statewide search for remnant stands of virgin woods.
Old-Growth Network forests are identified by using data from an old-growth survey of Eastern forests begun in the 1990s, and by following up on anecdotal reports of virgin-forest remnants on public land by government foresters, botanists, ecologists and biologists, and public land users.
“We are looking for forests on public lands where they will be protected and where people are welcome to visit and honor them,” Maloof said. “This forest is managed by the National Park Service, so we know it will be protected for many generations to come.”
The stand of 200-plus-year-old trees in the Stone Cliff Old Growth Area “should be here for at least another 200 years,” said Trish Kicklighter, who is superintendent of the New River Gorge National River.
“Think of the stories they could tell,” she said. “They were here for the creation of the park, the birth of river rafting, the development of the coal and gas industries, and they predate the Civil War.”
The Stone Cliff site, located near the end of 3-mile-long Stone Cliff Trail, was first identified as an old-growth forest several years ago by West Virginia Division of Natural Resources ecologist Jim Vanderhorst during the process of conducting an eight-year project to map the vegetation of the Gorge, according to National Park Service biologist John Perez.
The reason the stand of old growth still exists, Perez said, might have something to do with the fact that it grows on one of the steepest slopes of the Gorge and is found on the opposite side of the river from rail access for shipment to mills, and deep mines and their need for shoring timbers.
“But I think it has mainly to do with the pioneer family, the Braggs, who settled here in 1850,” Perez said. “I think they just had an appreciation for these old trees and made it a point to save them. This old-growth area is a tribute to them.”
The old-growth area will be marked with small signs along Stone Cliff Trail, which begins at the Stone Cliff boat launch area and campground near Thurmond.
At the site on Wednesday, Perez stopped along a section of trail studded by purple larkspur blooms and pointed out 200- to 300-year-old specimens of red oak, white oak and hickory, and one of the most impressive members of the stand, a giant chinquapin oak with a 52-inch-diameter trunk and huge, curving upper limbs.
“Sinuosity like that only occurs with old-growth trees,” Maloof said, pointing to the oddly dangling limbs.
“Visiting an old-growth area in the Appalachians is not like going to see the ancient redwoods,” she said. “You won’t hear angels singing, and you may not even notice that you’re here without looking carefully. It’s more subtle than that. But it is old growth, and it is worth experiencing.”
Maloof founded the Old-Growth Forest Network after completing work on her second book, “Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests,” in which she visited one old-growth forest in each of 26 Eastern states and learned that there is no national organization or government agency charged with protecting the few remaining old-growth tracts, and that there was little information available on how people can visit old-growth forests near them. So far, her organization has identified and helped preserve 41 forests in 13 states.
The three other West Virginia tracts included in the Old-Growth Forest Network are 30-acre Pierson Hollow, at Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park in Nicholas County, where 250- to 300-year-old oaks, yellow poplars and hemlocks can be found; Cathedral State Park in Preston County, where virgin hemlock reaching heights of 90 feet and circumferences of up to 21 feet exist in a 133-acre stand; and Gaudineer Scenic Area in the Monongahela National Forest in Pocahontas County, where a 50-acre tract of virgin red spruce forest exists atop a 4,000-foot mountain.
For more information on the Old-Growth Forest Network, visit www.oldgrowthforest.net.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.