West Virginia Division of Forestry Director Barry Cook, in his June 14 column, “A history of W.Va.’s forestlands,” offered readers a grossly distorted version of history.
He claimed that, prior to the wholesale clear-cutting of West Virginia’s forests during the timber boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “successional habitat to provide shelter and food [for wildlife] was sparse to the point of virtual non-existence.” He also claimed that healthy forest regeneration could not take place because of “dead leaves piled several feet thick,” which trapped tree seeds, preventing them from accessing the water and oxygen needed for germination.
This is a wholly fictitious picture that defies all available evidence. It reminds me of Governor Jim Justice’s histrionic news release last February claiming that “wildlife will die a brutal death” if the people of West Virginia don’t let logging corporations clear-cut in our state parks (a plan which Barry Cook lobbied heavily in favor of, but which, after fierce public opposition, was not approved by the Legislature).
The historical record tells us that the pre-industrial landscape of West Virginia was home to bison, elk, wolves, mountain lions, deer, turkey, bobcat and countless other species of flora and fauna. The rivers and streams were teeming with fish and other aquatic life. Wildlife habitat, far from being “sparse,” as Mr. Cook claims, was instead abundantly rich and varied, with some areas blanketed in mature forest and others more open as a result of natural disturbances, like storm blowdowns, forest fires and seasonal flooding along river valleys.
And the dead leaves alleged by Mr. Cook to be piled several feet high? If you rake your leaves in the fall and pile them up in your back yard, they’ll quickly compost into dark, nutrient-rich soil that’s perfect for growing new plants. The same process occurs in the forest.
If Mr. Cook ever visits any of the few West Virginia forests that were spared from logging (such as Cathedral State Park or the Gaudineer scenic area), he’ll see that they’re incredibly beautiful, healthy, thriving and ecologically diverse places, not the wastelands he imagines them to be.
Old-growth Appalachian forests contain rich, moist topsoil and forest duff that supports wildflowers, ferns, shrubs and trees of widely varying ages — from tiny saplings to massive, towering individuals hundreds of years old — as well as a huge diversity of wildlife, some of which can only survive in mature forests that are protected from logging and other industrial effects.
Before taking charge of the Division of Forestry, Barry Cook worked for some of the most destructive logging corporations in the country, such as Weyerhaeuser, which are known for the havoc they wreak on ecological systems and the misinformation they peddle in pursuit of maximizing profits at the expense of ecological and human health.
After a century of fire suppression, as well as clear-cutting fueled by unfettered greed, does it make sense for us to engage in evidence-based, ecologically sound and restorative forest management in some locations? Of course it does. But using a fundamentally flawed view of history to advocate for “management” that prioritizes maximizing profit does a disservice to the people and forests of this state.
Barry Cook told me in a meeting last year, while we were discussing the state parks logging bill, that forests couldn’t be healthy without logging. When reminded that the rich ecological diversity and abundance of the Appalachian region thrived quite successfully for millions of years before corporations came along to clear-cut the trees, he responded that “there was basically one species of tree” back then. I have no idea where he picked up this ludicrous notion.
Sadly, we’ve come to expect such self-serving nonsense from the corporations that have been exploiting our land and people for over a century, but West Virginians deserve a state forester who has a working knowledge of ecology and isn’t just a mouthpiece for the logging corporations he spent decades working for.