“Fifty inches in diameter,” Doug Wood said as he read the number off the tape measure. “That means this poplar tree is probably at least 200 years old, maybe 250. That puts it into the old-growth category.”
Old growth? Wait a minute. For years, West Virginians have been told that the state’s only remaining old-growth forest tracts are in Cathedral State Park and the Monongahela National Forest’s Gaudineer Knob Scenic Area. Wood believes there are more old-growth stands scattered throughout the state, perhaps many more.
“Based on criteria established by the U.S. Forest Service, there are plenty of places in West Virginia that qualify as secondary old-growth forest, where the forest has grown back up after being logged,” he said. “Several areas of secondary old growth have already been identified, and I’m convinced that more will be found.”
The poplar tree Wood measured stood in Kanawha State Forest, just a few minutes’ drive from the hustle and bustle of downtown Charleston — hardly a place one would expect to find old-growth forest. Wood said a sizable portion of the forest’s northern end contains many such trees.
“So far, we’ve found tracts on several pieces of public land that have old-growth characteristics,” he continued. “Here in Kanawha State Forest, but also in Watoga, Cedar Creek, Twin Falls, Cacapon, North Bend, Holly River and Beech Fork state parks.”
Wood, a retired Department of Environmental Protection water-quality official, is helping spearhead an effort to identify old-growth tracts, particularly on public lands. He scours the woods looking for big trees and the signs of old-growth habitat that surround them. When he finds a likely tract, he notifies the Old Growth Network of its presence.
“The Old Growth Network is a non-profit group interested in helping designate old-growth areas,” Wood explained. “They like the effort to be driven by the local citizenry, so they have county coordinators to help get citizens interested in identifying old-growth tracts.”
Wood said the recent effort by Gov. Jim Justice and his administration to open state parks to timbering has helped give rise to the grass-roots effort to protect any old-growth areas that might exist within those parks.
“Those of us who enjoy our state parks, and walking among these big trees, were worried that we might see some of these trees felled,” Wood said. “So we began to look for a way to help other people to gain an appreciation for how many of our parks contain old-growth areas.”
Big trees aren’t the only criteria Wood and his compatriots use to identify old growth. In fact, he said, he looks for 11 telltale signs: Scattered, dominant canopy trees greater than 20 inches in diameter at breast height; trees with “stag-headed” crowns that have nearly horizontal branches; nearby trees of varying heights and ages; a lack of shade-intolerant species, except in canopy gaps; large logs on the forest floor; scattered, large dying trees and standing dead snags; small canopy gaps created by dead or fallen trees; few, if any, cut stumps; few, if any, visible signs of logging roads or skid trails; 100-percent ground cover by leaf litter; and the presence of wildlife species that are mature-forest specialists.
“These are criteria the U.S. Forest Service uses to identify old-growth areas,” Wood said. “Most states use these same criteria, or very similar ones.”
He said those characteristics begin to appear after about a century’s worth of growth. Most of West Virginia was logged between the late 1800s and the 1940s. The state is roughly 80 percent forested now, and most of those forests are fully mature or are approaching maturity.
Wood said it’s sometimes difficult to convince people that old-growth forest still exists in the Mountain State.
“People tend to equate old-growth with virgin forest — trees that have never been logged,” he added. “While it’s true that all virgin forests are old-growth forests, but not all old-growth forests are virgin. A stand can be old-growth once it gets a few decades beyond its typical timber-rotation rate.
“In West Virginia, the typical rotation rate for faster-growing trees is 60 to 70 years, and for slower-growing trees it’s 90 to 100 years. So, if a stand is 100 years or older, you’re starting to get into the old-growth range.”
Many such areas exist, Wood said, and those on public land need to be identified so they can be protected.
“Right at the moment, the movement [to identify old growth] is moving pretty fast,” he continued. “Within the past year, we’ve had the tracts at North Bend, Watoga and Holly River declared to be old growth, and there’s been a great deal of interest on adding the others we’ve identified to the list. I’d say within another year’s time, we’re going to see three or four other parks with designated old-growth forest areas.”