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A History of Deforestation – What does this mean for the Tygart?

Deforestation is a critically important topic to consider when we gauge the health of the Tygart Valley River watershed. River systems are not only influenced by processes that take place below the water’s surface, as our actions on land play a major role in changing watershed ecology.

As it pertains to streams, forests provide more benefits than you might think! Old growth forests can often be the most beneficial to a riparian waterway such as the Tygart Valley River. One of the largest benefits stems from the complex root systems of trees and shrubs. Not only do these roots help the stream physically, for they also help with up taking organic compounds from the soil at the chemical level. From a physical standpoint, tree and shrub stratum help to stabilize the banks of a waterway or stream. This will help to prevent sediments from entering the waterway in excess. Sedimentation can choke out the ability for certain fish to hatch from eggs successfully, such as the native brook trout. Not only does sedimentation hinder the successful rearing of fish eggs, it disrupts the habitat within the stream bed for benthic macroinvertebrates and can completely alter the nutrient content and food chain within that particular stream. Having a high-density forest along a stream can also help to keep a stream deep and channeled. This will help increase the dissolved oxygen and flow, and lower the temperature of the water in warmer summer months. From a chemical standpoint, the plants along a stream serve as a nutrient buffer, absorbing tiny molecules through their roots as food. This keeps the stream from becoming overloaded with nutrients. Decaying plant matter can also be beneficial to a stream, as the slow breakdown of that organic material can prove necessary for bacteria and fungi. These organisms are later consumed by insects and further consumed by fish and other animals. Unlike the nutrients from sediments, decaying plant matter slowly releases its carbon-based organic molecules.

On a larger level, dead trees falling into a stream can provide habitat, alter the stream channel, or even increase the dissolved oxygen assuming there is water trickling over the dead trunk. Usually deadfall timber is a benefactor to a stream’s health, particularly so in headwater systems. Living trees and shrubs create a canopy that can often shield a stream from the sun for part, if not most, of the day. This is extremely critical to a cold-water ecosystem. Even in a warm-water ecosystem, some fish, amphibians, and other animals will use this shade for thermal refuge.

Above are two photos I took in my fishing & volunteering journeys that show the difference between two similarly sized streams. These photos give us a visual as to what we perceive as a forested stream and a deforested stream. Pictured first is Rhine Creek in Preston county, WV, being surveyed by the PPKTU chapter of Trout Unlimited for the presence of native brook trout. Due to loss of canopy and lack of bank stabilization, the creek is too warm & sediment loaded for brook trout.

One of the largest processes we, as humans, have engineered that affects our streams is logging. Logging has been a major industry in West Virginia, nearly for the entire history of our state. Through the 1880’s, West Virginia became subject to massively lucrative lumber production. This boom in industrial strength, as it pertains to lumber, carried on well into the 1920s until the state’s wilderness seemed to hit a breaking point. It seemed that nearly all of West Virginia’s old growth forests had been timbered, and this meant a “re-grow” period was necessary. West Virginia only has an estimated 263 acres of “virgin” forest left untouched today, with virgin meaning a tract of forested land left untouched by man. Out of these 263 acres, only 130 acres are made up of virgin coniferous spruce forest. Keep in mind, the state of West Virginia is comprised of nearly 16 million acres. Yes, you heard us right! An entire 16 million acres makes up the surface of the entire state of West Virginia. That means roughly 0.000016% of our state’s land remains untouched virgin forest. The 130 acres of virgin spruce forest is dominated by red spruce (Picea rubens) which has an importance to habitat and was one of the most prized varieties of lumber hauled out of West Virginia forests. Trees like the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), red maple (Acer rubrum), american beech (Fagus grandifolia), mountain ash (Sorbus americana), and black cherry (Prunus serotina), were also historically present in once-virgin forests.

Though the red spruce is listed as a species of least concern on the IUCN list (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the red spruce faces struggles within West Virginia’s forests. They may be abundant from the entire species’ perspective, however; local niches are well damaged. Red spruce only exists in historically accurate numbers in 178,000 acres totaling 1.16% of the state’s total area today per the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. This total is much lower than our historical value of 469,000 acres before the forty-year boom (Per WVDEP estimation from historical documents). Red spruce is an interesting species regarding forest health, as they predominantly grow in high elevation with semi acidic soils that often are intolerable to many other species Today’s spruce forests can be characterized by stunted trees (much smaller than those cut historically), exposed rock, disturbed soils, increased presence of invasive species, and an appearance of a windblown landscape. Though we have seen a rebound in spruce forests along with other general forest types, the forests we see beautifying our landscapes today are likely less than one hundred years old. Four of the largest struggles faced by red spruce today are acid rain, wind susceptibility, competition, and soil disturbances.

There are many groups, agencies, and partnerships working together to continue restoring our red spruce today. One particular project was spearheaded by the United States Forest Service within the Monongahela National Forest and aided the red spruce by conducting invasive species removal, timber stand improvement, and tree plantings. This project in particular is ongoing to this day and can be seen in action from Durbin, WV, clear to Glady, WV, along Forest Route 44. This specific tract is only the tip of the iceberg, as there are many other project areas in progress.

To check out a digital map provided by the CASRI (Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative) click the link below:

Photo credit to for picture of Gaudineer Knob virgin spruce forest.

To learn more about the red spruce, check out the following link:

For an interesting read on red spruce rehabilitation, check out the following link:

During the logging boom in West Virginia, agencies like the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection did not exist. This coupled with turn of the century industrial demands created a frenzied rush to gather as much lumber as possible. This turned the industry into an “act now or lose out” scenario. Property claims were processed at an incredible rate. Not to mention, the rate at which the industry flew through acreage was truly a historical marvel. In the height of operations, a single band-saw mill required 17 acres of lumber just to operate for a single day. There are archived records showing a single day’s return could produce nearly 1.5 billion board feet. The total lumber cut in West Virginia between 1870 and 1920 was more than 30 billion board feet. Nationally, the modern-day home on average only requires 12,600 board feet for 2,000 square foot home! This is truly an incredible feat, but with it came devastation and despair. Dolly Sods Wilderness, which is loved by many for its beauty today, was once a barren wasteland of stumps and rocks. This location in particular suffered so bad that you can still see signs of the destruction today. Many rocks are left exposed and soil-less. Historically these rocks would have been covered in rich soils, but sadly the landscape faced erosion from wind and rain. The most common logging practice during this time is known as clearcutting. This entails cutting all usable timber and often times leads to erosion, introduction of invasive species, altering the species make-up, or stunting the regrowth of the forest. Clearcutting is still performed today, but only when called for or permitted. Today, clearcutting can be mitigated with new technology, practices, and regulation.

Photo from the WVDNR of Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in the early 1900's following logging.

Though logging may get a bad reputation from historical practices and damages, many of our ecosystems such as upland, lowland, wetland, and aquatic alike can actually benefit from ethically sustainable logging practices. Young growth forests are actually the fastest growing forests you will find. This is often accredited to a process known as carbon sequestration. This process is simply described as the uptake, metabolism, and storage of carbon dioxide in plant matter. Old growth forests generally store most of the potential free carbon and other nutrients where a young forest will have lots of dead plant matter making these nutrients available to new growth. Unique forest forms such as “edge woods” or thin strips of forest can actually be the most beneficial and high-yielding biomass ecosystem depending on the situation. Modern day logging utilizes techniques such as the shelterwood system or selective harvest. The shelterwood system focuses on cutting & removing trees of a specific type, age, or size, leaving old growth can help “shelter” young growth trees. This method is rooted in silviculture and is the easiest cutting strategy to allow for controlling forest growth rates. Selective harvest is the most conservative method of cutting that focuses on specific types or sizes of trees specifically needed by a mill. This method has a slower regeneration than shelterwood cuts. These harvest techniques can also be adapted for properties with streams flowing through them. Often times, a buffer zone is created which will mark the forest a certain distance from the stream to be left standing. Buffer zones are a great tool used in many practices today. Other practices like dead falling specific trees into the stream in such a way that it helps maintain a deep and channelized stream are also very beneficial.

Over the last century, we have made leaps and bounds to improve our logging practices. This combined with research and stream improvement practices, has shown us that we have a bright future ahead. Logging is a necessary industry to modern day life, as it has been since the Civil War. Save The Tygart Watershed Association supports and appreciates sustainable logging practices, but we also understand the potential issues that can arise from improper logging practices.

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