Cut and Run
colonial times western Virginia (now West Virginia) land
has been owned or claimed by a small number of privileged
speculators - originally by wealthy English merchants and
the Virginia planter aristocracy. Later on, local elites,
who managed the land for absentee owners, influenced the
Virginia Assembly to void the early colonial land claims.
Once statehood arrived, these local elites - lawyers and
businessmen, eager to bring on development, aided "outsiders"
to accumulate large land holdings.
Those outsiders remain:
railroads, coal operators, and timber companies.
Make no mistake about it, the arrival of the railroads,
whose powerful engines could move great quantities of logs
from the mountains, spelled doom for West Virginia's primeval
mentality of that era may sound familiar: "cut
and run." And so they did. Timber production
reached its zenith in 1909 at 1.473 billion board feet.
Compare Kentucky's maximum lumber production, which occurred
in 1907, of 912,908 board feet. By 1920 much of West
Virginia resembled what one can see in present-day clearcut
areas of Oregon's mountainous landscape.
The oldest and largest hardwood
forest in our country was wiped away by laissez-faire capitalism.
Thirty billion board feet of lumber and an equal amount
of pulpwood, along with 98 percent of the profit, left the
state. As author John O'Brien notes in At Home in the
Heart of Appalachia, "this was enough wood to build
a thirteen-foot-wide, two-inch-thick walkway to the moon."
By the 1930s three-quarters of West Virginia's land mass
and ninety percent of its natural resources were owned by
With the trees gone the people
in logging camps and mill towns vanished.
There was a degree of class
conflict in this picture: farmers, other small
landowners, and small townspeople versus the industrialists,
such as Davis and Elkins, and their allies who included
state supreme court justices and some politicans.
Ronald L. Lewis' Transforming the Appalachian Countryside:
Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virgnia
1880 - 1920 (University of North Carolina Press 1998)
is a cogent examination of the era.
mountains contribute to flooding. In the first three
decades of the twentieth century prominent West Virginia
authors spoke on that topic. A.B. Brooks in 1911 observed
that forests "hold the water of rains and melting snow
and give it out gradually to the springs and regulate the
flow of creeks and rivers." Modern research at the
USDA Forest Service's Fernow Experimental Forest in West
Virginia shows that forests retain water through the process
of evapotranspiration, which process reduces flooding.
In 1921 a handbook published
by the Society of American Foresters concluded that the
devastating flood of 1907 "was a direct result of the
cutting of timber." In 1908 the West Virginia Conservation
Commission stated: "The increase of total discharge
of West Virginia rivers, in spite of diminishing rainfall...is
due solely, so far as available data can
be interpreted, to deforestation of the mountains."
Current timber related flooding
photos may be seen at Penny Loeb's site: http://www.wvcoalfield.com
Virgin timber. Today one
can find a few patches of virgin hemlock trees in the Mountain
State, such as Cathedral State Park in Preston County and
a virgin hemlock trail near Interstate 68 outside of Morgantown.
On North Fork Mountain in Pendleton County stands virgin
red pine in an area protected by The Nature Conservancy.
To find out more about old growth forests in West Virginia
you can access http://wvnvm.wvnet.edu/...
Second growth. Although
huge trees are gone in West Virginia, sufficient time has
passed for native forests to have regenerated in a smaller
and beautiful fashion. The Monongahela National Forest
, composing about 900,000 acres, mostly is older
second growth starting to develop old-growth attributes.
Of interest is the fact that the "Mon," as it
is called, like the mythological Phoenix, rose from destruction.
The national forest was created by the purchase of cut and
burnt private lands no longer suitable for farming and having
little economic value.
Some clearcut areas have never
recovered, though. An impenetrable wilderness of 500,000
acres thick with red spruce at high elevations, lost
its organic soil through burning. One intriguing remainder
is Dolly Sods but little red spruce. Perched on the
crest of the Allegheny range, Dolly Sods Wilderness Area
composes one-third of the 32,000-acre Dolly Sods region.
Largely barren and windswept, resilient plants like fire
cherry, bracken fern, and the heaths have reclaimed much
of the broken landscape. An informative article appears
in the Sept.-Oct. 2001 Sierra magazine.
The end result of the maturation
of second-growth hardwoods is an ever-growing, irresistible
temptation in the timbering and woods products industries
to cut more and more. What kind of timber?
Last updated on Tuesday, September 11, 2001