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“Just as we came to the hills, we met with a Sycamore…..of a most extraordinary size, it measuring three feet from the ground, forty-five feet round, lacking two inches; and not fifty yards from it was another, thirty-one feet round.”
– George Washington, written while exploring the Great Kanawha River, Nov. 4, 1770
Editor's Note: This story is part of an occasional series from independent producer Jean Snedegar about the timber and forest products industry here in the Mountain State — from seedlings to final products.
Washington’s description of the virgin forest that covered most of West Virginia is one of the few early written accounts we have. We do know that the trees were huge, and that the vast forest canopy was often unbroken, making it dark underneath. But there were exceptions.
Native Americans used fires to make clearings for agriculture, and in the late 1700s and early 1800s, European settlers built iron ore smelters, or furnaces, in the forest, according to Joe McNeel, a forestry professor at West Virginia University.
“They needed iron to make things that would be durable – tools and weapons – iron was a valuable commodity. And so they would go out and find iron nuggets, or iron ore deposits and they would dig holes, dig trenches to acquire the iron ore,” he said. “And so then they would have to smelt it, and so they would build these large iron ore smelters. And they would use coal, but they also used a lot of wood, and so over a long period of time, you had not only people digging huge trenches in the forest, but you also had them cutting the trees down to serve as fuel for the smelters.”
At the Stuart Recreation Area outside Elkins, part of the Monongahela National Forest that was last logged more than a hundred years ago, surveyor and local historian Don Teter points to out a large tree.
“This tree is a red oak – very impressive size. I’m going to stretch the diameter tape around it… We have a diameter of almost 44 inches on this tree,” he said. “Now the diameter is measured, generally speaking, four-and-a-half feet from the ground. It’s called DBH, or Diameter at Breast Height. And that’s the standard measurement that’s used in the timber industry. This is the sort of tree that would excite a logger.”
Within a relatively short walk through the woodland, there are large specimens of red oak, black oak, white oak, scarlett oak, chestnut oak, eastern hemlock, yellow poplar, beech and black cherry.
“Notice this one large stump over here – there’s a red maple growing out of that stump – the stump itself is probably chestnut. Chestnut was one of the most common trees in the Appalachian Forest. It was a very valuable tree,” Teter said. “It tended to grow on dry sites. It grew rapidly. It grew with good form. It was an easy wood to work and it was very durable. And of course, foresters and scientists are still trying to bring the chestnut back from the chestnut blight.”
But Teter said that before the period of major industrialization in the U.S., most of the timber in West Virginia was relatively worthless, except to build your house, or a barn or a fence.
“When the early settlers got to this area, the forest was actually an impediment to them, because there was no market for the logs. The trees would keep the ground from being able to produce the grass that they needed to raise livestock. It would keep the sun from being able to reach the ground for them to grow crops,” he said. “So what they did a lot of times was what was called “hacking” – or “deadening” – where they would girdle the trees. They would cut through the bark on a strip four to eight inches wide near the stump of the tree so that the tree would die. So once the tree died and you didn’t have the thick foliage up there, the sun could make it down through, and gradually over the years they would clear the stumps out of the fields. But they may have for a couple of generations on some of those early farms have been farming amongst those dead trees.”
But, the beginning of an intense period of industrialization in the U.S. meant that West Virginia’s ancient forest was about to disappear.
“Prior to the end of the 19th Century, going into the 20th, we saw this huge swath of the Appalachian Forest cut down,” McNeel said. “And places like Dolly Sods were dramatically affected – I mean the entire ecology was affected – by the harvesting and then the aftermath of burning, and re-burning and then re-burning again.”
Between 1879 and 1920, there was a great logging boom – hundreds of sawmills were in operation across 30 counties. Lumber boom towns flourished. During this period, devastating logging practices and fires removed almost all of the old-growth forest in West Virginia – 30 billion board feet of timber was cut down. Don Teter says that, in the early days, logging was mostly done along rivers, so companies could float the logs to sawmills.
“But the real decimation of the forest you could say – in a lot of areas – could not occur until you had the logging railroads, when you could punch those railroads up into all the little hollows and you could reach all the trees. And the Shay geared locomotives, the Heisler and the Climax locomotives were critical in that because they could be used on a grade that was much steeper than other railroad engines could use, and you could also have sharper curves,” he said.
“The geared locomotive, the very nature of it was, it was like an all-wheel-drive vehicle today, where every wheel was a driving wheel, so you had the most tractive force. Of course someone who wanted to see an example of this today could go someplace like Cass Scenic Railroad. But tremendous power in those engines and the ability to remove large loads from the woods.”
It didn’t take long for those early logging operations to cut down most of the trees in a valley.
“Usually a logging railroad grade in one particular area was only there a year or two, maybe five years depending on how large the hollow was and how good the timber was there,” Don Teter said. “And then they would pull the rails there, move them somewhere else.”
The most valuable lumber that came out of the high-elevation forests of West Virginia was the red spruce. It was used not only to make many expensive musical instruments, but also to build early Wright brothers flying machines.
And cutting down that much forest in a relatively short time had some pretty horrific consequences: fires burned over large areas, including logging boom towns, and once the surrounding forest was cut down, many of those towns disappeared altogether. In addition, there was devastating soil erosion, flooding and degraded water quality.
National Forests Are Born
So in 1911, Congress passed the Weeks Act, which led to the establishment of many eastern national forests, including the Monongahela National Forest. Today it covers more than 900,000 acres across 10 counties in West Virginia. Soon after, professional foresters started managing forests, to protect wildlife and waterways and to try to maximize the many assets of the forest, especially experimenting with different cutting practices that were sustainable.
Over the next few decades – the forests across West Virginia began to recover. Today, West Virginia boasts 12 million acres of forest – much of which is harvested on a regular basis.
“When somebody cuts a stand of timber down, it’s not gone forever. If you leave a field just sitting, over time it becomes a forest again. We’ve had a variety of harvests across the state, and yet right now, there’s a huge amount of timberland that exists in the state – almost 80 percent of our state in terms of area is forested,” Joe McNeel said.
“We’ve seen a resurgence in the amount of land supporting forests. We’ve not cut like we used to, so don’t be terrified when you see somebody cutting timber down. Go find out what you can about it. The other thing I would say is our forests are renewable. They do come back. Sometimes even when you don’t want them to. That would be what I would leave you with.”
This series is made possible with support from the Myles Family Foundation.