When Our Forests Disappear

This is the first part of a four part series in the Floyd Press, first installment in this week’s edition. — FBF

When the oak leaves fell from November trees along the crest above the house, we were shocked to discover that the rounded ridge beyond and above us was now as smooth as a baby’s bottom against the northern sky.

The south-facing flank of Lick Ridge had been clearcut. The sight alarmed and upset me–and not just because the aftermath of a clearcut is unspeakably ugly.

The intended future for that cleared ridge long after we’re gone from here is not that it be a diverse woodlands like the one so recently eliminated by the thrumming machinery of industrial logging. The pure-as-possible stand of pines that will grow behind us on Goose Creek a generation from now will be a wood products plot, and much will be missing there.

The soils and the plant and animal diversity in that a future pine plantation will be utterly changed. The stand of mostly pines will exist as what some have referred to as a “green desert.”

Its impoverished variety of species of plants and animals will stand in extreme contrast to the native ecosystem it will replace. Biologists refer to this as lost biodiversity, which is happening at an unprecedented rate today.

Clearcutting is driven by efficiency and somebody’s bottom line. A mixed hardwood-and-conifer forest in our part of the world, under natural process after selective timber harvest, will grow slowly back to become a mature forest of hardwoods and scattered white pines.

But shade-intolerant pines only grow close and straight where hardwoods do not shade out these higher-dollar faster-growing evergreens. And so with those dollars and the returns cycle in mind, natural hardwood stump regrowth is typically suppressed by the application of herbicides like Roundup. This thought made me wonder.

Was this clearcut so close to us sprayed? We learned from a local forester that the clearcut was indeed doused with herbicide mixture by helicopter (about 11 gallons per acre) last summer.
We had not known about this at the time. The logging company is apparently under no requirements to inform adjacent landowners in advance. That doesn’t seem right.

Asked his opinion about the use of clearcutting as a forestry practice in the Blue Ridge, a forester I spoke to stated that “there is not enough of it to suit me.” As long as metric tons of fiber is the prevailing measure of worth of an acre of fast-growing planted or slower-growing natural forest, this form of forestry practice is likely to increase across Floyd County, the southern states and beyond. There are visible and invisible costs to be paid.

The intact biology and chemistry of forests work for the good of our air and our drinking water, our soil and our senses. We are both consumers and caretakers of this living community and natural benefits provider we know as forests. They are a feature so common in our part of the world that we tend to take them for granted. You might say that we often lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Sixty-four percent of Floyd County is forested (that’s some 156,000 acres of trees), and all of it (save for the strip along the Blue Ridge Parkway) is owned and its fate determined by people like you and me.

The second part of this four-part series will consider some of the costs and benefits of our use of today’s and tomorrow’s forests, even as we live pleasantly surrounded by them for the time being.

We live among trees and most of us care about the health of future forests. This is a complex issue—the stewardship of this vast wooded expanse of southwestern Virginia. The boundaries of these private plots you can see on a map, but the real benefits of forests (environmental services) are public and contribute to the well-being of all of us.

The most conspicuous of these common goods is the beauty of our wooded ridges and valleys and coves that give this place its character and form in every season, for residents and visitors alike.

This is part ONE of a four part series. Go to https://goo.gl/tx00q7 for related links.


About fred

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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