October 26, 2016

Forest and trees

This op-ed of mine appeared in Wednesday's Gazette Mail:

Last fall, I was in a delegation to Palestine and Israel. Politics, religion and culture aside, what struck me most about the landscape was the contrast with West Virginia.

The scenery was striking, with plenty of hills. After all, many of the big events in the Bible take place on mountains. But I couldn’t help but notice the absence of the blanket of trees that covers most of the Mountain State.

Say what you want about West Virginia — I certainly have — but at least it’s a lush, green place in season.

It’s been said that before the arrival of Europeans, a squirrel could swing from tree to tree across the state (assuming it could hop rivers). That forest provided a habitat for a great diversity of plants and animals and resources for native people living and passing through the area. It would also provide shelter, game and more for later settlers from Europe and elsewhere.

Our old-growth, virgin forests were among the first casualties when West Virginia became an economic colony of outside business interests.

According to historian John Alexander Williams, the greatest change that came in the wake of industrialization was the disappearance of the Appalachian forest: “as late as 1870 there were at least ten million acres of virgin forest in West Virginia, covering nearly two-thirds of the state’s surface. In 1900 this figure had been reduced by half; in 1910, by more than four-fifths. The virgin forest was gone by 1920.”

This destruction disrupted the traditional subsistence farming and the local food economy and altered ecosystems, erosion patterns and waterways.

The waste left by timbering created a fertile ground for forest fires. According to historian Ron Lewis, “The extent of the damaged cause by these fires is staggering. In 1908, for example, the number of fires reached 710, burning an area of 1,703,850 acres, more than one-tenth of the entire surface of the state, one-fifth of its forested area, and 3 percent of the state’s standing timber.” Of these, more than 70 percent were caused by locomotives and 20 percent by sawmills and logging operations.

Needless to say, most West Virginians didn’t benefit from this transformation. In the end, Lewis concludes “Railroad and timber development did not stimulate the growth of a vibrant agricultural sector, but, rather, forced farmers to either abandon the countryside for a new life in the industrial towns or face a life of rural marginality at the periphery of the American, and now global, economy.”

Williams noted one more change in the wake of deforestation: “For the first time in its history, West Virginia come to be thought of as a place of ugliness as well as beauty.”

Today, the forests have recovered to some extent. West Virginia is the third most forested state (behind Maine and New Hampshire). But if our history teaches anything, it is that responsible care for natural resources such as forests matters. A lot.

Aside from their economic, ecological and recreational value and contribution to our quality of life, forests provide a buffer against floods by retaining excess rainwater, preventing erosion and extreme run offs, and slowing down the flow of water to low points.

I visited Nicholas County shortly after the June flood and saw thousands of acres of clear cut land. I couldn’t help but wonder how this impacted communities like Richwood. The clear cutting didn’t put the water there, but it sure didn’t slow it down once it hit the ground.

In light of all this, I found it surprising and disturbing that budget cuts this year led to the laying off of 37 foresters from the state Division of Forestry. It wasn’t like the agency was flush to start with. More than 10 years ago, a state report aimed at disaster prevention found that “the Division of Forestry is currently under-staffed to accomplish all of the inspections, firefighting, and enforcement responsibilities assigned to the division by the state.”

Now, after a late summer dry spell, we’ll also be less able to deal with forest fire season. According to a forestry official quoted by Metro News, it’s not unusual to have 20 forest fires a day in some parts of the state.

Local volunteer fire departments will do what they can, but their main mission is to protect lives and structures and they often don’t have the people to deal with hundreds or thousands of acres of burning hills, not to mention the equipment and often the expertise.

(I can attest to the expertise thing first hand in my short and inglorious stint as a volunteer firefighter, when in a single night of fighting a brush fire I narrowly survived a box turtle attack and sustained my only injury, a burn from a flare and not the fire itself. The flare started it.)

On a more serious note, these layoffs could wind up costing us a lot one way or another in terms of hell and/or high water. It’s just another example — along with cuts to higher education and services and a crumbling infrastructure — of West Virginia’s downward slide, which is at least partially self-inflicted. It could be remedied given the political will.

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