2018-01-31 / Opinions

Opinion: Plan to timber parks is bad forestry, bad for visitors

by Robert Beanblossom

I retired after 42 years with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and worked both for our state park system and the Division of Forestry. I am an active member of the Society of American Foresters (chairman in West Virginia in 2008 and 2009) and am now volunteering with the U.S. Forest Service in North Carolina.

With a strong background in professional forestry, I have no problem with timber harvesting performed under the guidance of scientific forest management. It is essential that we do an even better job of managing our forests.

I am very proud of the profession of forestry. Foresters have made many significant accomplishments that have promoted a sound forest conservation policy throughout the United States. Thanks to professional foresters, for example, we have never had a shortage of wood, which is essential to our daily lives. Our forests are the best managed in the world.

However, I also strongly believe that some forest lands should be set aside undisturbed for the enjoyment by man and to preserve their old growth ecological characteristics. This is precisely the goal embodied in the mission statement for our state park system and one that has served West Virginia well for over 80 years now. First a short history lesson. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, America’s forests became seriously depleted. Between 1850 and 1920, for example, 13.5 square miles of forest land were being consumed each day and an additional 50 million acres were lost annually due to uncontrolled wildfires.

Around the turn of the 20th Century two schools of thought emerged to address this serious issue. One was the concept of conservation; that is, the wise use of our resources. The other was preservation – the setting aside and preserving of unique natural areas.

At first glance these ideas may seem diametrically opposed; but in fact, the opposite is true. They complement each other. That is why in addition to having state and national forests to demonstrate the concept of multiple use sustained yield forestry, we also have a system of national and state parks and wilderness areas. This is as it should be for both serve the needs of society very well.

Forests even if they are never harvested provide a wide variety of valuable goods and services to man. Samuel Trask Dana, long time Dean of the School of Forestry at Michigan perhaps summed it up best when he said, “The intangible values of the forest should not be overlooked. They reduce erosion, improve the soil, temper the local climate and use large quantities of carbon dioxide in the process of photosynthesis…. The importance of non-timber values is dramatized in the provocative assertion that modern civilization could get along without wood, but not without forests.”

Therefore, I believe the move by the Justice administration to log our state parks is a bad idea; and the bill they have introduced is an especially flawed one for several reasons.

First, and most seriously, it actually deviates from the principles of sound silvicultural management even though the bill states that it will follow them.

The bill limits cutting to no more than an average of four trees per acre that are 16” or greater in size. That is not good forestry. Professional foresters have a term for this practice. It is called “high grading.”

Over time all of the valuable trees are taken and the land is left with a ragged stand of culls, small stems and unmarketable species. It is an unethical practice and in actuality, would be a crass exploitation of a valuable resource.

The bill as written also implies that there are large tracts of land on state parks that are unutilized by the public and fails to take into consideration that there are well over 1,000 miles of hiking trails already in existence on these areas.

Hiking is one of the main reasons visitor cite for coming to our state parks; and it is very unlikely that logging could be conducted without adversely effecting this major use of our state park lands.

The total acreage of the state park system is roughly 80,000 acres. There are 12 million acres of forest land in West Virginia so that means these public lands comprise about one-half of one percent of the total forest land in West Virginia. It is not too much to ask, in my opinion, that this small acreage be left untouched by logging especially when one considers the economic impact from our parks.

Based upon the DNR FY2017 Annual Report, the total economic impact of the system ANNUALLY ranges between $160.5 million and $189.5 million. Economic impact is a measure of fresh money infused into the State’s economy that likely would have not be generated in the absence of the park system. Let’s face it – the vast majority of humans prefer to recreate in undisturbed forested areas so let’s not risk comprising this valuable economic asset.

Another concern I have is the construction of permanent roads. Skid roads and landings could be “put to bed” and be mulched and reseeded. Many permanent roads, however, would need to be constructed and that presents a different issue. Long-term maintenance is required for these roads, and there is no provision of where the funding will come from to perform it. This is a criticism that I have long held with regard to state forest timber sales as well as with many DNR lands.

State parks do suffer from a backlog of deferred maintenance needs and a solution is desperately needed. There have been several alternatives put forward to address the issue. One that I think has a lot of merit is to increase the percentage of funding the system receives from the State of West Virginia’s use of its purchasing cards. Like you or I the state gets a rebate. Currently, parks receive 10% of this fund which translates into about $600,000.00 annually. Increasing this percentage by another 10% or so would generate enough funds for a hefty bond sale which could put our parks in first class condition. Another environmental friendly proposal would be to place a small tax on plastic bags. I’m sure there are many others.

West Virginia should have as a goal to strive to be at the top of every good list and at the bottom of every bad one. Unfortunately, we are at the top of too many bad lists. Our state park system, however, is at the top of the good list. Let’s work to keep it that way.

Robert Beanblossom retired after a 42-year career with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. A member of the Society of American Foresters, he is the volunteer caretaker at the Cradle of Forestry in western North Carolina.

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