Old Growth Forest of West Virginia

By Bill Grafton

In Pre-Colonial times, the 15 million acres of West Virginia were almost entirely forested. A few prairies existed along the bigger rivers. Some open bogs were in the high mountains and a few grass balds grew on exposed mountaintops. There might still be a dozen or so old growth tracts totaling 2500 acres. The remainder has been cut if not once, several times. Four of these old growth areas occur at Gaudineer Knob, Koontz Bend, Cathedral State Park, and Carnifax Ferry State Park.

Gaudineer Knob is located in Pocahontas County and is a pie-slice shaped area of 140 acres caused by a surveyor's error. The old growth area once consisted of a beautiful stand of virgin red spruce (18-30 inches in diameter and over 120 feet tall), large beech and some yellow birch trees. Blowdown and timber salvage had affected 2/3rds of the area before US Forest Service set Gaudineer aside as a natural/recreation area in 1964. In the late 1980s, the dreaded beech bark disease spread to the area and soon the large beech were rotting on the forest floor. This change affected the red spruce, and by the 1990s most of them had died and fallen or were giant dead snags. A beautiful monument to the original red spruce forest was in disarray.

Koontz Bend is a large horseshoe bend in the Gauley River in Fayette County. A railroad crosses the river on the north side of the bend and immediately tunnels through the mountain. This tunnel and several cliffs have made access to the mountainside virtually impossible. Among the dense rhododendron thickets are several giant hemlock, red maple and black birch trees that escaped the ax and saw at the turn of the century.

Cathedral State Park in Preston County is 126 acres of virgin hemlock with scattered beech, yellow birch, white oak, red oak, and black cherry. Dense rhododendron thickets form the understory in many areas. The forest once contained horseback riding trails for the popular Brookside summer resort. Branson Haas, a resort laborer, eventually bought the area in 1922. He sold it to the state to protect the forest from the "galdarned timberman" who wanted to cut the 7 million board feet of timber. It contains West Virginia’s largest hemlock tree and is a monument to the deep love and concern of Branson Haas for the trees he so revered.

Carnifax Ferry State Park is known for the Civil War battlefield. Hidden along the eastern boundary in Pierson Hollow is a 50-plus acre area of virgin forest. The largest trees are mostly hemlock, but there are several beautiful yellow poplar, white oak, and red oak. Dense rhododendron thickets are along the stream and trail. This is one of the nicer virgin areas left in West Virginia.

Other known old growth areas are:

uNorth Fork of Anthony Creek - white pine stand

uLick Creek near Danville - yellow poplar woods

uLaurel Run on Coopers Rock State Forest - hemlock stand

uMurphy Preserve near Pennsboro - mixed oak forest

Are there others? Will you write a paragraph or two and let us know? Send to:

William Grafton, 456 West Virginia Ave., Morgantown, WV 26501, wgrafton@wvu.edu

Bill Grafton is president of the West Virginia Native Plant Society and West Virginia University Extension Forester.