By Robert Beanblossom
I graduated from high school on a Wednesday evening in early June of 1971 and had a job waiting on me the following Monday in the Greenbrier Ranger District of the Monongahela National Forest. I was hired as a forestry aid for the summer as a result of winning a national contest sponsored by the Izaak Walton League of America.
It was a heady experience for a green kid fresh out of high school in Mingo County and on his own for the very first time. It also threw me “smack dab in the middle” of the bitter clearcutting controversy that was raging on the Monongahela.
That summer, I was given the opportunity to assist foresters in all phases of the district’s timber management program from surveying areas to be clearcut, to assisting with the layout of roads and marking the trees to be harvested. It was a real learning experience.
I left at the end of the season with a deep appreciation of what a valuable tool even-aged management or “clearcutting” was to regrow diverse, healthy stands of Appalachian hardwoods. It is not for every site or forested stand but applied judiciously, it is remarkable how well a hardwood forest responds.
The term simply means growing a forested stand where all the trees are of the same age. The practice emulates nature since most forests regrow in this manner as a result of fire, hurricanes, major insect infestations or other natural disturbances.
Today, I can return to places where I worked and see the results from years ago. I remember a rather large cut along the Mylius Trail leading into Otter Creek Wilderness. It was harvested in 1972 and I am sure that hikers today along that trail do not realize that the area had been cut a mere 52 years ago. My guess is they figure the area was probably cut over at the turn of the century. The same can be said for other locations throughout the forest.
In 1964 the US Forest Service made the decision to increase even-aged management on the Monongahela after years of intensive research. The Vinton Furnace/Mead Experimental Forest in southeastern Ohio was the site of much of this early research and clearly demonstrated that even aged practices provided the most desirable species composition. Simply put, some of our most valuable trees, both from an economical and, more importantly, an ecological standpoint, require a lot of sunlight to grow.
Even-aged management was not new then. It had been used for years in the Southeast and the Douglas-fir areas of the Pacific Northwest with good results. What was new at the time was its application to Eastern hardwoods, and a new clearcut can have a major visual impact. The first large-scale public controversy arose when several large clearcuts were made in the Gauley Ranger District near Richwood between 1966 and 1968.
Opposition quickly mounted and included such leaders as Delegate Charles “Tate” Lohr, who owned a cabin near a clearcut on Middle Mountain. Lohr soon introduced a resolution in the West Virginia Legislature expressing concerns about the practice and called for the creation of a 14-person Forest Management Practices Commission comprised of five State Senators, five members of the House of Delegates and four citizen members. The Commission was to investigate the matter and report its findings.
The Commission met ten times after its creation, including five all-day hearings and two field trips. Among the findings in its August 1, 1970 report was that multiple-use management can’t be carried out if clearcutting is used extensively, that most clearcuts were too large and too concentrated and that too many occurred in scenic vistas. Further concerns were raised about slope, soil type and waste of the resource when sound wood is left to decay.
Another prominent leader was Lawrence Dietz of Richwood. Dietz probably spearheaded the campaign against the practice more than anyone. Later in life, he became a close friend of mine, and at the time, he was a Department of Natural Resources Commissioner and commanded immense respect.
Numerous others were involved, including turkey and squirrel hunters in the area.
Chaired by Senator Frank Church (D-ID), the Public Lands Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Interior and Indian Affairs held hearings on the matter in Washington, D.C. from April 5 – 7, 1971. Senator Jennings Randolph (D-WV) remarked during those hearings, “…But the point is that this clearcut area was tangible evidence that our concern, reservations – even fears – with regard to the present clearcutting program were well founded…
In the meantime, the US Forest Service response was rather high-handed, implying that foresters knew best and were slow to change. One group that traveled to Washington, D.C. from Nicholas County had their concerns quickly dismissed out of hand. The Forest Service later tried to learn from their public relations mistakes and adjust their timber management program incorporating many of the recommendations of the Church Committee, but it was too late, and the controversy continued to grow. The Izaak Walton League sued and on November 8, 1973, United States Judge Robert Maxwell of Elkins ruled that the application of even-aged management was in violation of the so-called Organic Act of June 4, 1897.
This Act was the foundation on which the administrative structure of the Forest Service was built. It clearly stated in unambiguous terms, though, that only marked dead and mature trees were to be cut. An interesting side story is that a young law clerk at the National Resources Defense Council made this obvious discovery. Told to get a handle on this clearcutting “business,” he chanced upon it while reading the Organic Act. There, in surprisingly plain language, was a promising precedent to stop the practice. His name was Lawrence Rockefeller IV.
Although the Forest Service appealed the decision of Judge Maxwell, they ultimately lost in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on August 21, 1975. It is important to note that the Forest Service was overturned on matters of law; the scientific research behind even-aged management was never in question.
The “Monongahela Decision” along with a similar controversy on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana at the time, led to the passage of the National Forest Management Act of 1976, which governs the Forest Service today. The Act did not abolish even-aged management. However, implementing the National Forest Management Act has involved mandating smaller clearcuts than before, more “shaping” of the harvest units to be more “pleasing to the eye,” and extensive testing of different harvesting methods.
Am I writing this article to suggest a return to the days when the Monongahela was heavily cut by applying even-aged management methods? Absolutely not! I am writing to capture some of the events that occurred then to provide a historical perspective of the issue and to also provide one professional’s personal viewpoint.
Foresters and other natural resource professionals can bring their expertise to the table and advise landowners of the choices available in managing their forests. They can provide information on the probable consequences of making a particular choice. That is one of our more significant roles. In the end, however, it is up to the owners of that land—in the case of our national forests, the American people—to decide how they are to be managed and used.
Robert Beanblossom, a member of the Society of American Foresters, is retired from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. He is currently the volunteer caretaker at the Cradle of Forestry in America. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org