By Doug Wood
When the Division of Forestry tries to justify logging in state parks, it sometimes says that it wants to help wildlife. While it does not fully articulate it this way, what it is saying is that it wants to help wildlife that need what is called early successional habitat. By cutting the trees, they leave grassland, shrub land, and young forestland. Since some birds and animals need that type of habitat, the Division contends that it is benefitting those species by creating this type of habitat.
The difficulty with this argument is that West Virginia is already thick with early successional habitat. We don’t need to create more by cutting mature forest habitat in state parks. What we need is more mature forest habitat such as that found in state parks.
It is true that some bird and animal species need early-successional habitat (grassland, shrub land, and young forestland). Some eastern birds that are rapidly declining do require early-successional habitat. In fact, most of the declining mature-forest birds also require some early-successional habitat, particularly as feeding habitat for their fledglings. So how do we decide if forests within our state park should be managed primarily for early-successional habitat or late-successional habitat?
First, we should consider the current landscape conditions prevailing in our state. West Virginia is one of the most forested states, by percentage of land cover, east of the Mississippi River. This is a result of decades of rural population losses following two World Wars, resulting in forest regrowth on abandoned farmland, and regrowth of forests that had been cut by industrial logging in the decades around the turn to the 20th century. But more recent changes in land cover are chilling reminders of the industrial logging days.
The National Land Use Database maps generated for the second WV Breeding Bird Atlas project show disturbing changes in the state’s forested land cover between 1992 and 2011. The southwestern and central counties experienced major decreases (more than 20% decrease) in forests replaced by early-successional vegetation. Of course, much of this was due to surface mining, especially huge mountaintop removal, and timber harvesting. Some was due to other mineral extraction. Residential, business, and industrial lands expansion occurred in the far eastern panhandle, along the northern I-79 corridor, and near population centers in the Ohio and Kanawha River valleys. In large expanses of forestland, increased fragmentation by energy production and delivery (coal, oil, and shale gas) has decreased the habitat quality for mature-forest species that now have declining nesting and fledging success due to increasing cowbird parasitization and predator success.
Only 4% of forestland in WV is protected from logging in places like federal wilderness areas, federal roadless areas, national wildlife refuges, National Park Service lands, state parks, and some private nature preserves. But some of this percentage, especially on national wildlife refuges, national parks, and federal roadless areas could be logged or fired by the agencies to enhance early-successional species. Only 0.6% of forested land is in WV state parks. The percentage of forested land available under current policy that can be managed for early-successional species is around 96% and the bulk of this is in private ownership. Some people will no doubt decide not to log their properties nor to manage them for early-successional species, but that number will probably be very low. This low ratio of forestland protected from logging to forestland open to logging, combined with the recent decline in forest cover in the southwestern and central counties as well as the fragmentation due to increased shale-gas development, does not bode well for the rapidly-declining mature-forest animal and bird species.
Let’s look at Watoga State Park, a prime example of mature forest growing into old-growth habitat. As the trees age, some forest giants die and fall or are blown down in storms. The demise of a few forest giants here and there, creates small canopy gaps, which encourages denser shrub layers, creating perfect spots for the fledglings of interior-forest species to find caterpillars and hide from predators. Small canopy gaps in extensive forests are not as conducive to nest-parasitizing cowbirds as are larger gaps, such as those created by commercial logging operations.
Bordering Watoga to the south is Calvin Price State Forest, with many hundreds of acres of early- to mid-successional habitat resulting from timber harvests conducted on a regular basis. Immediately to the north and east of Watoga are mixtures of private and US Forest Service lands, both of which have varying amounts of early- to mid-successional habitats due to occasional logging activities. To the west of Watoga is the Little Levels extensive farmland. Does Forestry Director Barry Cook’s desire to log Watoga and create early-successional habitat make sense for that park, a 10,000+ acre landscape, currently acting as and growing into a primo refugium for mature-forest bird species?
All of our other, larger parks are in similar circumstances. They are acting as refugia for interior-forest-nesting birds, while surrounded by large land areas of mid- to early-succession habitat, residential/commercial developments, mine reclamation grasslands, and some mature forests. From a strategic conservation perspective, it seems premature to decide to create early-successional habitat in these refugia without first assessing thoroughly the land uses nearby and the bird populations within the refugia and without.