Forest Forensics: Finding Clues in the Woods to History

By Chris Bolgiano

It stands on our ridge like some kind of modern art sculpture, with its jutting iron beam and iron wheels sinking into the earth. It pulled logs up from the slopes and hollows to the ridge, where a cart or truck carried them to a mill or a rail depot. The trees around it are 80 to 120 years old, so this winch took part in the biggest logging frenzy in world history.

Historians date this final deforestation of the eastern U.S. from 1880 to 1930, as southern cities rebuilt after the Civil War, northern cities expanded as freed slaves fled Jim Crow, and narrow-gauge railroads crawled up almost every stream. Accessible forests had been repeatedly cut over, but there were still plenty of huge virgin trees on high mountain slopes and ridges. Timber companies, mostly owned by distant businessmen, operated with a “cut out and get out” attitude. In just 50 years, West Virginia went from being 95% forested to 85% denuded.

Steam equipment powered by wood or coal threw sparks that ignited entire mountainsides. If an old blackened skeleton leaves char on your fingers, it may have been a living tree killed by a hot fire, which renders some trees rot resistant. Only about one percent of the pre-European forest survived, mostly in areas too rocky or wet to log.

Rain gushed down bare slopes, eroding deep trenches and carrying away innumerable tons of soil. Floods drowned thousands of people, ruined millions of dollars of property, and smothered streams with sediment. So terrible was the immediate damage that Congress passed the Weeks Act in 1911, authorizing the purchase of millions of burning, eroding mountain acres for repair by the U.S. Forest Service. With help from the Civilian Conservation Core during the 1930s, the U.S.F.S. extinguished fires, planted trees, built erosion fences, and developed recreational amenities still in use. Ironically, the destruction of the magnificent original forest led to national forests, like the George Washington National Forest in our area, that produce clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, hunting and fishing opportunities and other recreation, wood products, and carbon sequestration that benefits all of society.

But millennia of soil-building were lost. Decades of regrowth now obscure the reduced fertility from soil loss, but in 1943, a Forest Service report on the Virginia mountains noted that even some of the better growing sites “because of fire or other past abuses are of low productivity.” No trees today come close to matching the sizes of the virgin trees cut back then, and scientists estimate it will take centuries of leaf fall and root growth to restore that productivity.

Where did all that soil go?

It’s still moving downstream. Called “legacy sediment,” it is “a source of nutrients and trace elements [that] may add significantly to the degradation of downstream ecosystems such as the Chesapeake Bay,” according to research published in the journal Geology. In 2017, the Chesapeake Bay Program held a Legacy Sediment Workshop to discuss remediation of “the enormous volumes of legacy sediment stored in valleys of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.” Here in the Valley, JMU archaeologist Dr. Carole Nash said that “excavations on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River consistently demonstrate the impacts of logging on mountain soils. It’s common to document three feet of alluvial deposits over the earliest levels of historic occupation in the 1740s. Below that, only an inch of soil takes you back in time a thousand years.”

In many forgotten ways, the past continues to shape the present – and the future.