From our president

The Fernow Experimental Forest is 85!

During 2019, the Fernow Experimental Forest (Fernow) is celebrating its 85th anniversary. Established March 28, 1934 to address water quantity, water quality and timber quality issues,forest health and clean water are still a focus, but 85 years later, data from the Fernow are also contributing to issues that were not identified in 1934, such as biodiversity, endangered species management, carbon sequestration, atmospheric deposition and climate change.

As part of the celebration, the Northern Research Station scientists conducted a tour on Saturday, May 4, which I attended. Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy (daughter in law of our own Jim Van Gundy) and Mary Beth Adams did a wonderful job leading the celebration, which included a presentation about the Fernow, a visit to a weir pond to learn about the watershed research conducted on the forest, a 1-mile walk along the Zero Grade Trail to see the longest running forestry study on the forest, and hands-on demonstrations of forestry tools.

After the presentation, we hiked up to the weir on Watershed 1. Mary Beth explained that the weir is a stream gauging station built in 1951 and that it is one of five original experimental watersheds of the Fernow. The timber stand on Watershed 1 was cut during 1957-58 using the “loggers choice” method without implementing best management practices to protect water quality. Using this method, all trees larger than six inches in diameter were cut. As a result, water quality was seriously impacted during the first year after the logging occurred. Turbidity, a measure of sediment in the water, increased as much as 2,000 times higher than on a control watershed. Turbidity improved and returned to pre-logging levels by the end of two years after the logging. Annual streamflow also increased due to the logging by 12 to 19 percent during the first three years, mostly during the summer months. Storm peak flows increased, while storm flow volumes increased 13 percent.

Next, we traveled up the mountain to the Zero Grade Trail, passing the reservoir which was the primary source of water for the residents of Parsons until 1996. Melissa explained that the Zero Grade Trail provides access to some of the oldest research and forest management demonstration areas in the eastern United States. Cutting treatments and an uncut control were established in 1949. The current objective is to quantify long-term stand dynamics as affected by the different cutting treatments. Cutting treatments are:

Control: Uncut since the early 1900s.

Commercial clear-cut: This area was harvested in 1948. All merchantable timber (11 inches and greater in diameter) and pulpwood (5 to 10 inches in diameter) were removed, leaving only sapling-sized trees.

Diameter-limit: Every 20 years all trees 15 inches and larger are harvested from the area.

Single-tree selection: This area is harvested every 10 years. Fewer trees are removed each harvest which favors shade-tolerant species such as sugar maple in the understory.

The current objective is to quantify long-term stand dynamics as affected by the different cutting treatments.

Walking along Zero Grade Trail, observing the different cutting treatments, we were also treated to seeing many of the wildflowers of the Fernow. They were Trillium, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Wild geranium, Squirrel corn, Stonecrop and Wood anemone. Also, for the first time, I got to see Running buffalo clover.

Riding around, I was curious as to how the forest is recovering from foliar injury of the trees damaged by the aerial release of drilling fluids on May 29, 2008, from the B800 gas well that we visited to observe the damage. From a layman’s perspective, I thought that the forest appears to be recovering from the incident. Also, I learned the well has now been capped.

It is important to note that scientists at the Fernow Experimental Forest have:

  • Contributed to design of Best Management Practices that protect water quality while also permitting forest operations.
  • Developed two-age management as an alternative to clearcutting and provided demonstrations of different types of forest management, such as even-age and uneven-age management.
  • Explored prescribed fire as a means to sustain central Appalachian mixed-oak forests and better understand fire effects on some wildlife species.
  • Answered transcontinental questions about ecosystem properties related to climate change as part of the national experimental forest network.
  • Contributed to the Central Appalachian Forest Vulnerability assessment in light of anticipated global changes in climate over the next century.
  • Hosted scientists and students from around the world, throughout the U.S., and from local universities.
  • Provided hydrological and stream chemistry data for the past half-century that are freely available on the internet and are one of the most commonly downloaded Forest Service data sets nationally.
  • Demonstrated that the upland woodland salamander community is resilient to low to moderate intensity prescribed fires.
  • Contributed to demonstrating that the central Appalachian Mountains provide important winter habitat for golden eagles.

Returning, we celebrated the anniversary with refreshments. It was a great learning experience.