By Rick Steelhammer
A plan to commercially log at least 1,600 acres of northern hardwood forest in Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge to achieve wildlife and plant habitat improvement goals is drawing fire from conservation groups.
The plan calls for an additional 1,600 acres to be cut, using both in-house and contract commercial timbering, to create early successional forest habitat along the perimeters of northern hardwood forest stands. The logging would be done incrementally, with at least 30 to 40 acres harvested annually. Commercially logged areas would be re-cut in 40-year cycles.
The timbering plans, encompassing 20 percent of the Tucker County refuge’s 16,653 acres, were first announced to the public in an Aug. 8 notice in the Parsons Advocate. Public meetings with presentations by the refuge’s staff followed on Aug. 11 and Aug 14. A public comment deadline originally scheduled for Aug. 21 was extended to Sept. 11.
“We were shocked that the managers of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge were planning to bring commercial logging into the valley for a long-term project,” said Judy Rodd, director of the Friends of Blackwater. “This seems to go against the recovery goals on which the refuge was founded.”
According to a habitat management plan for the refuge completed last year, commercial logging can, “subject to management prescriptions and oversight, treat the acreages desired efficiently and economically, often at no cost to the refuge while creating a small financial gain for the American people.” The refuge staff lacks the personnel and equipment needed to cut the acreage prescribed for removal on its own, according to the plan.
Logging planned for the interior portions of the refuge’s 6,531 acres of northern hardwood forest is designed to mimic natural disturbances, allowing plants and young trees now living under the forest canopy to mature and multiply, and creating forest edge habitat benefiting birds and wildlife. Much of that logging would involve a series of half-acre cuts to be repeated in 15 to 20 year cycles, according to the habitat management plan.
Cutting to create a perimeter of early successional forest — young trees, shrubs and brush — along the edges of northern hardwood forest stands could involve selective commercial cutting in addition to a series of 5- to 10-acre clear-cuts, according to the plan.
The creation of early succession forest by commercial timbering creates added nesting habitat for birds regarded species of concern at the refuge, including the American woodcock, eastern towhee and brown thrasher. Logging to create early successional forest also makes possible new staging and feeding areas for numerous species of migrating songbirds.
The Friends of Blackwater, the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife all noted in their comments about the plan that commercial timbering was not addressed as a future use of the refuge when its most recent Comprehensive Conservation Plan for CVNWR was completed in 2011.
Therefore, they argue, the plan to log 10 to 20 percent of the refuge’s acreage should first be reviewed under the National Environmental Protection Act, as other plans were reviewed in the 2011 document, and include a new public comment period, before prescribed commercial timbering is allowed to proceed.
The first cut is tentatively scheduled to take place this winter at the base of a northern hardwood stand on Middle Ridge, at the northern end of the refuge off A-Frame Road. Mid-Valley Trail would be used as a temporary haul road, and be closed to public use during the timbering.
In addition to bringing commercial logging to the refuge, the habitat plan calls for gradually increasing the refuge’s stand of northern hardwood forest from its current size of 6,531 acres to 7,400 acres by reclaiming and planting trees on old logging roads and purchasing adjacent private forest stands as they become available.
The plan also calls for keeping the northern hardwood forest at least 80 percent canopy-covered, managing a tract of northern hardwood forest to create a stand of trees at least 90 years old, and using tree planting to connect isolated stands of red spruce to larger spruce stands.
It was not stated in the compatibility report or the habitat management plan whether the areas considered for logging have been surveyed for the presence of federally protected Indiana bats or long-eared bats, the Friends of Blackwater and the Sierra Club point out in their comments.
According to the refuge’s Power Point presentation on the compatibility determination, once public comments have been made, the refuge staff will respond to all of them. Once the replies to the comments have been completed, “We will begin implementing forest management.”
Similar compatibility determination meetings and public comment periods to assess the benefit of commercial logging in national wildlife refuges were held earlier this year by Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland and Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana.
Note: This story originally appeared in The Charleston Gazette.