By Doug Wood
Senate Bill 270 and House Bill 4182, introduced by Governor Justice at the urging of Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, Division of Forestry Director Barry Cook, and Dept. of Natural Resources Director Stephen McDaniel will allow logging in our state parks. This will cause damage to numerous bird, plant, and amphibian species, our growing tourism industry, and our state’s image on the national scene.
The WV state parks system began in the 1920s, largely due to public outcry after the state suffered an unregulated timbering nightmare in the decades around the turn into the 20th century. The park system’s mission statement, embodied in state law, has been the guiding principal for operating the West Virginia State Park system since its inception. To “promote conservation by preserving and protecting natural areas of unique or exceptional scenic, scientific, cultural, archaeological, or historical significance and to provide outdoor recreational opportunities for the citizens of this state and its visitors.”
While all of these values are important, I want to concentrate on what would be lost to science were logging allowed in state parks.
Our state parks do indeed have exceptional scientific significance, providing unique outdoor platforms for an impressive array of research subjects. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the United States Forest Service, many environmental consulting firms, numerous colleges, and universities regularly conduct research in the late-successional (mature and old-growth) forests of our state parks. Such research is important to informing balanced regulation and hence, good governance. Research projects that I was involved in during my 33-year employment with the WVDNR and WVDEP included:
- reference stream studies for establishing water quality benchmark comparison tools,
- long-term monitoring to determine the effects of climate change and landscape changes over time,
- developing stream restoration methods and technologies,
- creating best environmental management practices for a variety of industries,
- testing fishery improvement techniques, and
- performing comparative time-of-travel studies to determine the relative assimilation of contaminants in streams over time and distance in different watersheds with varying landscape features.
All of these research efforts required mature forested watersheds serving as benchmarks for comparison, and all use such forests in WV state parks.
Other studies that I am aware of and that our state park mature forests have been crucial to include:
- deer browse impact studies to help improve deer population control via hunting regulations,
- development of protection and enhancement plans for threatened and endangered species impacted by a variety of regulated industries,
- development of guidelines for habitat improvement practices for a variety of bird, reptile, amphibian, and mammal species,
- comparative vegetation studies, biomass studies, nutrient-cycling studies, soil-development studies, chemical breakdown studies, etc. for training high school and college students in empirical scientific research techniques,
- development of economic cost/benefit calculation tools for evaluating ecological services provided by a wide variety of landscapes, and
- plant and animal population, biomass, and behavior research.
There are two main reasons that many researchers select state parks for study: (1) they often have ecosystem benchmark or reference conditions for comparison with more disturbed areas and (2) they are protected by statute in perpetuity from many human disturbances. For instance, reference conditions for streams often include relatively low Total Dissolved Solids (TDS are made up mostly of metal salts from mineral dissolution processes), high oxygen concentration, only rare extreme temperature swings (daily and seasonal), plenty of niche space for benthic macroinvertebrates and vertebrates (salamanders in very small streams and fish in larger streams), great diversity in water velocity and depth, high biological diversity, large quantities of large woody debris (LWD), coarse particulate matter (CPOM-roots, sticks, leaves), plenty of fine particulate matter (FPOM-breakdown of CPOM, including aquatic organism doo-doo), and extensive forest canopy, all of which are characteristic of forested streams in several of our state parks. If we want to learn what effect human activity, whether it be mining, development, or anything else, we have to have some place to see what things are like in undisturbed areas. These are in state parks.
Another reason for doing research in state parks is that they are found in 10 of the 12 Level IV ecoregions (L4E) of the state, providing a broad array of biological community types and climatic conditions (Woods et al. 1999). The salamander aggregations are different between the northern panhandle’s Tomlinson Run State Park (Pittsburgh Low Plateau L4E), the southern coal field’s Twin Falls (Dissected Appalachian Plateau L4E), the highland’s Blackwater Falls (Forested Hills and Mountain L4E), and the eastern panhandle’s Cacapon (Northern Sandstone Ridges L4E). Bird aggregations, dominant trees, and soils are different between those parks as well. And each of those parks’ have benchmark conditions against which the conditions of other places within the same ecoregions can be contrasted. Benchmark places allow us to understand the degree of damage done to other places by human disturbances.
As a good example of how state park forests contribute to research needs, consider the following. The WV Dept. of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) monitors the condition of stream health statewide. To do this, the agency must keep track of stream sites that have reference conditions, that is, the best of the best. These reference sites are located in mature-forested watersheds with few human disturbances. Twelve of the WVDEP’s reference sites are located on nine state parks and four of those sites are long-term monitoring sites, which makes their protection even more necessary to our understanding of water quality changes over time throughout the Mountain State and the Appalachian Mountains region.
Director McDaniel of the WV Dept. of Natural Resources (WVDNR) has revealed at least six of the state parks he intends to have logged: Watoga, Cacapon, Lost River, Holly River, Twin Falls, and Cedar Creek. All but Lost River host at least one of the WVDEP’s reference sites and represent benchmark conditions in five Level IV ecoregions (Woods et al. 1999). Logging within these reference-site watersheds may degrade the sites from their extremely important benchmark status, and compromise the long-term water quality studies of that agency.
Other agencies, like the WV Dept. of Highways, the US EPA, and the US Army Corps of Engineers, use the data from these reference sites and others that they monitor on state parks to help steer their environmental programs. Many environmental consultants who provide services to engineering, manufacturing, mineral extraction, and other firms depend upon the data from these reference sites and other reference sites that they have established on the parks (oftentimes unbeknownst to park superintendents). Universities and colleges, both in-state and out-of-state, also depend upon reference sites, streams and watersheds in WV state parks for their research. Consequently, state park reference sites located in mature-forested watersheds support many jobs across a wide spectrum of position types, from college-intern field-grunts to high-level state, federal, and private-sector program administrators. It is precisely the statutory-established, long-term protected condition of the forests on these state park streams that assures the researchers that the reference conditions will remain relatively stable and free of short-term changes.
The WVDNR is responsible for monitoring bat populations statewide in cooperative partnership with one of its funding sources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They perform a few types of long-term assessment techniques, including mobile acoustic surveys using bat sonar detectors. Some state parks serve as parts of survey routes. Detections of threatened or endangered species require consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding appropriate habitat management to prevent accidental or deliberate killing of the endangered and threatened species. The statutory-protected mature forests within the state parks are perfect for establishing long-term, benchmark sonar survey sites. Bat researchers recommend not disturbing older, more mature forest stands, which produce more large (thus longer-standing) roosting snags and loose-bark living trees than do early-successional forests. Many bats concentrate their feeding activities in small canopy gaps in such mature forests and along stream corridors overtopped by large canopy trees (Taylor 2006:5-7).
The mature forests in our WV state parks serve as excellent benchmark herpetological sites, especially for terrestrial and aquatic salamanders. The collections of Marshall University, Ohio State University, Carnegie Museum of Natural History and many other research institutions have benefitted from regulated (and unregulated in the past) scientific collection and study of amphibians and reptiles on our state parks.
Many of the parks’ forest soils have been protected for eight or nine decades from the compaction, drying, and eroding damages caused by logging equipment, and detrimental to our state’s diverse array of salamander species. Federally-designated wilderness areas in the national forests of our eastern mountain counties, also provide long-term protection of forest soils, but there are no such wilderness areas in our western counties, so our state parks serve a similar ecological role in the Allegheny Plateau and Cumberland Mountains Level III Ecoregions. In these ecoregions, mature forests rich in salamander diversity are found scattered north and south between Hancock County and Mercer County, providing a broad latitudinal distribution of well-protected herpetological study sites, unlike any other publicly-managed system. Logging these gems will likely reduce salamander populations by physical and chemical damage to terrestrial and aquatic habitats, and by microhabitat fragmentation.
When the most recent WV Breeding Bird Atlas field work was conducted during 2011-2015, research blocks of land were added to the priority list of bocks to ensure that nearly entire state park boundaries were inventoried during the breeding seasons of most bird species. The results of that research found that most state parks harbor several species of forest-interior-nesting birds that prefer mature forest habitats and that are rapidly declining range wide and statewide as such late-successional habitats are being converted to early-successional vegetation or becoming fragmented by human disturbances such as mountain-top mining, gas-shale fracturing, and residential area expansion. E-bird is an internet-driven citizen-science effort that is widely acclaimed. Almost all of WV’s state parks are listed as birding hot spots on the webpage: http://ebird.org/ebird/hotspots . Use the following webpage to see how often mature-forest-breeding bird species are observed at the state parks, which highlights the importance of our parks to these birds and to the economic phenomenon known as eco-tourism: http://ebird.org/ebird/map/ .
Rare plants and rare plant communities have been inventoried on state parks in past decades, some of which are still occasionally monitored. In fact, the high conservation value and protected nature of these parks has supported just about every type of biological inventory (those previously mentioned plus snails, lichens, insects, etc.), with the notable exception of timber inventory. There was never any reason for a timber inventory of such high-conservation-value lands. The state recognized that forests containing species-rich declining habitat types—mature forests with dominant canopy trees approaching or surpassing 100 years of age—were too valuable to ever cut. SB-270 and HB-4182 will alter the 80+ year, let-it-grow-naturally, hands-off management of our state’s forest gems.
The ornithological collaborative Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture (AMJV) listed 25 land bird species as high or highest priority for immediate conservation attention because of declining populations (http://amjv.org/documents/Priority_Landbird_Species.pdf ). Of those 25, nine belong to the forest-interior-nesting guild, also known as the mature-forest-habitat guild, and eight of those nine regularly breed in West Virginia. One that breeds occasionally in very small numbers in the highest mountain region of the state is the Northern Goshawk It requires mature coniferous or mixed coniferous-deciduous forests. Of the eight regular breeders in WV, six are considered Species in Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) by the WV Dept. of Natural Resources (WVDNR), one of the agencies proposing to cut logs from the mature forests in our state parks. Of the birds surveyed, seven of those found in mature forests in West Virginia (Cerulean Warble. Kentucky Warbler, Wood Thrush, Worm Eating Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, Scarlet Tanager, and Black and White Warbler) were in decline, some precipitously. For several species, West Virginia’s mature forests were home to the highest concentrations of that species in its range. Should our parks be opened to logging resulting from the loosely-worded bills now making their way through the WV legislature, these species will be further imperiled.
Director McDaniel of the WV Dept. of Natural Resources (WVDNR) has revealed at least six of the state parks he intends to have logged: Watoga, Cacapon, Lost River, Holly River, Twin Falls, and Cedar Creek. All six parks hosted at least five of the seven rapidly-declining species of forest-interior-nesters listed.
All of these declines were largely due to forest fragmentation and conversions of acreage in old-growth and mature forests to early-successional habitats at surface mines and commercially-logged areas, residential areas, and industrial/business expansion in WV. These facts call for stricter protections on this species’ preferred habitat of mature forests, not for relaxing the protections these birds already have in WV’s state parks.