Thoughts From Our President: July 2024

By Marilyn Shoenfeld

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has had a busy month—writing and submitting comments on issues of environmental significance, working with our partners, planning the Mountain Odyssey Outings Program, going on mine inspections, and much more. All this while trying to enjoy the beautiful spring and early summer weather with warm days, sunny skies, and cool nights. I’ve heard that the blueberries on Dolly Sods are almost ripe!

This month, I’d like us to take a look at one of the issues that WVHC is championing—preventing logging of old-growth trees on our public lands. We all realize the value of our old-growth forests, and there is a growing body of research highlighting the considerable role our old-growth forests play in carbon sequestration and climate mitigation, habitat preservation, supplying clean air and water, and maintaining ecosystem stability and resiliency. Older forests are also more resilient to wildfire.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, many acres of forestland that now comprise the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia were timbered, leaving little of the virgin old-growth forest behind. In areas where old-growth remains, it is limited to small, scattered patches within a larger mix of primarily 70—to 90-year-old forests. This unfortunate reality makes it ever more important that mature forests are protected throughout the Monongahela National Forest so that more forests can become old-growth. 

On Earth Day 2022, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities and Local Economies. This Executive Order directed federal agencies to conduct an inventory of mature and old-growth forests and develop strategies to protect them. This announcement made WVHC and many environmentalists hopeful that more would be done to protect and recruit old-growth forests. The initial inventory was released in April 2023. It included an inventory of such forests, funding for projects that maximize the retention of old trees, and much more. In December 2024, the White House issued a Fact Sheet outlining the steps to be taken to protect old-growth in National Forests across the country.

An important component of this plan is the development of a Land Management Plan Direction for Old-Growth Forest Conditions Across the National Forest System by the US Forest Service to achieve these goals. This plan’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) was recently released on June 20, 2024. There is a public comment period following the publication of the DEIS, which closes on September 20. 

On its surface, it does not appear that the alternatives outlined in the DEIS have any real teeth to enforce the level of protection for mature and old-growth forests we and many others were hopeful for. Instead, there are loopholes that still allow for commercial logging in old-growth forests so long as it is done in the name of wildfire management, forest health, or public safety. In our scoping comments, WVHC warned against the use of this language to justify targeting mature and old-growth forests. We are watching this play out in various timber projects in the Monongahela National Forest, such as the Upper Cheat River project, where the oldest trees in the stands are being targeted for harvest.

I would like to bring your attention to John McFerrin’s book review of Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Climate by Chad Hanson, published in the October 2023 issue of The Highlands Voice. The book challenges conventional wisdom on forest management and the general idea that thinning contributes to forest health and makes wildfires less intense. The author relies on his own research and studies from the field, which are noted in the book.

We must urge the Forest Service to take concrete action to recover the old growth that has been lost in the Monongahela National Forest—and in National Forests across the nation—and protect what remains. 

WVHC will examine the Draft Environmental Impact Statement closely and issue an action alert to our members in the coming weeks to join us in commenting. Be sure you are signed up for our emails to be notified of the alert. See you next month!