John Coleman, who runs a farm part-time near the proposed clear-cutting in the Monongahela National Forest, spoke to protestors about the environmental risks the project carries. Photo by Alexa Beyer.

ELKINS — On a crisp fall afternoon, a small crowd gathered in front of the U.S, Forest Service office near downtown Elkins. Bundled up against the chill, they held homemade signs: “Planet over profits,” “Mountaineers for trees,” “Let’s keep the old growth alive.”

They were there to protest a plan by the U.S. Forest Service to timber nearly 3,500 acres of the nearby Monongahela National Forest — and were concerned about erosion and flooding, not to mention what a long-term mistake it could be to raze large blocks of trees that store our carbon emissions.

“This madness has to stop!” said Judy Rodd, executive director of local environmental advocacy organization Friends of the Blackwater. 

The U.S. Forest Service has proposed to clear-cut and burn a number of areas of the Monongahela National Forest near the Upper Cheat River — 3,463 acres of trees in all. The Forest Service says that it seeks to make the forest more resilient by growing more trees that are younger in age, and enhancing wildlife habitat by creating openings in the forest. 

But those gathered in Randolph County are worried it represents a return to what West Virginia looked like one hundred years ago when the timber industry cut down a large number of the state’s trees. 

For some of them, the Forest Service’s plans seem to mark a return to that time.

Not just cutting but clear-cutting

The Monongahela National Forest covers 919,000 acres, stretching over much of West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands. Today, the Monongahela, or “the Mon”, as many affectionately call it, is one of the prized jewels of West Virginia. From the sweeping boulders and shrubs of Dolly Sods to the tree-brimming mountains at Seneca Rocks, West Virginians turn to the Monongahela for respite and adventure.

But it wasn’t always that way. The national forest was established in part to establish a natural sanctuary in the face of the desolating logging practices that removed approximately 30 billion board feet of timber from West Virginia between 1880 and 1920. Back then, so many trees had been timbered and then burned from resulting fires that vast swaths of the state looked barren, with a few tree trunks standing like charred nubs against an endless horizon.

The landscape even attracted newspaper commentary. “Only a sixth of America’s original virgin forests now remain,” wrote The Fairmont West Virginian in 1921. “Trees cannot be grown overnight. Must we experience famine before we begin conserving?”

But even after the forest was established, at times the practice of clear-cutting — when all or almost all of the trees within an area of forest are cut down — continued. West Virginians filed lawsuits, and ultimately the fight for the Mon changed federal policy: it led to Congress requiring national forests to develop forest management plans every fifteen years that were to be vetted by the public. 

The result was a drastic drop in clear-cutting. Between 1986 and 2003, only 543 acres of the Mon were clear-cut, and a 2006 environmental impact statement of the forest’s plan said clear-cutting “rarely if ever occurs in the forest anymore.”

That’s why some who use the Monongahela for hiking, hunting, and fishing are concerned by the shift they’ve seen recently. This year, the forest has introduced two separate plans to clear-cut a total of more than 5,000 acres of trees: the Upper Cheat proposal and an 1,800-acre project in Pocahontas County. 

“In the recent years all they’re doing now is clear-cutting,” said John Coleman, who organized his concerned neighbors into the Horseshoe Community Group to fight the project and showed up to the rally in Elkins. He noted how the Forest Service’s recent timbering project at Hogback Mountain also clear-cut heavily.

“It’s a different approach to letting trees grow to maturity and reproduce more naturally,” Coleman said.

The rise in clear-cutting in the Monongahela echoes a pattern occurring in other regional forest services across the country. The Forest Service’s Northern Region, for instance — which oversees national forests in the Northern Rockies — approved an average of 7,900 acres of clear-cutting between 2013 and 2017. Between 2018 and 2020, that number was 17,700. Of the 87 clear-cutting requests it received, it approved 79 of them.

According to Kelly Bridges, spokesperson for the Monongahela National Forest, the Forest Service’s plans for the Upper Cheat timbering project come from a 2006 Forest Plan and an accompanying environmental impact statement. The Forest Service updated the plan in 2011 to increase the number of contiguous acres they could clear-cut from 25 to 40. An additional document filed in 2020 lists the Upper Cheat project as the Forest Service’s top priority. 

For the Upper Cheat project specifically, the Forest Service did an environmental assessment: a less onerous undertaking than an environmental impact statement, which are also used by government agencies to determine whether they should or shouldn’t undertake a project due to its impacts but don’t require that every potential impact be studied. 

Advocates are particularly concerned that the clear-cutting will endanger the brook trout, which depend on cool waters for survival and would likely be affected by the Forest Service’s plans to remove tree cover. The Forest Service has dismissed these concerns in the environmental assessment, citing the brook trout’s already diminished population due to climate change. The assessment didn’t discuss whether the timbering could make the problem worse. 

The benefits to cutting trees

Cutting down trees isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some timber experts prescribe selective tree cutting to make sure the forest stays healthy. 

As trees grow, they compete more for space and light, and cutting one tree makes space for others to grow. It can also make a forest more resilient in the face of disease and natural disaster, improve habitat, and increase species diversity.

Mark Ashton, a forestry professor at Yale University, says in general, increasing diversity in a maturing forest is a good thing. He said in an email that doing so is “much like you would invest for your retirement into the future with a diverse and very different set of stock and assets.”

“By doing this you are creating a more resilient forest to unforeseen future impacts,” he said.

That’s what the Forest Service says they’re trying to do now in the Mon. Because of the tremendous number of trees that were razed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, too many in the Monongahela are now the same age, as well as being relatively old. Some experts consider both of these things to be a problem. Bridges said including younger trees is necessary to create a wider diversity of tree ages within the forest.

“In this situation, specific to proposed timber treatments, the forest believes our proposals not only meets the intent of our Forest Plan but more specially provides for the long-term sustainability of a healthy forest ecosystem,” Bridges said.

But not everyone agrees that replacing older trees with younger ones is the key to good forest management. Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia and author of a prize-winning book about the interconnectedness of trees says that there is lots of biodiversity that older trees support that younger trees do not. Because of this, the idea that a forest service can restore the forest after cutting down a large number of older trees is somewhat false. 

“You’re going to get a whole different suite of plants. And animals that go with that. And it’s going to take a long, long time for it to recover,” she said.

And besides biodiversity, local residents are concerned about a number of other potential effects from the Forest Service’s plan. There’s the effect on climate change, because mature trees also store significantly more carbon than younger trees do. 

Others are concerned about erosion. Many of the trees the Forest Service plans to cut down in the Upper Cheat are on steep hills — so steep, 1,900 acres have to be clear-cut using a helicopter. Another 580 acres will be timbered via a rarely-used method called cable wiring, again because the area is too steep for traditional clear-cutting. 

The steepness increases the possibility of erosion, as well as the chance mud will slide down into the nearby rivers and streams, potentially endangering fish and salamanders.

The Forest Service said in its environmental assessment that it has plans to buffer erosion through creating skid trails and recontouring the disturbed land.

Without trees and their roots to hold back and soak up some of the water, flooding is a higher risk for residents who live near the proposed clear-cuts too — something that they have already been suffering from in recent years.

“If anyone cuts any more around us we will be washed away,” Kathy Lipscomb Helmick said, who lives across from the river Horseshoe Run within the national forest.

Forest or the trees?

Back at the Forest Service’s Elkins office, two distinct groups had formed. On one side, environmental activists waved signs and urged conservation. On the other, about thirty loggers, contractors and industry supporters gathered to show their support for the project and the benefits to the wood products industry it will bring.

West Virginia Forestry Association Executive Director Eric Carlson crossed the Forest Service patio towards the environmental protesters and suggested they reconsider their stance.  

“If you’re against the harvesting and managing of this forest, you must be against the schools and the children,” he said, noting that 25% of the money generated from Forest Service land goes towards schools and roads in the counties where the national forest sits.

“That’s a false dichotomy,” someone from the crowd interjected.

The U.S. Forest Service sells the trees it cuts down. In the past year, it has made nearly $2.4 million from timber sales in the Monongahela alone, though the Forest Service will lose about $1.4 million on the Upper Cheat project, largely because of the high cost of helicopter logging. 

Standing with his industry peers in front of the office entryway, Allegheny Wood Products forester Grant Harsh said he trusts the Forest Service and its expertise more than that of the advocates. 

“If you were a teacher, I wouldn’t come in and tell you how to run your classroom,” he said.

The project doesn’t have a set start date yet; it will be completed in approximately the next ten years. But the environmental groups say the fight isn’t over yet. Rodd said her group plans to meet with forest officials this month to try to find a compromise. If the Forest Service carries out the project as planned, Friends of the Blackwater is considering a lawsuit.

Alexa Beyer is the Environment and Energy reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.