The Value of Seemingly Vile Activities

Slice of an approx. 730 year old Douglas Fir measuring 8ft. 2in. in diameter

Logging is a sensitive word depending on your audience much as the words “hunting” and “development” can be. Many people object to the removal of trees out of principle and it’s not surprising considering many of the documented negative effects of logging. The loss of old growth forests has led to the decline of the Spotted Owl, loss of biodiversity due to market preference for certain tree species, soil degradation and erosion from clear cutting, an increase in emerging infectious disease due to increase wildlife contact, and overall forest structure changes which have ripple effects throughout the ecosystem are just a few examples. Simply stopping logging can also be problematic however.

Virginia and West Virginia were widely logged throughout the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s. The invention of the band saw made sawmills a thriving industry. The silviculture method at the time was clear cutting and that combined with the efficiency of saw mills meant the depletion of hundreds of thousands of acres of forest. During the 1920’s, conservation measures were implemented to preserve the remaining sections of virgin forest. Those protected areas represent the magnificence of the original wild forests. But what about all those areas which had been logged? Massive expanses of land which were once colonized by varying tree species of different ages underwent a singular extermination event, the complete removal of every tree. Naturally, they began growing back in a process called ecological succession. Primary successors, or early colonizers, came and went over the years making way for secondary successors, those that are slower to colonize but are longer lived. Many of these regrown areas have been untouched since we’ve improved the logging process substantially (selective thinning as opposed to clear cutting) and concentrated on certain areas of managed forest leaving others protected.

Now much of our forests across Virginia and West Virginia which were cut all at once are home to trees of uniform age. At first glance, the regrowth of all these trees seems like a great success and in many ways it is. However, it is unnatural for a forest to be composed of trees of the same age. Ecological succession is a natural process, but the scale of tree removal which occurred during those intense logging years was unnatural. Typically, complete tree removal would only happen in relatively small patches of forest after a landslide or fire and the impact on wildlife would be diluted by the surrounding forest. What we’re learning now is that the logging done all those years ago has had a lasting effect despite tree regrowth. Different wildlife species use trees at different stages of growth. Some animals need saplings, some need old growth trees, and trees of varying species are important too. Further, the understory vegetation is affected by the type and age of trees in the forest as well as their susceptibility to disease. Diseases and insects typically prey on a particular species of tree or on trees at a particular stage of growth. If either strikes a forest of one tree type or one age group, it could be disastrous. So although we have restored trees in our region, these forests are not suitable as well-rounded wildlife habitat and they are at greater risk than a naturally diverse forest.

What we need is to manage our forests with the intention of restoring the natural diversity of tree species and ages. This is where selective, cautious logging efforts can be extremely beneficial as well as generate substantial economic value for the state. Selective cutting, or thinning, of some stands of uniform-aged trees which have been untouched since the early 1900’s will yield high-quality, valuable board wood. This practice will also generate regrowth of primary successors and understory which provide a more diverse habitat for wildlife. Although many of us, myself included, fear or loath the idea of logging, our blanket opposition to the practice is misguided. There is significant value in this sometimes-seen-as-vile act of logging. Rather than reject the practice entirely, what we should reject is mismanaged logging and demand more comprehensive plans for forest diversity.

Comprehensive management plans are needed for all forests which aim to balance economic benefit as well as diverse wildlife habitat. Doing what’s best for people and doing what’s best for the land are not mutually exclusive. If we can learn to mimic the natural process of ecological succession and diversity, both humans and nature win. Wood is a natural, and primary, resource for human development and it is illogical to believe that we can exist without harvesting from our environment. Even if we wish to reduce our dependency on this resource, the process of shifting to an alternative is gradual.

To achieve a harmonious existence, a cooperative between humans and our environment, we cannot expect to revert to pre-industrial practices we must innovate new methods using our wealth of knowledge and technology. New software which can unite existing forest data, wildlife data, lumber market data, and GIS capabilities could be used to plan management actions to achieve these desired environmental and economic outcomes.

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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.


  1. Laurel Sindewald says:

    Hats off for the oddly satisfying title
    “The Value of Seemingly Vile Activities.” It simply tickles the palate and
    the post as a whole does justice to one of of the more prominent tensions between
    conservation and management.

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