What’s a Forest For?

Part Two of a four-part series on Forests’ Future, published in Floyd Press starting March 30.

What goes missing when a clearcut takes everything away from our ridges, slopes or valleys?

Extensive and prolonged logging so close to home was not just a personal concern. It was a community matter, too. Taking away the forest cover over many acres of steep mountain land impacts drinking water–if not mine, then a neighbor’s. Our valley floor’s residential wells may draw some or much of their volume from the fractured rock under the adjacent deforested and herbicide-sprayed acreage.

Understandably, it disturbed me to learn about the many hundreds of gallons of herbicides that wafted widely in the prop-wash of a helicopter. We didn’t know of this until months later, and then only because I had asked. Do those chemicals really break down and leave no residue to persist in our groundwater? How can we know that for sure?

Any given logged acre is subject to a sudden and drastic biological disruption. This is especially true if it has been clearcut. The moisture and temperature of the soil surface, once shaded and blanketed with leaf litter, is altered profoundly.

Once a sponge for rainfall, the newly-bare and disturbed ground will not absorb or hold a heavy rainfall like humus does. A drenching storm instead will send water and topsoil across the surface into the nearest muddied tributary–in our case the Roanoke River.

I tried to imagine what was going out of this community with each log that passed our houses on the countless tandem-trailer loads of poplar and pine.  The total of what was exported included the hundreds of gallons of rainwater still in each horizontal poplar or pine saw log when it fell (equal to about 45% of its green weight). Also lost, the minerals extracted by the roots, now being carried away by the ton around the bend in each log’s fibers and fluids.

Calculate among the hidden costs of lost forests the oxygen that the leaves will no longer breathe out as the living tree had done over its forty or more summers growing in place. Especially consider the CO2 it kept bound for decades in its trunk and roots. Subtract from the ledger of former benefits the shade, the absent humus layer, the lost cooling and obliterated living conditions for a host of tree and ground-dwelling animals.

I thought especially about the fate of countless salamanders (some of you might call them spring lizards) who hold a special place in my biologist’s heart. If somehow spared from the machinery treads and log-felling, they are now bereft of shade and hiding places, trapped in place to perish by their short legs and their requirement for constant moisture if they are to move over land to intact forest homes.

Sad. These small and rarely-seen amphibians are essential in the food webs of many forest animals. Lost biodiversity is perhaps the most irreplaceable and tragic cost of hundreds of thousands of national acres of deforested landscape.

And so it makes me wonder: Is “the forest” an ecosystem of relationships that can provide both fiber and essential environmental services that regulate the water, the oxygen, the carbon dioxide and the mix of plant and animal variety it harbors?

Or will the forest of the future be merely a wooded abstraction, little more than another crop managed with high efficiency, with profit in mind and the invisible costs to all of us ignored? The choice is ours.

I was alarmed to think about the fate of the small shrubs and trees now missing from the naked ridge above us. Where had they gone? The stumps had even vanished! Was it possible that they were already being pulverized into wood pellets (forestry biomass) to reach cargo ships on their way to energy plants in Europe? Were US energy utilities like Dominion already turning forests into fuel? Honestly, answering these questions was my chief motive to explore the matter and write out my concerns here in the first place.

In the third part of this series, we will consider the potential consequences of pellets being exported from Floyd County’s and other southeast forests for domestic or foreign use. In part four, we’ll look at some of the options that might provide benefits and profit from standing or sustainably-harvested mixed woods that do not sacrifice the forest for the trees.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. You are telling it like it is, Fred. We need this information, since we seems to be passive about what is happening around us. I know it’s not very satisfying to just keep working away on these issues in isolation. But there ARE eyes and ears out here–and we are reading and listening!