Sweet Briar Debates Logging

This year, in addition to Julia Butterfly’s talk, the Sweet Briar College campus was the site of a meeting of the international 500-Year Forest Foundation, which advocates restoration of the world’s forests to their natural state of maturity. Paradoxically, the college is currently involved in an internal controversy over how to manage its own forests.

The endowment-funded college needs money, and an option under discussion is selling timber from some of the forests on the 3,300-acre campus.

David Orvos, associate professor of environmental science, says that the college’s forests had been managed by pulp-and-paper company Westvaco until 10 years ago. Some of the back areas that were clearcut are still desolate after 10 or more years, and one tract is now a tree farm. The tract now in question, last logged in the 1930s, is a maturing even-age forest.

Because the notion of logging in Sweet Briar’s forests is the subject of much discussion among the students, faculty, and administration, Orvos’ Environmental Risk Assessment class is conducting an environmental assessment. The six students are researching and evaluating the environmental impacts and economic potential of each of the three forest-management options: no logging, mechanized logging, and horse logging.

The no-logging option would allow the once- or twice-cutover forest to mature naturally — nice, environmentally and aesthetically speaking, but no immediate financial return.

The mechanized logging, as proposed by a consulting forester, would involve selective logging, taking a minimum of 40-45 percent of the trees for a quick profit. However, the best trees would be taken, roads would be scraped into the forest floor, heavy equipment would compact the soil and damage some of the trees left standing, and runoff from the disturbed soil could negatively effect water quality. The result of such mechanized logging would be a scarred, thinly forested tract.

In early April, Jason Rutledge of Healing Harvest Forest Foundation, presented the third option to Orvos and his class: restorative forestry and modern horse logging. The method described by Rutledge involves removal of less than 30 percent by single-tree “worst-first” selection.

Trees that are damaged or diseased, and therefore subject to decay, would be selected for cutting. The best trees would be left in an optimum environment that fosters straight, healthy, more rapid growth. Standing dead trees would be left to provide wildlife habitat, and the branches and leaves of felled trees would remain to enrich the soil.

The logs would be removed by teams of draft horses, with minimal disturbance of the forest floor — no roads would be built. This method would provide long-term financial income, while maintaining the ecological health and aesthetic appeal of the forest.

In mid-April, Orvos’ class will present their environmental assessment of the three options to Sweet Briar’s board of directors, in whose hands rests the fate of the forest.

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