Down in the far southwestern toe of Virginia, the forested mountains are rugged and wild...and endangered by rapacious exploitation by extractive industries. And these days, down in Scott and Wise counties, the High Knob area of the Clinch Ranger District of the Jefferson National Forest is on the chopping block.
The Clinch District, with its amazing diversity of plants and wildlife, streams and scenic waterfalls, hiking trails, and old-growth forests, is one of the Jefferson’s best-kept secrets, and High Knob is one of the loveliest areas of the Clinch. Oddly enough, however, during the past 10 years, 80 percent of the logging in the Clinch District has occurred in the High Knob area.
In 1997, the U.S. Forest Service proposed timber sales on 1,413 acres between Bark Camp Lake and High Knob. The sale, which would have involved building or rebuilding eight miles of logging roads, would have directly affected 27 percent of the national forest land in this area, which, over the past 20 years, has been subjected to more logging than any other area in the Clinch District or the Jefferson National Forest as a whole.
In response to this threat, in 1998, local residents formed the Clinch Coalition, which now represents more than 1,600 citizens of Wise, Scott, and Dickenson counties. During a series of five public hearings, the coalition presented a petition that stated, “We ask that you either cut no timber at all, or prepare a plan that fully protects the ecological integrity and diversity of the area.”
At each of five Forest Service public hearings on the High Knob timbering proposals, most of the citizens present supported the Clinch Coalition petition.
In May 2000, The Wilderness Society included the 57,000-acre High Knob area in its list of 15 wildlands throughout Alaska and the contiguous states that deserve special protection from logging, off-road vehicles, new roads, mining, gas and oil drilling, and other development. The report says that the High Knob area is endangered by increased clearcutting and other high-impact logging practices that destroy scenic beauty, biological diversity, recreation, and the health of streams and rivers. It says that if the Forest Service doesn’t change its current policies and practices, the High Knob area “will be gone or greatly diminished.”
In March 2000, the Forest Service revised the 1997 plan, reducing the number of acres by half — 700 acres, spread out across a project area of 5,200 acres in the High Knob and Bark Camp Lake area. However, from those 700 acres, the timber extracted would be 74 percent of the amount specified in the original plan. Though less land would be directly affected in the revised sale, the impact on the affected land would be much more severe.
The logged areas would be visible from the High Knob and Bark Camp Lake recreation areas. To call attention to what would be lost, the Clinch Coalition has held a series of hikes, focusing on wildflowers, birds, wetlands, and aquatic life.
This year, on May 6, as part of their continuing effort to convince the Forest Service to spare High Knob, the coalition held a rally at Bark Camp Lake, featuring wildflower and bird hikes around the lake, a potluck picnic, and speakers.
Since the wildflower and bird hikes were held simultaneously, I couldn’t do both. Choosing the wildflower option, I set out with a group led by Rex Baird, a retired biology professor who taught local flora at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
The clearing at the lake’s edge was fringed with autumn olive, an imported shrub with honey-scented blooms, covered with butterflies. Battalions of violets — purple, white, yellow — paraded through the grass.
Along the forested trail, were fiddlehead ferns, the furled new growth so prized by gourmets; yellow-flowered halberd-leaved violet, named for leaves shaped like a 16th century weapon; and wild ginger, with its drab maroon and green flower hidden under its leaves.
We also saw great trillium, painted trillium, the uncommon whorled pogonia, with its small, green blossom, and yellow cinquefoil, named for its five petals and leaflets. Further down the trail, we found pink wild geraniums, ragwort, bellwort, white vetch, foam flower, and wood anemones, among many others. Not to mention ground-hugging leaves of trailing arbutus, wintergreen and tea berry.
Back at the picnic area, I caught up with the leader of the bird hike and asked what species had been spotted. Phil Shelton, retired professor of biology, geology, and environmental science at UVA’s College at Wise pulled out his list, and read off a kaleidoscope of birds:
Goldfinch, phoebe, scarlet tanager, red-eyed vireo, ruby-throated hummingbird, indigo bunting, American redstart, robin, towhee, catbird, Carolina chickadee, pileated woodpecker, ovenbird, blue-gray gnatcatcher, rose-breasted grosbeak, tufted titmouse, red-winged blackbird, wood thrush, white-breasted nuthatch, solitary vireo. Plus a variety of warblers: Blackburnian, hooded, black and white, black-throated blue, northern parula, magnolia, Canada, and the rare cerulean.
After the picnic, the crowd gathered to hear the speakers praise the High Knob area and deplore the Forest Service’s timbering proposal. Rob Messick, of the Western North Carolina Alliance, published a survey of old-growth forests in North Carolina last year.
To the group gathered at Bark Camp Lake, he said that, while 90 percent of the known old growth in the Forest Service’s northeast region is protected as either wilderness or research natural areas, only 14 percent of the known old growth here in the southeast region is protected. He urged the members of the Clinch Coalition to survey the High Knob area for old growth as a tactic for winning its protection.
Susan Curry, of Shenandoah Ecosystem Defense Group, said that organization is among those supporting the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, which would end commercial timbering on public lands. She said this would end taxpayer subsidy of the timber industry. In 1997, for example, the Forest Service lost $1.2 billion on timber sales — and that money could be spent on restoring our damaged forests, providing jobs.
Dave Muhly, of Virginia Forest Watch and Sierra Club, said the issue of whether to sell timber on national forests is not “jobs versus the environment.” He cited the Pacific Northwest, where, after the timber industry shut down, the economy was diversified, and employment and per capita income actually rose.
Jerry Gray, a founding member of the Dickenson County group, Wild Animals, Rivers and Trees, reminded everyone present to urge their federal representatives to influence the Forest Service to spare the High Knob-Bark Camp area.
On May 23, the Forest Service’s Clinch Ranger District announced that the Bark Camp Lake timber sale will proceed, despite the overwhelming opposition of local residents to the sale. The Clinch Coalition is appealing that decision. To help with the appeal, contact Detta Davis of the Coalition at 540/395-2051.