VA’s Old Growth Falls Under Forest Service Axe

While many National Forests in the Southeast are enjoying some reprieve from logging after successful forest-protection lawsuits, Virginia’s George Washington and Jefferson continue to be pummeled with increasing numbers of timber sale proposals.

Old Dominion conservationists are particularly concerned at a growing trend among Forest Service timber sales targeting older-aged trees. They say many of these sales are being justified on the trumped-up need to “salvage” injured trees, to “restore forest health” by cutting older trees that are in “decline,” or to perpetuate commercial tree species or common game animals at the expense of overall ecosystem health.

A serious hurdle faced by forest-protection advocates in Virginia is the state’s position in the federal court system. Unlike most of the Southeast, Virginia is part of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, headquartered in Richmond. In response to citizen lawsuits, Virginia judges have consistently ruled that the Forest Service’s agency discretion overrules illegalities, deceptions, and inadequacies in Forest Service timber sale decisions.

Knowing this, Supervisor Bill Damon and the District Rangers of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests (GWJNFs) are taking advantage of the opportunity to “get the cut out”, conservationists say, and log the trees off our public lands.

A particularly troubling recent example is the Hoover Creek timber sale, proposed for Little Mountain in Allegheny County, James River Ranger District. This is the largest sale of eastern old growth in Virginia since the Hematite sale of 1997, on the very same district.

Little Mountain supports a ridgeline complex of old-growth Dry-Mesic Oak Forest that could exceed 100 acres. The slopes in these areas are rocky and steep, likely providing protection for the trees during the last deforestation of these mountains a century ago. The crowns are huge and spreading, the trees widely spaced, the trunks massively satisfying to embrace.

Some areas of old growth display more mesophytic species composition. In fact, cove forests make up only 2% of the stands in this project area, and the Forest Service is proposing to cut them all to the ground. The old growth here provides habitat suitable for rare species such as the Coal Skink and Cerulean Warbler. However, as is the norm, proper surveys, inventories, and monitoring of these species and others have not been performed by the agency.

After visiting Little Mountain, Biologist Aubrey Neas recommended that a moratorium be placed on Forest Service logging of old growth. Although the agency has a “Guidance for Conserving and Restoring Old-growth Forest Communities on National Forests in the Southern Region”, these policies are not being followed by the GWJNFs.

For example, the Forest Service ecologists have chosen not to classify the ridgeline Dry-Mesic Oak and Mixed Mesophytic Forest on Little Mountain as old growth. Their reason? Sporadic signs of human disturbance, including the remains of an old logging road and several stumps. Not mentioned however, is that these signs of disturbance are at the very edge of the old forest stands, on the lower slopes, outside the old-growth complex.

Unfortunately, a Fourth Circuit judge would be unlikely to be swayed by this argument – the Forest Service’s ‘agency discretion’ includes the power of defining old-growth, even without valid ecological reason. Yet it is clear that if the sites at Little Mountain are not old growth, then the term has no meaning in Virginia.
Likewise the GWJNFs have failed thus far to follow through on another Guidance charge: to design a network of old-growth areas, including identifying “small-sized areas to improve the distribution of a particular forest community type and to provide a ‘stepping stone’ effect between large-sized and medium-sized patches.” This identification of old-growth areas is supposed to occur at both the forest plan level and at the site-specific level of analysis. The failure to accomplish this is not unique to this sale; its absence is systematic across the Forests.

In addition to the ridgeline complex on Little Mountain, many more recent Forest Service timber sale proposals plan to log old-growth ‘stepping stones’ on the GWJNFs. Several acres of 125+ year old trees are slated to be logged in the proposed Cedar Bridge timber sale on the Glenwood/Pedlar Ranger District. Botanist Greg Lipscomb describes the forest as “an ideal area to be incorporated into old-growth forest management plans for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.”

The Fishy Road timber sale on the New Castle Ranger District will destroy a grove of old-growth forest, removing 140+ year old trees to build a new road. Several good-sized pockets of old-growth oak will be logged in the Cove Mountain timber sale on the Lee RD. The Sugar Tree sale on the Deerfield District, Bark Camp sale on the Clinch, Putt and McJennings sales on the Glenwood/Pedlar, Canbe sale on the Dry River – the timber sales keep adding up, removing more and more of the oldest trees still alive in Virginia. And selling them to private timber corporations at taxpayer-subsidized discounts.

To comment on the Hoover Creek Timber Sale, write: District Ranger, James River RD, 313 S. Monroe Ave, Covington, VA 24426.


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