It’s been a busy two weeks. In that time we have hosted three college groups on the mountain for varying amounts of time. Ian and I are the program directors, so the task of entertaining these groups largely falls on us. One activity is hiking. Because Big Laurel is located on a 400 acre land trust, we are surrounded by hardwood Appalachian forests. Ian and I like nothing better than scrambling through the underbrush, neurotic dog in tow, exploring the uneven terrain until the scrapes on our knees can no longer be ignored. It’s a pleasure to be able to simply walk out of our home and wander in the woods for hours, often without encountering a single home or well-defined trail. We’ve spent weekends walking the boundary lines, and now, six months in, feel that we have a good sense of where the land trust begins and ends.
Which makes it painfully obviously that unlike young Simba, we do not own all the property that the light touches. Not even close. In fact West Virginia tops the charts of absentee land ownership, and massive parcels of land are owned by out-of-state corporations that hold on to the land’s natural resources until market conditions become favorable for harvesting them. (wvpolicy.org) In previous centuries this almost always meant coal, but as mining profits have diminished harvesting trees has become more common. And so this winter a large tract of land that separates my home from our nearest land trust neighbors was selectively timbered. We were given no notice of the project until bulldozers groaned up our dirt road and the whir of chain saws cut through the winter solitude. For three months we put up with abysmal road conditions as oversize trucks weighed down with logs strained through the thick mud that the road had deteriorated into. Every walk with Wendell filled me with fear that a truck wouldn’t stop for him and he would be crushed under the wheels. Sr. Kathy became so distraught from the constant noise that she took an unplanned vacation off the mountain. When the project finished a few weeks ahead of schedule, we all breathed a collective sigh as we watched the earth movers drive away one last time.
The logging access point into the woods remained a blight on the land, but we found it easy to move on with our lives. Until yesterday. It was the last day of Calvin college‘s spring break trip, and the group wanted to go on one last hike. Traditionally Ian leads them down the side of a mountain to a beautiful stream bed. We started along the familiar route with the ease, but after the first few turns along the mountain we stopped in our tracks, for we were fully facing the sheer devastation of the recent deforestation for the first time. A cheerful walk turned eerily silent as we slowly took in the damaged landscape around us.
Cutting down trees leaves far more dead wood in the forest than is ever pulled out. Usually it’s only economical for the company to take the widest part of the trunk, so all branches and tops are sawed off and strewn through the woods. Some of these were piled in giant stacks, but most remained where they had fallen, where they will sit for decades until they rot away. What had once been a shaded, moss-covered walk through the woods was now a hot and exposed climb over splintered trunks. The spongy ground had turned to hard clay because the tree roots could no longer suck the ground water to the surface or anchor the topsoil in place. I shudder to think of the erosion and mud slides that the next big rains will bring.
Stepping over the boundary from the logged site to the untouched woods was a change so extreme it was palatable. The air became cooler, the ground softer, and spring wildflowers peeped out from under our feet. Our unease lifted from us almost without our notice as the somber silence was broken and spontaneous chatter resumed. The final scamper down to the creek bottom was effortless.
And the best part of all? This shale creek bed is littered with fossils. The muddy stone is so fragile you can peel back layers of rock and uncover the imprints of life that existed long before the Appalachians rose to their full heights, much less crumbled into what remains today. This stream is slowly carving through the mountain side and revealing the species that lived and died as these mountains were forming. I don’t know enough about rocks to date or identify our finds, but I know enough to date them back hundreds of millions of years. More information about WV fossils here and here.
It’s hard for me to take a strong stand against logging. This piece of land created over a dozen jobs for several months in a region that desperately needs them. The loggers themselves were nothing but pleasant and did everything in their power to be fair to us. The socio-economic impacts should not be discounted. But neither should the environmental impacts. The Appalachian mountains are an incredibly diverse place, both in number of unique species and abundance of each one. Threatened species like salamanders and frogs thrive here. I’ve heard estimates that over one thousand unique species live on each acre of land. And three months of timbering can pose a serious threat to each of those species. When I look at my fossils, I feel connected to the long history of healthy ecosystems that have existed in this region for millions of years.
On the trip away from the creek and back into the denuded landscape topped with decaying trees, it was hard not to think that that our assessments of value today can be tragically short sighted.