Karen Yarnell, Jim Kotcon, and Justin Raines of the WV Chapter of the Sierra Club
Watoga State Park is West Virginia’s largest, with 10,100 acres of land in the mountains of Pocahontas county, near Marlinton. Watoga’s recreational activities include hiking, swimming, fishing, boating, camping, and cabins. There are at least 17 named trails in the park. Watoga Lake is stocked for fishing and the park borders a scenic stretch of the Greenbrier River. Watoga State Park opened to the public in July 1937. Before then, it was a state forest designated as a wildlife and timber preserve.
On Monday, February 12, the Senate Natural Resources Committee replaced SB 270, the bill opening all our state parks to commercial logging, with a substitute “pilot program.” The substitute bill restricts timbering to Watoga State Park, so it will not generate anywhere near the amount of revenue originally proposed. It seems clear that the substitute bill is an attempt to get a foot in the door for timber companies, but it does not fix the flaws in the original proposal. If timbering is a bad idea for all Parks, it is a bad idea for any of them.
DNR Director McDaniel and others are now adamant that this bill has nothing to do with revenue, and everything to do with forest health and wildlife. This is in direct contradiction to earlier statements made by McDaniel, Commerce Secretary Thrasher, and others who stated explicitly that the intent of this program was to generate revenue. Secretary Thrasher specifically stated it would be used to finance a 20-year bond.
The Department of Natural Resources says a prime reason for timbering in the parks is to “improve wildlife habitat”. While timbering can improve habitat for deer, it degrades it for more disturbance-intolerant wildlife, such as forest songbirds and salamanders. There are very few people who believe West Virginia has too few white-tailed deer, and even in the Parks, there are a lot of deer. Just go visit them! To make this even more clear, deer hunting is not allowed in State Parks, so it makes no sense to degrade the habitat of forest-interior species solely to encourage habitat for the very-common disturbance-tolerant species. The scientific data, and common sense, simply do not support that conclusion.
A second reason given by the DNR for this bill is forest health. The state parks do not need any new legislation whatsoever to move forward with that concern. They can remove diseased trees as well as dead trees that threaten structures or trails. They can manage forest health under existing statutory authority, and certainly do not need a bill permitting commercial logging in State Parks passed to do so. State foresters claim that the state park trees are over mature. This is a forestry term, not an ecological term. Even fallen trees have value to the forest, known as nurse logs to seedlings that provide water, nutrients, and sunlight.
A third reason given by the DNR for logging in state parks is fire control. Mature forests in the East are not conducive to wildfires. From 1984-2014, none of the 293 largest wildfires in West Virginia occurred in the nearly 80,000 acres of our state park system. Debris left behind after commercial logging is more flammable than living trees. Forest openings, such as those left by logging, are drier and more likely to burn than moist shady forest floors. The contention by those politicians trying to push through commercial logging on our State Parks that it would prevent wildfires is an obvious deception, and a petty one at that.
Logging leaves behind a risk of water contamination for soil erosion and sedimentation. The construction of logging roads, use of heavy equipment, and log skidding create soil disturbance that leads to stream sedimentation. Use of Best Management Practices can reduce this, but will not completely prevent sedimentation. Even to get some reduction in erosion, there needs to be proper implementation of BMPs, and past logging at DNR Wildlife Management Areas shows that DNR does not have the staff to adequately enforce even those minimal requirements.
If the preservation mission of parks is overturned for commercial logging, extractive industries may be next. If the state needs more revenue, pipelines, mining, or drilling could come to the parks. State Parks represent less than one-half of one percent of West Virginia, so can we preserve that small fraction for future generations, or must we give everything to extractive industries? Parks are special places worth preserving. That’s why they were created in the first place.
Please respond to the alert in this issue of the GREEN Legislative Update, and let the Senate Natural Resources Committee know that you oppose ANY commercial logging in ANY of West Virginia’s state parks! Our friends in the Senate Natural Resources Committee say this bill seems to be dead, but the House may not have gotten the message. If the bill reemerges in the House, it could come roaring back to life once House and Senate leadership get to horse-trading bills in the final week of the session. Stay tuned. If future action is needed in the House, we will let you know!