January 24, 2014

Restoring the Wild

Ernie Reed, Wild Virginia Conservation Director

The Lower Cowpasture Restoration Project is the largest project ever conceived in the George Washington National Forest.  It spans over 77,000 acres and would take place over a span of 10 years. Most of the project area lies north and east of Covington and Clifton Forge and spans parts of Allegheny, Bath and Rockbridge Counties. The initial project overview includes over 3,700 acres of logging of various intensities and scales, and the burning of 11,500 acres.  It also includes some possible extreme streambank stabilization near I-64, possible stream impoundment modifications in Simpson Creek and Wilson Creek, some road reconstruction north of Douthat State Park, some invasive plant removal and a new trail system in Rich Hole Wilderness.  All of this begs the question:  just what is being restored here?

It has been said that when Europeans first explored the Central Appalachians that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Coastline to the Mississippi throughout a contiguous canopy without ever touching the ground.  There is no doubt that wolves, cougars and other large predators populated the Lower Cowpasture watershed.  Large populations of Passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) and Carolina parakeets (Conuropsis carolinensis) resided here. Large populations of freshwater mussels resided in higher order streams of the Lower Cowpasture and native trout were abundant. The American bison (Bison bison) was extirpated due to over hunting, with the last being killed in the early 1800s. The last gray wolf (Canis lupus) in Virginia, for which bounties were paid, was killed around 1900. Also hunted to extinction were the eastern elk (Cervus elaphus canadensis) and the eastern cougar (Felis concolor couguar). Believed extinct since the 1930s, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officially declared the eastern cougar extinct in 2011.

Even the name Lower Cowpasture refers to the tiniest sliver of time that followed a millennium dominated by large trees, contiguous forests and prolific wetlands and watercourses.  When European settlement cleared and burned watershed lowlands for cattle grazing, they may have mimicked some of the actions that Native Americans had implemented as they lived in harmony with the landscape.  But resource extraction for distant markets was unknown to native peoples. Settlers began to live and profit off the land instead of with the land. Species were eventually hunted to extinction and widespread logging and burning virtually spared nothing. It is noteworthy that Lower Cowpasture is named for its use by settlers by species they introduced to the area, not for any ecological characteristics of the forests that preceeded their arrival.

The forest need not be restored to any loggers, forester’s or hunter’s  snapshot that may have existed at some point in time within the last century and a half.  Our forests do not need to be restored, they need to be rewilded.

We all need to look beyond the relatively narrow cowpasture nature of the landscape.  We certainly need to extend beyond the last century that has been characterized by a forest recovering from massive desecrations. And we should do so in both directions. We should be giving full reign to natural succession and natural processes that maximize the potential of the forest to produce widespread mature forests.  These forests, and their variety and distribution of natural disturbances throughout including naturally-occurring fire, windthrow, ice storms, flooding, mortality, insect predation and decomposition produce a diversity of habitat that maximizes plant and animal diversity.  They produce pure, cold water streams and warmer more diverse wetlands that reduce erosion, mitigate flooding and maximize the storage of surface and ground water.  And mature forests maximize carbon storage to provide true resiliency and mitigation to slow climate change which otherwise poses forest changes that would significantly reduce the vital ecosystem services to the project area, region, state, nation and planet.

So what would rewilding our forests entail?  Taking down fences, closing unnecessary roads, removing culverts and recontouring rutted drainages.  Removing stream impoundments and dams that impede upstream spawning and downstream migration.  Bringing back food webs and trophic functions that have been so radically simplified.  Reestablishing top predators like wolves and cougars and keystone species that create diverse habitats and opportunities for many other species.  And large expanses of old growth forests.

The Lower Cowpasture was once boasted a series of dynamic wetlands and that dynamism creates diverse micro and macro habitats for all manner of freshwater fish and wildlife.  Increasing the populations of beavers, natures great engineers, would go far to make this again a reality.

American Chestnuts that once were the dominant canopy species in Virginia’s forests can now be successfully reintroduced and because they are shade tolerant, do not need clearcuts to be reestablished throughout the forest.  Their nuts quickly become food for wildlife and promise more chestnuts extending their range and numbers.

One of the great concepts that needs to be restored to our forests is one intrinsic to the native peoples that populated the area before the European invasion and that is the concept of sacrifice.  Native peoples made sacrifices and restrained their actions communally in order that their culture and their childrens’ children’s children would be cared for for “seven generations.”  They saw great value in restricting their actions, taking only what they absolutely needed for survival from the environment and left the rest to its own natural processes.  No one can predict the needs of the future, but if we are to take our cues from the “best available science” ,then we know how important our intact forests are to our future.

Perhaps even more important is what rewilding of the landscape means to our own lives.  When we allow nature to do its own thing, our lives become part of those dynamic processes and we are rewarded with much more exciting and mysterious ecosystems to explore and discover, mountains to climb, and rivers to run.  Wildness enriches all of our lives and fills them with wonder, enchantment, and reverence, just what is necessary for us in a world that our actions might otherwise extinguish.