Like a guilty lover I must confess – there is another forest fragment. My heart is now divided between the urban forest of some 70 acres I that grew up with and work in, and eleven acres of Appalachian Southwest Virginia. The towering Chestnut oaks, Red oaks, Red maples, Hemlocks, Tulip trees and magnolias of this new forest stand 3000 feet higher and 360 miles by road from the little fragment in the Ohio River Valley. And unlike the urban forest surrounded by city, the eleven acres adjoin hundreds more, and are close to thousands of National Forest acres.
While the extent of this Appalachian forest alone suggests a more pristine condition, it is fragmented too, with a gravel road and open meadow abutting on one side. And first looks can be deceiving, it’s only by close attention to small details – which plants grow here, which do not – that the story gradually unfolds. It’s the story of repeated plagues and disturbances; the Chestnut blight, the Hemlock woolly adelgid, timber removal, a cattle and deer grazed understory that lost much of its native richness. Even the loss of disturbance in the form of fire has been shaping the tree canopy for almost a hundred years.
All forests in the eastern US regardless of how large, are still fragments surrounded by agriculture, pastureland and cities, and criss-crossed with roads. Even a gravel back road breaks a continuous block of forest into a fragment – introducing erosion, stream scouring and siltation, and invasive plant seeds carried on the muddy tires of vehicles.
The Ohio River Valley forest fragment has been teaching me to see a forest as a community in transition, and to recognize it’s strengths and challenges. Now I’ll get to hone my restoration skills on a very different forest, but one with familiar problems. Admittedly, it seems at times a hubris-fueled venture to believe I know what’s best for such a complex ecosystem.
But some of the most visible issues, such as deer over-browsing, can be remedied at least to some degree by simply sheltering vulnerable plants. “Hinge cutting” is a technique I learned from people who manage their land for deer hunting. Smaller trees are sawed through partially at a height of 3 or 4 feet until they fall. The arching downed branches create nice shelter for tree seedlings and herbaceous plants, and the still living tree resprouts new foliage that helps take deer pressure off other plants.
This forest like many others is heavy with Red maple, one of the most abundant trees in Eastern forests due to the last 100 years of fire suppression. Unlike oaks, thin barked maples are easily killed by fire. The shade of so many large Red maples in our Appalachian forest is suppressing and slowing tree seedling growth – to the point where deer are easily able prevent the few that emerge from attaining much height. So another restoration strategy will be girdling select older red maples (particularly the ones that don’t present a risk of falling on us when we’re in the woods!)
Lovely Rosebay rhododendron blooms in July in this forest, attracting bumblebees and butterflies. Who knew this abundant Appalachian shrub could also be a problem? Rhododendron thickets thrive in the same moist, cool forests that harbored Eastern hemlock, but with the loss of the great hemlock groves rhododendron is filling the void at great speed. Land managers and forest researchers are trying to understand the shift that is taking place, since rhodie thickets cast heavy shade, and acidify the soil to the point where almost nothing grows under them. I am pruning many of our forest’s extensive thickets to let in more light, with the extra benefit that the cut branches on the ground provide some protection from deer browsing.
You have stuck with me this far as I detail the many problems, but it’s finally time to share what is so glorious about Appalachian forests – their amazing diversity and beauty. The images below were gathered from our own little forest and the surrounding neighborhood. On our 12 acres I have identified 23 species of trees and 7 species of shrubs, a remarkable number considering this forest is nothing exceptional; a rich cove forest would contain up to 30 tree species, and the Appalachians as a whole support more than 150.
Salamander diversity is higher in these mountains than anywhere else on earth. With 77 species known from the Appalachian region, it takes an expert to identify many of them.
One of the oddest images is from the slopes of an extensive christmas tree farm above the forest. Increasingly, these farms cover former pastureland at high elevations, growing the same native Fraser firs that once covered the highlands with old growth forest. The feral corn? I guess it just snuck in with a multitude of other agricultural weeds. It kind of sums up the complexity of the southern Appalachian landscape, where rich cove forests, tree farms, rushing trout streams and cow pastures are all stitched together into one quilt-like mosaic.