A Brief History of the Appalachian Forests

Despite the bountiful beauty, majesty, and wildness of the southern Appalachian forests today, most of our forests have only begun to develop after over a century of neglect and abuse. As this young nation spread westward from the east coast around the turn of the 20th century, the impact from increased natural resource extraction and population growth on our Appalachian landscape cannot be understated. During this period of progress and expansion, roughly 85% of the Appalachian forests were clear-cut, sometimes left barren right to the edge of the creek. Subsequent erosion washed away centuries of rich, well-developed soils, reducing mountain farm productivity and resulting in the sedimentation of streams and waterways. The combination of deforestation and the silting of streams devastated many wildlife populations, including the native trout, beaver, bear, and deer populations. The few remaining small pockets of forest left unlogged were located along steep rocky ridges, inaccessible to machinery and with little timber value anyway.

Lidgerwood high lead skidder and Shay locomotive used for logging in the Pigeon River watershed in western North Carolina in the early 1900’s (Yarnell, Susan L. 1998. The Southern Appalachians: a history of the landscape. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-18. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 45 p.).
Lidgerwood high lead skidder and Shay locomotive used for logging in the Pigeon River watershed in western North Carolina in the early 1900’s (Yarnell, Susan L. 1998. The Southern Appalachians: a history of the landscape. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-18. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 45 p.).

While the forests were resilient and eventually regrew, the damage was already done and their productivity had declined. Over the past 100 years, logging has often added insult to injury by cutting only the biggest and best trees (also known as high-grading or diameter limit cutting) on private lands, leaving behind poorly formed, low-grade trees, thereby further degrading the forests. This short-sighted practice has left less diverse, even-aged forests that rarely resemble the forests our forefathers discovered when they first ventured into the Appalachians. Non-native invasive pests (e.g. chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease, balsam woolly adelgid, and hemlock woolly adelgid) have further reduced forest health and diversity, and even more threats to our forests are on their way, like the much dreaded emerald ash borer and gypsy moth.

In addition, the increase in mountain development has permanently converted and fragmented our forested landscape, leading to decreases in biodiversity and forest health. A century of fire suppression, invasive plant introductions, oak decline, and climate change all put the future of our forests at great risk. In short, our forests need our help. We have forever altered the forest’s trajectory and need to engage in positive stewardship now to get them back in balance. Through positive impact, sustainable forest stewardship, forest health, productivity, resiliency and overall biodiversity can be increased in Appalachian forests, which have been the most productive and diverse forests outside of the tropics. The social, ecological, and economic value of our forests – from clean water and air, to timber and pulp, to recreation and aesthetics – can be enriched for present and future generations with good proactive stewardship.

— Andy Tait, Lead Forester

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