Forest Clear-Cutting Discussed at NAPS Special Program/Annual Meeting
More than forty citizens attended the “Timber Harvesting in the Northern Neck” informational program hosted by the Northumberland Association for Progressive Stewardship (NAPS) on Sunday, August 21, 2022, in the Tavern Meeting Building at Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern in Heathsville, and online via video conference.
The program featured Nelson Hillyer and Bryant Bays of the Virginia Department of Forestry, and Jim Russell and Kevin Howe of Northern Neck Land Conservancy, with an introduction by Mike Ahart of NAPS. The presentations were followed by a question & answer session. After the program concluded, NAPS held its Annual Meeting.
NAPS members greeted attendees at the door with a complementary reusable NAPS grocery bag and event program. Complimentary refreshments and informational materials were offered on tables in the back of the hall.
Ahart opened the program by thanking the attendees, and the Tavern for providing the venue. He also thanked Friends of the Rappahannock for setting up the Zoom meeting for remote attendees.
After a brief update on upcoming NAPS projects, Ahart introduced the special program with a roadside view of a recent clear-cut in the area. “That’s an eyesore,” he said, but then stated that timber harvesting is normal land use in the area. “It’s like farmland that’s harvested once a generation or so,” and landowners pay taxes year after year. Ahart said the practice of clear-cutting in the area is unlikely to stop, but that it should be done in a way that best protects the environment and watershed, “and maybe we can come up with ways to mitigate the aesthetic problem” by recommending roadside buffer areas and encouraging tree-planting.
Ahart also explained the difference between timber harvesting and deforestation. “Deforestation happens when forests are destroyed and converted into something else, like a housing development, a farm field, or even a solar farm,” said Ahart, adding that most of the land where timber is harvested in this area will regrow as forest. He also showed a satellite photo timeline of a 2013 clear cut near his home that had been immediately replanted, and by 2015 had filled in completely with small trees.
Hillyer began his presentation by agreeing with the eyesore problem, saying that the clear-cut shown on the initial slide could have been cleaned up better. He followed with an overview of the Virginia Department of Forestry’s mission and specifics about its Water Resources Program. He also introduced Bryant Bays, Regional Forester for the Eastern Region, who coordinates the programs and help the foresters learn new technology and best practices.
The water quality program started in the late 1980s, according to Hillyer. “Our state forester back then said that the number one product that comes out of the forestland is clean water,” he added.
Timber harvesting in Virginia is a $21 billion industry annually, $388 million goes to the landowners, and Virginia receives over $6 billion in environmental benefits, said Hillyer.
Through its harvest inspection program, the Virginia Dept. of Forestry enforces the Chesapeake Bay Act’s 50-foot no-cut buffer along waterways, including intermittent streams, according to Hillyer, adding that it also inspects roads and portable bridges that loggers use to transport timber through the tract so that erosion is controlled. Each of the logging companies have a copy of the Best Management Practices manual and must adhere to the Silviculture Water Quality laws. “We do an inspection every 45 days after the initial inspection” on each of the tracts, he added. When a problem is identified, the logging company has ten days to remedy the issue.
The Chesapeake Bay Act is enforced by the county, and forest harvesting is allowed a 50-foot buffer rather than the 100-foot building buffer.
Loggers must notify the Forestry Department within 3 days of starting a job. If they fail to give notification, “sooner or later we’re going to find them,” said Hillyer.
In 1989 when the new water quality laws were enacted, “we trained over 1,900 loggers and foresters, including all of us in Water Quality,” said Hillyer. The “Sharp Logger” program is offered through Virginia Tech’s Extension Program, allowing regular certification of training on best practices.
“Last year, we did 240 audits statewide…. Three of those tracts had significant risk, but only one tract of out of the three actually had sediment entering the stream,” said Hillyer. Most of the problems are at stream crossings, and because of sandy soils and gullies, timber tracts in the Northern Neck require extra care when installing temporary bridges and erosion control for logging roads. Hillyer presented a photo slideshow of typical issues and explained the remedies presented to the loggers. He also showed examples of well-managed tracts.
In 2019, the Virginia Assembly gave the Forestry Department the right to investigate timber theft crimes against landowners, said Hillyer, adding that most of these crimes are by unscrupulous loggers who make a deal with a landowner, harvest the timber, then either severely lowball the amount harvested or don’t pay at all. Hillyer advised the group to be wary of unsolicited offers to harvest timber on their land.
Although loggers/landowners are not required to replant after harvest, the Dept. of Forestry recommends replanting and provides 30 to 40 million seedlings a year. A properly replanted and maintained tract will yield a larger crop, and much sooner than leaving a forest to grow naturally.
After Hillyer’s presentation, Jim Russell and Kevin Howe introduced the Northern Neck Land Conservancy and its mission of helping landowners place property into permanent conservation easements.
“A 50-foot buffer is only as good as what’s between there and the stream,” said Howe, adding that a larger buffer placed into conservation would benefit the environment and wildlife. Clear-cutting is economical, but the cavity-nesting birds, much of the underground fungi, and all of the salamanders are lost, Howe said, adding “there are benefits” since we all use wood, paper and cardboard.
Russell explained that tax breaks can be substantial for land placed into conservation. Russell and Howe invited the crowd to learn more by attending the Northern Neck Land Conservancy Boots & Barbecue annual event scheduled for Sept. 17, 2022, at Waterloo Farm in King George, Virginia.
After Northern Neck Land Conservancy’s presentation, the meeting was open for a question-and-answer session. An audience member asked if deciduous trees can be planted rather than pine. Bays answered that, although usually not planted, many hardwoods will naturally come back, and thinning out pines can encourage hardwoods. “You can’t stop trees from growing in Virginia,” said Hillyer. Howe pointed out that the trees must be thinned regularly in order for the regrowth to be marketable timber.
Hillyer presented a slide demonstrating why clear-cutting is better for regrowth than leaving select trees. The trees left in place will branch out too much to be ideal for lumber, and the new trees will bend away to seek sunlight making them uneven and thus less marketable. An audience member asked if the area is losing hardwood to pine forest. Bays answered that most of the forest in the Northern Neck is hardwood. Howe noted that even though the mix may be about the same as decades ago, what is missing now are the 300-year-old oaks and 100-year-old poplars.
Hillyer stated that the new genetically-engineered loblolly pine tracts are so productive that much less acreage needs to be cut to provide the wood and fiber we need.
Trash and equipment left on logging sites was another concern brought up by audience members. Hillyer suggested that citizens call the Dept. of Forestry with any issues and the loggers will be notified to clean it up.
NAPS ANNUAL MEETING
Immediately following the program, NAPS held its Annual Meeting with members and other interested attendees. Ahart reviewed NAPS’ accomplishments in 2022 and ideas for 2023.
“Despite COVID, we’ve maintained almost all of our programs and outreach this year and last, other than cancelling the Fall Social and delaying the Annual Meeting until today,” said Ahart. “We hosted a successful creek cleanup last fall, a successful Earth Day Festival in April, awarded four $1,500 college scholarships, had a successful Highway Trash Pickup on a very, very hot day in May, helped several homeowners with questions about solar installation, invasive plants, bayscaping, and other environmental questions, and reached out to the public” at many events, Ahart added.
Treasurer Roger Gruben presented NAPS’ Financial and Membership Reports, noting that NAPS is on a solid financial footing and membership has remained about the same as last year.
Ahart then thanked retiring board members Janice Mahoney, Shauna McCranie & Rita Johnson for their service to NAPS and the community. Ahart has also served the maximum six consecutive years on the board, but as immediate past-president, he has chosen to continue as a non-voting ex-officio board member for one year as allowed by NAPS by-laws.
Lesley Newman, Anna Pridgen, and Katie Wilkins were each elected unanimously to the NAPS Board of Directors for their first terms. Nine NAPS board members each serve terms of three years, staggered so that three expire each year. Board members are eligible to serve only two consecutive terms but would be eligible again after two years.