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Floods and Deforestation
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by Dave Saville | 2004

Our politicians are so committed to continually repeating the mistakes of the past that they condemn us to the continual devastation of our forests and loss of life caused by such senseless destruction

In 1911, AB Brooks (now listed in the West Virginia Forestry Hall of Fame) wrote, "Forests not only produce wood.....they hold the water of rains and melting snow and give it out gradually to the springs and regulate the flow of creeks and rivers..."

In 1933, Charles Henry Ambler, in A History of West Virginia wrote; "The rapid development of the timber industry and the resulting clearcutting of the state's forests depended on a political climate which encouraged exploitation of the state's resources..."  "Because of the emphasis on development, there was no great emphasis on conservation in West Virginia until repeated natural disasters revealed the disastrous effects of the timbering practices used by the state's timber companies."

In 1921 a handbook published by the Society of American Foresters, referring to the devastating flood of 1907, states; "By that time, it had become increasingly obvious to both professional foresters, and many of the state's citizens, that the flooding was a direct result of the cutting of the timber..."  "The 1907 flood resulted in more than 100 million dollars worth of damage along the basin of the Monongahela River.  Over eight million dollars in damages occurred in the city of Pittsburgh and its vicinity alone."

The Wheeling Daily News printed on Saturday March 16, 1907  "Again the Ohio River, by its conduct, forcibly reminds us of the folly of timber destruction.  No other cause than devastation of the forests could have given the Ohio Valley such a deluge following the fall of a comparatively slight volume of water."

In 1908 the West Virginia Conservation Commission reported, "Public opinion has long held that the floods are increasing in number, not only in West Virginia, but also in other regions where rapid deforestation has been going on, but only recently were figures compiled showing just what is taking place in the state.  A compilation of the results shows a very disquieting state of affairs in West Virginia.  Floods in the Ohio at Wheeling have increased 28 per cent in numbers in 26 years; Potomac floods at Harpers Ferry have increased 36 per cent in 18 years; The Monongahela floods at Greensboro, PA, show an increase of 73 per cent in 24 years."

"The increase in total discharge of West Virginia rivers, in spite of diminishing rainfall... .is due solely, so far as available data can be interpreted, to the deforestation of the mountains.  There is no reason to doubt that a continuation of timber cutting will increase the fluctuation of the streams."

"By keeping the mountains forested, a steady supply of water will be available; but if the woods are destroyed, the water will go down as destructive floods when rain has fallen, and it will quickly disappear when the rains cease."

A.B. Brooks in 1911 wrote further, "Generally speaking a woodland soil absorbs more water than naked ground.  The decaying leaves, the roots and stems, and the more porous nature of the upper layers of the forest soil, take up the rain and melting snow, and hold it for a time, permitting it to filter away slowly and enter the streams gradually.  Sudden rushes of water down steep slopes after a rain are thus hindered, and the streams rise more slowly, flow more regularly, and seldom reach excessively low stages.  When the same has been laid bare and packed by its own weight and under the unobstructed beating of raindrops, its surface hardens, its porosity is lessened, and it sheds water like a roof.  The streams catch it quickly and floods follow.  That is the difference between a forested and treeless region.  The dangerous region is one with steep, bare slopes.  The West Virginia mountains would, if denuded, be a constant menace to all the lower valleys.  Floods surpassing everything known in this region heretofore would be sure to follow."

In Transforming the Appalachian Countryside, Ronald L. Lewis wrote  "The financial benefits derived from the development of the forest industry accrued to the select few over the short term, whereas the costs of the widespread destruction were borne by the taxpayers." and "The despoilers of West Virginia's wilderness bear the responsibility for the devastation they caused, but their destructive "cut and get out" methods went unchecked because the state not only abrogated its responsibility but actively encouraged untrammeled exploitation of the state's natural resources.  There were, of course, West Virginians whose sensibilities were shocked by the scale of destructiveness that accompanied deforestation.  Even within state government a few voices were heard above the clamor urging conservation of natural resources."

In 1905 Governor Albert B. White declared, "The time has gone by when the man who deforests lands is a public benefactor."

In Tumult on the Mountains, (1963) Roy Clarkson, concerning the destruction of the forests wrote:  "Who is to blame? - The lumber barons who greedily grew richer as the land was ravaged?  The politicians who allowed them to pillage the land?  Or the people of the state who sat by and ignored it all?  Future generations will condemn all of them!"

In a 1998 Associated Press article by Jennifer Bundy, Bill Maxey, then Director of the West Virginia Division of Forestry states "I think mountaintop removal is analogous to a serious disease, like AIDS."  and  "Coal companies compact the soil. Then you are trying to plant a tree in concrete.  It doesn't work."  "We need to stop mountaintop removal," Maxey says.

In January 2000, Maxey wrote in a Charleston Gazette editorial "I resigned [as Director of the West Virginia Division of Forestry ] as a matter of principle, for I did not want to share in the blame nor guilt for the loss of West Virginia's heritage through the loss of our forested mountains [from mountaintop removal of coal].  In West Virginia, from 1977 to 1997, 300,000 acres were made into a moonscape by the decapitation of our mountains.  The rate of decapitation has increased to 30,000 acres annually.  It will take 150 to 200 years before trees would become re-established following such a drastic mining practice."

So here we are now, 100 years since the first sylvan holocaust, and we are still living within a political climate that encourages natural resource exploitation.  We still have politicians and regulators who have not yet learned what was so obvious to everyone 100 years ago, and to average citizens today.  Our politicians are so committed to continually repeating the mistakes of the past that they condemn us to the continual devastation and loss of life caused by such senseless destruction.  And today, as yesterday, we, the citizens and taxpayers, bear the costs of cleaning up following the death and destruction caused by the selfishness and greed of the extractive industries protected by these corrupt politicians and regulators.

Dave Saville is Administrative Assistant to the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.  Visit their website at www.wvhighlands.org

Dave Saville
PO Box 569
Morgantown, WV 26507
dave@wvhighlands.org

 

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