Environment, Latest News

State loses 4.7% of tree cover in 20 years


West Virginia has lost 4.7% of its tree cover since 2000, which could have an adverse impact on the natural resources of the Mountain State, its eco-system, and the habitat of federally listed endangered species, environmentalists said.

The Washington, D.C.-based global forest monitor, Global Forest Watch, in its 2022 report states that West Virginia lost 593,052 acres of tree cover, including 27,922 acres of natural forest.

The loss is equivalent to 98.5 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the GFW website.

West Virginia Economic Development Board and Forestry Association officials, however, reject those findings and say the forest coverage increased over the years in the state.

Both the West Virginia Forestry Association executive director and the West Virginia Economic Development’s director of marketing and communications said the Global Forest Watch report is not accurate.

Tree cover has been defined by Global Forest Watch as “all vegetation greater than 5 meters (16 feet) in height, and may take the form of natural forests or plantations across a range of canopy densities.” Tree cover loss may be the result of human activities, including forestry practices such as timber harvesting or deforestation as well as natural causes such as disease or storm damage, according to GFW.

GFW data shows that Greenbrier County had the most tree cover loss of 46,208 acres, followed by Nicholas County (40,772 acres), Fayette County (34,100 acres), Raleigh County (28,911 acres) and Kanawha County (24,463 acres).

Preston County lost 15,024 acres of tree cover while Monongalia County lost 10,353 acres during the past 21 years, according to the report.

“What Global Forest Watch is tracking, using satellite images, is the biophysical removal of trees,” Communications Manager Kaitlyn Thayer told The Dominion Post.

The fact sheets of the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program for 2019 also notes that 34,678 acres of forestland is converted annually to non-forest in West Virginia, while 17,168 acres of non-forest land are converted into forest in the state. Appalachian forests, which include those in West Virginia, are among the top three most important landscapes globally (next to Amazon and Kenyan grasslands) for helping to tackle the climate crisis, forestry experts said.

West Virginia University’s forest hydrology professor Nicolas Zegre said the causes of loss of tree cover in the state can be attributed to urbanization and surface mining for coal and oil and gas development.

“Insects and disease that are becoming more persistent and wide spread due to warming conditions, are also an important driver of forest loss,” Zegre said. “A fraction of the size of the forest industry actively harvested trees in West Virginia in its heyday, but was the major cause for deforestation in the state during the railroad boom between 1880 and 1920,” he added.

The loss of forests have numerous negative impacts on the health and wellness of West Virginia ecosystems and communities, Zegre said. “Trees play a critical role in mitigating flooding and landslides, two of West Virginia’s greatest hazards that are becoming more severe and frequent with increases in extreme rainfall due to climate change,” he said.

“With more rain due to warming atmosphere and less interception by the loss of forest cover, erosion and sedimentation are increasing, thereby increasing the cost of treating water for drinking,” he added.

Oak species are important for harvesting for the forest industry, said Zegre, adding that the state is losing Hemlock to the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, an invasive insect that is decimating hemlock species through the Appalachian region.

“Ash Tree is also threatened by the emerald ash borer, an insect that is wreaking havoc on ash,” he said.

Some species in the state are considered rare because of recent declines due to habitat destruction, decreased water quality, or other human interference, according to West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR). The agency said West Virginia is the permanent home to 22 federally endangered species (17 animals, four plants) and seven federally threatened species (five animals, two plants).

Some of these endangered animals and plants are Indiana Bat, Pink Mucket Pearlymussel, Harperella, Shale Barren Rockcress, Rayed Bean, Northeastern Bulrush and Fanshell.

Flat-spired three-toothed land snail, Madison Cave isopod, small whorled pogonia, Cheat Mountain salamanders, Virginia spiraea and eastern black rail are threatened for habitat loss, while northern long-eared bat has been proposed for the threatened list, according to the WVDNR.

The agency in its online report notes that several mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and plants are becoming rare in the state because of human activities, which also have resulted in increased abundance of o t h e r s.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers federally endangered and federally threatened animal lists, states that these animals and plants are endemic due to habitat loss, development activities, pollution and global warming.

WVU chemistry department professor emeritus Harry Finklea, also a member of Trout Unlimited, said that he regard deforestation as a serious environmental issue. 

“Among other things, it causes stream temperatures in the deforested area to rise to the point that the streams no longer support cold water species such as trout,” Finklea said.

Zegre said the state government initiated more eco-friendly development plans for mitigating the deforestation problem, which is important not only for saving endangered animals but also for saving the world from global warming.

“West Virginia has a real opportunity to reshape its economy by prioritizing sustainable use of resources, prioritizing sustainable use of resources, prioritizing restoration, conservation economies and redefining our state’s proud role as provisioners of resources to the nation and the world. But we need to first off recognize the value of West Virginia’s forest and water beyond commodification. We need to manage West Virginia forests and water with adaptation and sustain[1]ability in mind,” Zegre said.

West Virginia Forestry Association Executive Director Eric Carlson rejects Global Forest Watch ’s report on tree coverage loss rate, saying it is “baseless and not accurate.”

“Development activities are going on only in some parts of Morgantown for housing and in some areas of the southern part of the state for mining. We are planting more tress than we are harvesting each year,” Carlson said. “Our forest coverage is increasing.”

West Virginia Economic Development’s director of marketing and communications Andy Malinoski also said the report is not right. He said the state had put in place several innovative programs to increase the forest coverage and protect endangered species.