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Archive for November, 2009

In the spirit of Thanksgiving and large-scale turkey consumption, we wish to acknowledge the impact of turkeys on forest history. How did a couple of turkeys change history? Well, a better question might be: How did a handful of angry turkey hunters in West Virginia upend U.S. Forest Service timber management policy and help usher the agency into the environmental era?

Around 1964, a handful of hunters went to their favorite spot on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia to hunt turkey. There, they found no turkeys because the area had been clearcut by the Forest Service. Upset, they took their complaints to the agency, eventually getting a meeting with Chief Ed Cliff, and demanded an end to clearcutting as a timber management practice. As Cliff says in an excerpt from his oral history Half A Century in Forest Conservation, “It soon got beyond the turkey hunting issue.” Indeed, what started off as a disappointing hunting trip for some buddies eventually led to Congress rewriting the Forest Service’s Organic Act and forever changing the agency.

Gobble gobble hey! Any chance you guys are going to West Virginia? (FHS image #R9_492831)

After several years of studies and discussion that changed nothing, the hunters turned to the Izaak Walton League and other conservation groups, and together they filed a lawsuit to stop the use of clearcutting as a harvesting method. Ironically, the outrage wasn’t over clearcutting per se, but over the size of the clearcuts. Nonetheless, the plaintiffs asserted that the Forest Service was in violation of the Organic Act of 1897, which allowed the cutting of “dead, matured, or large growth” trees that had been “marked and designated” for sale. Clearcutting removed all trees; no one bothered marking individual trees since they’d all be removed. No matter, said the court. The law is the law. Izaak Walton League v. Earl Butz was found in favor of the hunters and overturned “the whole legal basis for timber management on the national forests.” Congress now had to write a new organic act for the agency. The resulting National Forest Management Act changed how the Forest Service managed the national forests. Things were never the same for the agency after its passage in 1976 — additional protests and lawsuits further shaped and influenced how the agency conducted management. Ultimately, this led to its turn away from emphasizing timber management and to its embrace of ecosystem management.

This gross oversimplification of a major turning point in forest history is explored in numerous articles and books, many of which we’ve published. But we thought we’d pull two nuggets from our U.S. Forest Service History Collection to share with you. The first PDF is a one-page excerpt from Ed Cliff’s oral history. The second is from The Monongahela National Forest, 1915-1990, which weaves together oral histories and secondary sources into a solid history of the forest. This lengthy excerpt delves into the background of clearcutting on national forests and does a great job of providing context for the controversy, as well as showing that the agency was not monolithic in its thinking. So, on Thanksgiving Day, just before you drift into that tryptophan coma after eating too much turkey, think about how different history would be if only some turkeys had been hanging around in that clearcut in West Virginia.

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In 1934, the Coweeta Experimental Forest was officially established on the Nantahala National Forest.  Occupying nearly 4,000 acres just north of the North Carolina-Georgia border and renamed the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in 1948, the site would prove to be the source of some of the most influential research on forested watersheds done in the world.  This week a symposium to mark the 75th anniversary of Coweeta will look at the development of watershed science and celebrate the important research which continues to be done there.

The story of Coweeta begins with Dr. Charles R. Hursh, who was hired in 1926 as a researcher at the Appalachian Forest Experiment Station (now the Southern Research Station) in Asheville, NC.  Much of Hursh’s work was in streamflow and erosion studies, which led him to formulate broader theories of forests and water supply.  Hursh identified the Coweeta Basin (in the Appalachian Mountains just south of Franklin, NC) as an ideal spot to locate a permanent research station to study the impacts of forest management practices on soil and water.  Hursh was given access to the site and began informal research there, during which time an order establishing the Coweeta Experimental Forest was signed on June 1933 and then officially approved by Chief Ferdinand Silcox on March 28, 1934.

Coweeta Experimental Forest

Coweeta Experimental Forest entrance sign with administrative building at right, 1942.

Workers from the nearby Civilian Conservation Corps Camp in Franklin, NC (CCC Camp NC-23) built roads, buildings, testing stations, and other installations on the site.  With limited resources and staffing, Hursh was still able to turn the site into an extensive hydrological laboratory and research station.  Early studies looked at the effects of logging, farming, and woodland grazing on forest watersheds.  Data gathered at the site was also used for important research in areas such as riparian vegetation and water supply; the properties of groundwater movement through soil; relationships between the atmosphere, environment, and forest watersheds; and the use of road banks for erosion control.

Rain gauge

Image of rain gauge recording instrument at Coweeta, from a 1953 USFS publication (click to view full page).

The laboratory’s profile was further raised in 1955, when the Forest Service produced the film “The Waters of Coweeta” to increase nationwide awareness of the importance of watershed management and research.

The arrival of researcher Wayne T. Swank at the laboratory in the 1960s ensured the continuation of Coweeta’s influential work.  Swank spent more than 30 years at Coweeta, serving as project leader from 1984 to 1999, and helped to expand the successful research operations at the site.  Cooperative work with the University of Georgia’s Institute of Ecology began in 1968, and produced an ongoing valuable partnership.  Coweeta also became a National Science Foundation Long-Term Ecological Research site in 1980.  More recent years have seen the work shift to new areas of study such as water quality research, acid rain, invasive pests, and prescribed fire.

Through the years, Coweeta has maintained its importance as one of the oldest continuous environmental research studies in the world.  The hydrologic research there has shown how forest ecosystems can be responsibly managed without ruining valuable water resources.  Significant research in new areas ensures that Coweeta will remain as a center of forest research long into the future.

For more information on the history of the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, see the following FHS resources:

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