Three hundred million years ago, the Appalachians were a towering, alpine mountain range. Across eons, the relentless forces of water and wind wore down the jagged snow-capped peaks into round-top mountains. Glaciers were replaced by expansive forests.
Dense forests grew across the ancient mountains for unfathomable expanses of time, but it took just a half-century for those forests to be destroyed. Between 1880 and 1920, nearly all of the forests in West Virginia were cut. Steam-powered trains hauled logs to steam-powered mills that produced lumber for the growing cities of the East Coast and Ohio Valley. In all of West Virginia, just 450 acres of old growth forest were spared the logger’s saw. No living person has seen a West Virginia forest as it existed before the logging boom.
Walking through portions of the Monongahela National Forest, it might appear that the forest has completely recovered – but that is far from the truth. What took millions of years to create will take much longer to restore. Trees have grown back, but waterways remain much changed from their original state.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has undertaken the Upper Greenbrier North Watershed/Aquatics Restoration Project to restore Pocahontas County forest waterways to their original state. Work began on the project last year. This year, project planners are focusing on the headwaters of the East Fork of the Greenbrier River.
Chad Landress is the Fish Biologist for the Monongahela National Forest. Landress explained the close relationship between trees and healthy streams.
“When this area was completely denuded of vegetation, there was a process that was initiated,” he said. “You take all the trees away, you take the soil stability away, and what happens – the stream starts to erode and cuts down into the channel. So you end up with very incised channels.
“You’ve cut all the trees, so you don’t have trees falling in the stream anymore. It’s really difficult for that sediment to start building back up. You end up with these large cut banks. You walk up to a stream and it’s several feet down in there. That’s not the natural condition of an Appalachian stream.”
Deep, vertical stream banks, faster floodwaters and increased erosion greatly reduce fish habitat.
“Prior to extensive clear-cutting and burning, streams and riparian areas were fully forested, shaded, and full of fallen trees,” said Landress. “These conditions kept the streams shaded and cool. Also, the fallen trees created an abundance of pool habitat, regulated the scour and erosional processes of the stream, and trapped sediment, which provided ideal conditions for brook trout growth and reproduction, as well as benefiting other organisms and water quality.
“It’s really hard for people to imagine that you could have gone to the streams here and caught 16-inch-plus brook trout, two to three-pound brook trout, one after another, day in and day out. But that’s what the conditions were like. There are historic photos that show it and there are historic records that show it. But it’s been long enough that people have forgotten.”
The Upper Greenbrier North project encompasses almost 70,000 acres in northern Pocahontas County. This year, the project focuses on the East Fork headwaters, north of Island Campground, situated two miles north of the Route 250-Route 220 intersection near Thornwood.
“The purpose is to restore the streams and the surrounding watersheds back to the condition they were found prior to the major impacts of the late 1800s – early 1900s,” said Landress. “The main indicator we use is the brook trout response. Brook trout require cold, clean water and abundant pool habitat. The trout are our indicator of success.”
The USFS is utilizing four primary techniques to restore streams in the project area: large woody material, aquatic organism passages, road maintenance and decommissioning and riparian restoration.
Large woody material refers to the placement of trees in streambeds. Due to the lack of oxygen, trees submerged in water do not rot quickly and become semi-permanent features of the stream channel. Trees in streambeds control flow, reduce erosion, create pools and improve habitat for fish and other organisms. The technique is necessary due to incised stream channels, which prevent fallen trees from reaching the water.
Riparian restoration is the planting of trees adjacent to streams. If the large woody material technique is successful, over decades, stream beds will become more level with the surrounding area, and the planted trees will fall into the water and naturally meld with the streambed – the natural state of an Appalachian stream.
Aquatic organism passages is the elimination or modification of culverts, to allow the passage of aquatic organisms in a stream. Culverts fragment aquatic ecosystems and block the passage of fish and other species. Many culverts create unnaturally powerful outflow (fire hose effect) and proportional erosion on the downstream side.
“Aquatic organism passage issues frequently occur at road-stream intersections,” said Landress. “We usually end up with culverts, usually very small culverts when we cross a stream with a road. Over time, what we’ve realized is that has had a major impact on fish populations and stream health. On the Monongahela, there are 3,500 road-stream intersections – most of which are culverts, some of them are bridges, which are much better.”
Most culverts in the project area will be replaced by larger culverts, which allow natural stream flow, or bridge-type structures called plate-arches, which allow the stream to flow unimpaired underneath.
“Sometimes, they just need some modification,” added Landress. “There’s a lot of factors. The main factor to consider is that the width of the structure fits the width of the stream at high flow. This ensures the stream will flow naturally, allow fish passage and reduce maintenance costs.”
Aquatic road maintenance is work to reduce erosion and sedimentation into streams.
“That’s road maintenance where we have identified a road that is impacting a stream by erosion, but we still need to keep the road open,” said Landress. “We want to address that erosional concern. Brook trout cannot spawn if the stream has too much sediment.”
Aquatic road decommissioning is the closure of roads that are no longer needed in the project area. Necessary work to prevent road erosion into streams is also completed, which can include removal of the road or a portion of the road.
Project planners have ambitious goals for the East Fork headwaters this year. Twelve miles of roads in the watershed will be decommissioned. A minimum of 16 miles of tributaries will be treated with large woody material. Six aquatic passages will be completed. The goal is to complete mitigation work in a discrete portion of the project area, so that project managers can assess their success via the brook trout population.
“This area is in a management prescription for the Forest Service that likely will not have major impacts to it,” said Landress. “Not a lot of timber harvest, not a lot of roads, moving forward in the future. We said, ‘if we can go in here and really improve the streams, we can ensure brook trout stability through the future in these headwaters.’ That’s why it’s our primary focus for this year.”