The vast original forests in what is now West Virginia had some of the greatest stands of hardwood timber to be found anywhere. These forests were intensely exploited between 1870 and 1920 and eventually timbered out. Because of the considerable amount of slash left behind, fires followed the timber cutting, setting back natural forest regeneration and exposing soils to erosion. With the headwaters of the Monongahela River denuded of vegetation and no longer able to regulate the flow of water, devastating flooding occurred in March 1907. This flooding seriously affected agricultural lands and cities in the Monongahela basin, including Pittsburgh, causing about $100 million in damages.
Actions by Congress in 1908 and by the West Virginia legislature in 1909 prepared the way for the establishment of a National Forest Reserve in the Monongahela watershed. The Weeks Bill, passed by Congress in 1911, enabled cooperation between the states and federal government for the protection of watersheds of navigable streams including the acquisition of lands. The first land in West Virginia was acquired in 1915, becoming the Monongahela National Forest on April 28, 1920. Protection of the newly acquired woodlands was the early focus, with fire prevention in the cut-over woods being a major concern. The passage of the Clarke-McNary Act by Congress in 1924 broadened the purpose of the national forests to include the production of timber.
The Shenandoah (now George Washington) National Forest was created in 1917, with its bulk in Virginia but including parts of Pendleton, Hardy, and Hampshire counties. The Jefferson National Forest, including a small part of Monroe County, was created in 1936.
In 1933, during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps, designed to put unemployed youth to work and to apply conservation measures to lands newly acquired by the federal government and to similar state lands. Camps were soon established throughout the country. The Monongahela National Forest had 12 such camps operating at one time. The ‘‘CCC boys,’’ many just out of major cities, accomplished great things. They planted trees; fought forest fires; built roads, trails, fire towers, telephone lines, and structures; conducted fish and wildlife habitat and monitoring work; and made watershed improvements. Their labor provided valuable park and forest facilities still in use in the 21st century.
Early settlement, later timbering, and the general exploitation of the land, its flora and fauna, all had taken a serious toll on the state’s wildlife. Deer, turkey, and bear populations were seriously diminished. Local scarcities of deer were noted as early as 1841, and by 1900 only remnant deer and turkey populations were left, concentrated in remote areas of the high mountains. Black bears were reduced to about 500 animals. The beaver, once common throughout the state, was extirpated by 1923 because of its valuable fur.
A deer restocking program was initiated in 1933 by the state and sportsmen’s groups and continued until 1957. Deer are now common throughout the state, and in some counties there are too many. Wild turkeys benefited from farm abandonment, hunting restrictions, and forest maturation. Turkey restoration was accomplished by trapping birds and transplanting them to new habitats. Today the wild turkey is abundant in all 55 counties. The black bear became the state animal in 1955. With carefully designed hunting regulations and a greater public acceptance, bears now exist in a large portion of the state and number about 10,000 animals. Beavers, which contribute greatly to the development of wetlands, were reintroduced in the state’s high elevations from 1933 to 1940. This largest rodent is now distributed statewide.
Wildlife conservation started as early as 1869, when the state legislature passed the first game law, protecting game species between February 14 and September 15 and protecting all species of non-game birds except a few considered injurious. The legislature of 1877 created a Fish Commission, and the first game and fish warden was appointed. Forest fires caused mammoth destruction in 1908 and were largely responsible for legislation of 1909 authorizing the governor to appoint a Forest, Game and Fish Warden. The Game and Fish Commission was created by the legislature in 1921. Through many subsequent legislative and executive actions these early efforts evolved toward the modern Division of Natural Resources, its work now complemented by the Division of Forestry and other agencies. In the 1930s, Governor Herman Kump, himself deeply interested in the outdoors, put the state’s first comprehensive conservation bureaucracy in place, with sections for forestry, law enforcement, game management, fish management, state parks, and education.
Early wildlife management efforts mostly consisted of establishing refuges and small game propagation and stocking. The legislature of 1915 gave authority to the state’s Forest, Game and Fish warden to establish refuges for protection of wild game and birds. Such early efforts generally failed to accomplish objectives. Therefore, the present approach to wildlife management is that of habitat restoration and development. Federal funding, authorized by passage of the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson acts, has greatly benefited fish and wildlife conservation efforts in West Virginia and throughout the country.
Environmental organizations have joined the traditional hunting and fishing constituency in adding impetus to the conservation effort. The wise use of the natural environment became an issue of concern to the travel and tourism industry, whose success in West Virginia was increasingly based on outdoor recreation and the state’s scenic beauty. Sometimes the groups differed in philosophy and goals but all agreed on the importance of conserving West Virginia’s great outdoors.
This Article was written by Walter A. Lesser
Last Revised on July 16, 2012
Clarkson, Roy B. Tumult on the Mountains: Lumbering in West Virginia 1770-1920. Parsons: McClain, 1964.
Carvell, Kenneth L. & William R. Maxey. Protectors of the Forest Resources: A History of the West Virginia Division of Forestry, 1909-1998. Charleston: West Virginia Division of Forestry, 1998.
Stephenson, Steven L., ed. Upland Forests of West Virginia. Parsons: McClain, 1993.