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In early times, forests were so common in present West Virginia that standing timber was an over-abundant commodity. Cleared land was worth more than land with trees. The clearing of land for agriculture was the dominant cause of forest reduction. Logging historian Roy B. Clarkson, in his book Tumult on the Mountains, discusses the lack of value that timber had and the years of arduous labor necessary to clear fields. He concludes that the ‘‘very best timber’’ ever to grow in West Virginia was destroyed in the clearing of farmland.

According to census statistics, about 1.8 million acres, 12 percent of the total acreage of what is now West Virginia, was cleared for agriculture before 1850. In the decade of the 1850s, 600,000 more acres was cleared. This was followed by 400,000 acres in the 1860s; 1.3 million acres in the 1870s; 800,000 acres in the 1880s; 900,000 acres in the 1890s; and 200,000 acres between 1900 and 1909. By the latter decades, the land was being cleared for its timber as well as for farming. The forests had been largely removed from the counties bordering the Ohio River, and the valuable timber adjacent to principal streams had been removed in nearly every part of the state except the southern counties. Narrow gauge railroads soon made it possible to log in that area.

By 1900, 61 percent of the states’s land was cleared. Then the process began to reverse itself. Hundreds of thousands of acres used to grow food for draft animals was released from production with the advent of automobiles and farm tractors. Hybrid seeds and mineral fertilizers increased crop yields and released additional acreage from production. In West Virginia, the abandonment of the steeper cropland accelerated. Soon seeds from trees on adjacent land were carried to the cleared tracts by the wind, gravity, or animals; and nature began its inexorable reclamation of cleared land. Old fields grew into briars and brush and eventually returned to forest.

A 1945 news release by the U.S. Forest Service listed 9.86 million acres of forestland in West Virginia. This is 64 percent of the state’s total land area. A new inventory in 1961 showed a dramatic increase to 74 percent of the land area. By 1975, the forest area had increased to 11.6 million acres, or 75 percent of the land area. This increased by 1988 to 12 million acres, or 78 percent of the state. It remained the same in 2012. The net reforestation is remarkable considering the thousands of acres removed by the construction of interstate highways, oil and gas and utility rights-of-way, surface mining activities, the growth of urban areas, and the construction of thousands of new rural homes.

West Virginia is the third most densely forested state, ranking behind Maine and New Hampshire. Seven counties have less than 60 percent of their area in timberland, and 20 counties exceed 80 percent. Both Webster and McDowell counties have more than 93 percent of their area in forests. The reforestation of West Virginia is not yet complete, but it is well on its way.

This Article was written by William H. Gillespie

Last Revised on July 30, 2012

Related Articles


Clarkson, Roy B. Tumult on the Mountains: Lumbering in West Virginia 1770-1920. Parsons: McClain, 1964.

Cite This Article

Gillespie, William H. "Reforestation." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 30 July 2012. Web. 24 March 2018.


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