Western Virginia was a pristine region of virgin forests and clear streams during the 1700s. There was great diversity of plant and animal life. The forests included numerous groves of giant hardwoods, pines, and spruce, interspersed with smaller trees in openings where wildfires, windstorms, ice, insects, and disease had thinned the mature trees.
American Indians used the abundant flora and fauna for food, shelter, and clothing. They made salt in the Kanawha Valley for their own use and to trade. There was little or no permanent native population in what is now West Virginia at the time of European settlement. Indians often traveled the region, however, and there is plentiful archeological evidence of earlier habitation. They left their mark on the environment through the use of fire in hunting and for clearing the forest and through the trapping of fur-bearing animals as the trade with Europeans expanded.
The first whites were explorers, hunters, and trappers. They soon depleted the large animals, such as woods bison, elk, and deer, as well as the fur-bearing beaver, river otter, fisher, and wolf. As the Indian threat from neighboring Ohio and Kentucky diminished, settlers cleared the widest and richest valleys and floodplains.
By the time of the Civil War, the railroad had crossed the northern mountains to Parkersburg and Wheeling. Iron furnaces belched smoke as pig iron was smelted, using charcoal made from the abundant hardwoods. The exploitation of high-quality timber, coal, oil, and gas continued through the 20th century. Lumber production peaked in 1907, with nearly 1.5 billion board feet sawed. There was a peak of 146 million tons of coal mined in 1927, another of 174 million tons in 1947, and even higher tonnages late in the century. Oil production peaked in 1901 at 16 million barrels, and natural gas peaked at 309 billion cubic feet in 1917.
By the middle of the 20th century West Virginians struggled with unreclaimed strip mines, acid drainage from deep mines, fire-scarred forests, and leaking oil and gas wells and pipelines. Sound environmental practices were slow in coming. Cutover forests suffered wildfires, which led to erosion and flooding. State and national forests and state parks were created to protect damaged watersheds. Fires in southern West Virginia had eliminated most wildlife and changed the forest to fire-resistant brush, oaks, and hickories. Farming had declined statewide, and abandoned fields gave way to brush and briers, then to young forests of maple and yellow poplar.
Huge dams at Bluestone, Tygart, and Sutton were built to reduce flooding of cities along the Kanawha, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. These lakes, as well as the locks and dams on the navigable rivers, changed free-flowing rivers to slow moving pools. This led to several freshwater mussels becoming endangered species and major changes in fish, bird, and aquatic plant populations. Additional large dams built more recently have continued to change the environment and landscape.
Deep mining of coal decreased relative to surface mining. Huge mountaintop removal mines later supplanted smaller strip mines and some deep mines. New environmental issues arose with the reclamation of mine sites with exotic plant species; the filling of valleys with rock and dirt; the weathering of exposed rocks and soils; increased erosion; and subsidence.
The forests faced another round of logging in the late 20th century. New technology permitted low-grade trees to be chipped, shaved, and veneered, before being glued together as beams, four-by-eight construction sheets, and other building materials. These engineered wood products were hailed by the industry as a profitable way to remove low value wood from the forests while allowing the practice of long-term sustainable forestry. But environmentalists worried about over cutting, clear cutting, increased erosion from more log roads and larger machinery, opening the forest to exotic plants and animals, and the replacement of mixed woodlands with a few fast-growing tree species.
Other changes have occurred as four lane highways supplanted two-lane secondary roads and earlier railroads. Fragmentation of the landscape by roads, suburban development, and second homes is common in the Eastern Panhandle, Greenbrier Valley, and around most cities. Sprawl put stresses on natural resources and the environment, with greater demands for energy, water, sewage treatment, and transportation. As much as one million acres in West Virginia have been permanently converted to housing, transportation, commerce, and similar uses from the time of early settlement to the present.
Demands by hunters have created high deer and turkey populations that cause vehicle accidents, and damage farm crops, forest trees, horticultural and fruit crops, and gardens.
There is a long history of air pollution from forest fires, burning coal refuse, burning underground coal seams, and burning natural gas and oil. Smoke from wildfires remains a major problem during droughts. Air pollution from coal-fired power plants, chemical and steel manufacturing, and other sources threatens human health. Pollution from vehicles and the burning of petroleum and methane fuels are also environmental issues. Increased demands for energy led to new technology of pressurizing and fracturing old oil and gas wells to recover more of the valuable resources. However, the disposal of salt brine, surface pipelines, and the need to access pipeline rights of way on private property continue to be of concern.
Water quality is of great concern. Erosion from highway construction and mining operations are major pollutant sources. Erosion from timbering, agriculture, natural gas roads, and building construction are additional sources of sediment. Coliform and chemical fertilizers and pesticides degrade water quality. Runoff from poultry litter is a controversial issue in the Potomac watershed. Sulfur, iron, and aluminum compounds frequently pollute waters escaping from old deep mines, surface mines, gob piles, and coal-cleaning facilities.
The landscape is under siege from human litter, aggravated by the proliferation of fast food restaurants and a shift to plastic shopping bags. A recent environmental improvement is the elimination of open trash dumps and the requirement that solid waste be disposed of in landfills or by other appropriate means. Communication towers, giant billboards, and other signs clutter West Virginia roadsides.
Federal and state laws began to address environmental concerns after mid century. The mine waste dumps known as gob piles were reclaimed, with available coal recovered and the sites restored to a natural state. By the 1970s, laws and policies addressed water and air quality, soil sediment, toxic wastes, endangered species, wetlands, and land use.
Environmental conditions in West Virginia have generally improved over the past 50 years. Federal and state legislation have caused water from sewage plants, manufacturing, chemicals, and coal washing to be returned to streams in a better quality. The switch from cultivated crops to grassland farming has improved water quality from farms. The best of the nonrenewable natural resources are gone, but new technologies permit the profitable recovery and more efficient use of remaining resources. The renewable resources of timber and soil should continue indefinitely with good stewardship, and the wind power of northern ridge tops is only now being developed. The majority of our forests are still productive and of good quality, as are the better farms. Most streams are swimmable, drinkable, and fishable.
Written by William N. Grafton