SUTTON, W.Va. — Mark Clarke has been the Wildlife Manager at the Elk River Wildlife Management Area in Braxton County for 26 years.  He has watched helpless as nature continued to run its course. Elk River is one of those areas where the DNR launched a project three years ago aimed at testing the idea of timber sales to improve habitat diversity.

“The area is the oldest area in the state and the habitat is the oldest habitat.  The success has been we’ve been able to manipulate that with some early successional habitat to mingle with the old growth,” said Clarke. “The negatives…I can’t think of any.”

Clark showed off his area to a group of reporters and stakeholders recently and highlighted the work which has already been done.  Several hundred acres of timber was harvested in several sales already completed at Elk River.  The Division of Natural Resources’ five-year habitat management plan calls for a total of 450 more acres to be sold and cut in the next five years on the area.

“We have several different goals and one of those goals is not to lose our oak habitat and oak forest,” Clarke said. “When you do that you have to be careful not to cut the timber the wrong way.  If you do, you can lose your oak and it will be converted into a less desirable species like maple or poplar.”

It means the timber projects on the public lands like Elk River aren’t going to be a slash and go operation.  Clear cutting isn’t always the answer.  Clarke said at Elk River they are carefully evaluating the oak stands to see if the browse coming on is oak seedlings.   If so, they will do a select cut, leaving some mature trees to create more shade since the oak grow better in the shade.

“Species we don’t necessarily want are sun loving species,” he said. “If you open it up totally you’re going to lose your oak stand.”

Clarke said in areas where the predominant tree is maple or poplar, they are going with the clear cut option.  Chances are the same trees will grow back, but for a period of time, there will be brushy cover and browse.  The area needs a lot of browse.

“We need to generate browse because that’s an alternate food source to nipping off all of this regeneration we’re trying to get,” Clarke explained. “We’ve made a difference, but we’re still not there. The goal is to overwhelm the deer with browse. We want to do that through our poplar and maple stands which have less wildlife value.”

Another way to improve the chances of restoring oak trees instead of maple and poplar is a prescription burn.  It isn’t done often, but the science of the work helps to insure the oak will grow back more quickly than the non-mast bearing species.

“You want to look at your stand three or four years after it’s cut and see if you have your oak coming back. If it’s getting shaded out by the maple and poplar, you want to plan your burn,” he said. “The poplar and maple will be knocked back by a fire where the oak is more resistant and it will survive the burn.  It gives them the advance over the other seedlings and will guarantee the oak stand.”

Prescription burns aren’t used very often in West Virginia, but during the initial timber work, logging roads were cut in a manner to prepare at least some of the forest for a controlled burn if it is needed.  Clarke and other members of the DNR staff will soon be training on how to appropriately plan and execute a controlled burn.  It remains to be seen if it will be needed.

Hickory trees are another mast producer which were desirable and the initial cuts were designed to leave some hickory standing.  Clarke said everything looked good until Super Storm Sandy and the Derecho.  Those storms taught them lessons about shag bark hickory which needs to be left in large clumps rather than single trees to endure harsh storms.

Clarke took the tour to an untouched area of the forest to see a massive red oak which had fallen across a trail.  The tree would have been worth thousands to a lumber company.  Its value as a mast producer for wildlife had long since past.  Lying across the ground split down the middle, it was worth little more than firewood.

“It’s a shame because it’s such a waste,”  Clarke said. “But at least now we’re doing something.  Before, all I could do was just let it lay, but now we have a chance to do something about it.”

A lot of the timber in the Elk River WMA, the forest which cloaks Sutton Lake, is considered by forestry standards “virgin timber.”  West Virginia University researchers aged many of the trees, including the one which had fallen, and estimated them to be close to 250 years old.  Foresters consider any tree over 200 years old virgin timber.  The aged trees are massive and shade out the forest floor, but they are well past their prime as a strong mast producer.  Truly their only value left for wildlife is for a den tree. Clarke said a few are left standing for that  purpose, but most of them need to go.

“The trees remaining today are trees which could not be logged by horseback,” said Clarke. “History back then, any tree that couldn’t be logged by horseback was left.  Those are the ones we are seeing that are falling over now and they are a detriment to the forest as a whole.”

Naturally, the timber has monetary value.  There are strict standards on how any revenue produced from the public timber sale can be used.   Elk River lies partially on property owned by the DNR and on property leased from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Under the rules any financial gain from timber cut on Corps property must be spent on improvements to that area alone.  However, money generated from the sale of the state owned timber can be used on any of the state’s wildlife management areas.

Clarke said finding places to spend the money at Elk River wasn’t a problem. Access roads have been improved which is a major cost.  Areas which were used during the timber cutting as log landings have turned into large slash piles. Here bears have been known to hibernate and other critters have sought shelter.  The loggers also as part of their remediation created ridgetop watering holes further diversifying water sources for wildlife.  Clarke said it’s starting to work.

“I’ve been here 26 years and I’d never heard a whippoorwill until that cut.  I had seen in 26 years two or three woodcock.  I see a handful of woodcock every year now,” he said. “Fawn production is up. Turkey poults have more survivability now because there’s somewhere to hide.  Things are night and day really.  Songbirds are an indicator species, but they show the health of a forest and the variety of songbirds in there now is a huge difference.”