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Virginia Naturally

Virginia's Forest Resources

Chapter 4

Forests cover 65% of the state’s land area, making forestry the single most important land use in Virginia. (Figure 1). Forests tend to be found on land that is unsuitable for other uses, particularly for agriculture (Figure 2). On the coastal plain you are most likely to see forests growing on land that is too wet (at least seasonally) for farming, such as in swamps and on land that has a high water table. On the piedmont, forests tend to grow on land that was formerly farmed but has badly eroded and grown back into forestland through a process called succession. In the Blue Ridge,ridge and valley and Appalachian plateau regions, forests occur on land that is too steep or too rocky to farm. Two-thirds of all forest land in Virginia is owned by private landowners who pay taxes on their forest land. Other forest land is owned by local, state and federal governments and held as forests and parks. Virginia has two national forests (the George Washington and Jefferson), seventeen state forests, and Shenandoah National Park.

Forests are a Renewable Natural Resource

A natural resource is something useful that comes from nature. We get many useful things from forests, such as paper products and wood. A renewable resource is one that can replenish itself after it has been harvested. Forests replenish themselves by growing from seed or sprouting from stumps or roots. Landowners often assist this process by planting trees that have been grown from seed in special tree nurseries. The Virginia Department of Forestry grows seedlings at several locations in Virginia

Map showing Virginia's forest coverageIn 2001, Virginia’s forests contributed $30.5 billion annually to the economy, and supported the single largest manufacturing industry in the state, ranking first in employment, wages and salaries. These “working forests” also reduce air and water pollution, protect water supplies, reduce storm water runoff, and reduce heating and cooling costs.

The term sustainable is often mentioned when discussing renewable resources. In forestry, one measure of sustainability is to compare the growth of forests with removal. In 2001, Virginia’s forests grew by 641 million cubic feet, while we harvested 389 million cubic feet. Because we are growing more than we are harvesting, we are practicing sustainable management.

Challenges- Deforestation, Invasive Species, Global Competition

Virginia Forest Products

  • softwood lumber (for home construction)
  • hardwood lumber (for flooring and manufacturing)
  • furniture and furniture parts
  • cabinets and millwork
  • oriented strand board (OSB)
  • pallets
  • posts and poles
  • copy paper
  • paperboard (baseball cards, food containers)
  • newspaper
  • cardboard boxes
  • fragrances
  • Christmas trees
  • clean air and water

Virginia’s forests and forest industries face significant challenges. Deforestation is one challenge frequently mentioned in the media, but usually in the context of global trends and issues. Deforestation should not be confused with timber harvesting, because in most situations forest land will grow back after harvesting. Historically, most deforestation in Virginia came when forest land was converted to agriculture prior to 1890. This was followed by a period of afforestation, when agricultural land reverted back to forest and forest land actually increased. Today, forest land is again being lost, but this time to urban and community development. Each year 68,000 acres of forestland is lost to development, the equivalent of 1 acre every eight minutes. However we gain 28,000 acres every year for a net loss of 20,000 acres each year.

Another challenge is the introduction of exotic, invasive and destructive species from abroad. The classic example is the loss of the American chestnut in the 1930’s as the result of chestnut blight, a disease fungus introduced from Asia. Today, forest managers struggle with exotics, such as the Asian longhorned beetle and gypsy moth (insects), sudden oak death and dogwood anthracnose (fungi) and tree-of heaven (an invasive plant).

Finally, global competition is a challenge to the forest industry in Virginia. Labor costs in developing countries, often lower than in the US, make our forest products more expensive in the global marketplace. Consequently, manufacturing jobs and facilities are being lost, particularly in the furniture industry. As mills close, communities are disrupted, and we lose markets for our timber. Without a market for forest products, it is possible that land currently in forests will be converted to other land uses.

Forest Communities

Forest communities are places where certain types of plants and animals are found living together. They are usually named for the dominant trees. The oak-hickory forest is the most common forest community in Virginia, regardless of where you live- coastal plain, piedmont, ridge and valley or Appalachian plateau. Common species are white oak, red oak, black oak, scarlet oak, chestnut oak, mockernut hickory, pignut hickory, tuliptree, maple and black walnut. Pines make up less than 25% of the trees in oak-hickory forests. The oak-pine forest is the second most common forest community and is found primarily on the coastal plain and piedmont. Common species are white oak, red oak, black oak, scarlet oak, chestnut oak, loblolly pine, shortleaf pine, Virginia pine, black gum, sweet gum, hickories and tulip tree.

Pine forests, both natural and plantation, are the next two most common forest types and occur mostly on the coastal plain and piedmont. In natural pine stands the most common species are loblolly, shortleaf and Virginia pines. In pine plantations, where trees are intentionally planted by man, the most common type is loblolly, with white pine sometimes planted in the western part of the state. Many natural pine stands are being planted to loblolly pine after harvest, because loblolly grows fast and is in high demand for paper, construction wood and other forest products.

Lowland hardwoods are the fifth most common community, and occur mostly on the coastal plain. Pines are less than 25%. Common species include willow oak, water oak, blackgum, sweetgum, cottonwood, willow, ash, elm, hackberry and red maple.

Top 10 Most Common Virginia TreesForest-type Groups

  • White oaks
  • Red oaks
  • Yellow pines (includes loblolly)
  • Tulip tree (yellow-poplar)
  • Maples
  • Hickories
  • Sweetgum
  • White pine
  • Beech
  • Tupelo (black gum)

Forests and Watersheds

Forestry is the best land use in terms of protecting water quality. Generally, the larger the percentage of forest land, the greater is the water quality in receiving streams and rivers. That is why many local drinking water sources, such as reservoirs and rivers, are surrounded by forests. Trees and forest soils intercept and absorb large amounts of rain, reducing the amount of runoff that is discharged into streams and rivers, and extending the time that a watershed has to absorb rainfall. This reduces flooding and erosion. Trees also protect water quality by reducing air pollution that gets trapped in their canopies and is absorbed into their leaves. These pollutants are incorporated into the soil after leaf fall where they are broken down by microbes.

Table 1. Forest land in Virginia watersheds
Name Of Watershed Percentage Forest Land
(Virginia's Portion Of Watershed)
Chesapeake Drainage
James River 71
Potomac/Shenandoah Rivers 55
Rappahannock River 57
York River 64
Mississippi Drainage
Big Sandy River 94
Clinch/Powell Rivers 79
New River 66
Roanoke River 68
North Carolina Sounds Drainage
Albemarle Sound 9
Chowan River 59

Riparian buffers

The lands next to streams and rivers are called riparian areas. Trees planted here are extremely valuable for removing pollutants before they reach water. When we plant trees in these areas it is called a riparian buffer. There are many opportunities in agricultural and residential areas to plant riparian buffers.

Timber Harvesting is Important for Managing Healthy Forests

Trees do not live forever, and they generally grow slower as they get older. As trees die they can become fuel for catastrophic forest fires, and when they grow slower they become more susceptible to insect attack and disease. Therefore, it is often necessary and desirable to harvest timber. Forest management and timber harvesting can be accomplished without harming the soil and water. The key is a well-planned project using "best management practices," or BMP’s for short. Examples of best management practices include well-constructed logging roads that allow trucks to neatly enter and exit an area; properly-located skid trails where skidders drag logs to an area called a landing to be loaded onto log trucks; and quickly replanting disturbed soil with grass.

There are several ways to harvest timber. Clear cutting is a method where all the trees are removed at once, allowing full sunlight to reach the forest floor. This type of harvest is done when we want to regenerate trees that are adapted to high sunlight conditions (see Table 2). After clear cutting, the soil is usually well protected by leaves, shrubs, new vegetation and woody debris left on site. Since most erosion comes from logging roads, clear cutting also has the additional advantage of needing only temporary roads that can be re-vegetated after harvest.

Needs shade Intermediate Needs full sunlight
Dogwood Oak Pine
Beech Hickory Tulip Tree
Sugar Maple Ash Redcedar
Hemlock White Pine Black Cherry
Spruce Sycamore Black Locust
  Elm Sweetgum
  Red & Silver Maples Walnut

Selective harvest is a method where only part of the forest canopy is removed at one time. It works best when we want to regenerate trees that require shade in order to grow properly. Care must be taken not to remove only the best trees and leave the worst trees, a term called high-grading. Because harvesting occurs several times over the life of a forest stand, special care must be made to keep roads properly maintained.

Other timber harvesting methods include 1) seed tree, where a few trees are retained to produce seed for the next stand of trees; 2) group selection, where clumps of trees are removed, much like a small clear cut; and 3) shelterwood, where a third to half of the canopy is removed at each harvest.

In some types of forests, low intensity fires are important to maintaining healthy, dynamic ecosystems. For this reason, foresters and wildlife managers often use controlled, or "prescribed," burning to improve tree planting and habitat conditions. Fire clears the forest of woody debris, providing room for new plants to grow. This new growth becomes food and habitat for many birds and animals. Some plants even depend upon occasional fires for reproduction.

Virginia and Its First Inhabitants

American Indians used trees for many purposes. Hickory, oak and chestnut trees were valued for food. The word, “hickory” is actually an Algonquin word that we still use today. The bark of other trees, such as elm and yellow-poplar, were used for fiber and to cover lodges and longhouses. Pine and yellow-poplar were used for canoes.

Colonization and Conflict

Colonists had other uses for trees. In fact, Virginia was established in part to secure a supply of wood and resin needed for boat building. Live oak was prized for its wood and longleaf pine was prized for it resin (used to seal boats to prevent leakage). Both trees are found south of the James River in Tidewater Virginia. Sassafras was an important early export, before tobacco.

Civil War and Post-War Eras

The height of deforestation in Virginia probably occurred around the time of the Civil War. This coincided with land clearing for agriculture. In the post-war era much of this agricultural land was abandoned and came back as forest (forest succession). Today 65% of Virginia is forested, more than at the time of the Civil War.

Virginia 1900 to the Present

Virginia ’s forests and forest products represent the state’s number one manufacturing employer, contributing over $30 billion to the economy each year. Most of Virginia ’s paper industry is located on the coastal plain and piedmont, where the supply of “yellow” pine (loblolly, Virginia , and shortleaf) is the greatest. Yellow pine fibers provide strength to paper. Some of our finest hardwoods are grown in the Blue Ridge and Valley and Ridge Provinces , especially where soil conditions are favorable for rapid growth. This is where our furniture and cabinet industries are located. Because we are close to ports like Hampton Roads and Baltimore, we are a leading exporter of fine hardwoods.