After severe storm events like those recently experienced in West Virginia, humans aren’t the only ones forced to rearrange and cope with change. Forests react and adapt as well.
Anyone who has been in the woods near the New River Gorge since last month’s mammoth snowstorm, for example, knows that the forest looks radically different than it did before winds and the weight of heavy snow snapped crowns and bowed trees to their breaking point.
And those who walked the ridges before and after this summer’s derecho recall yet another scene change.
In ecology, a “disturbance” refers to an event — like a windstorm, a fire or a clear cut — that causes a dramatic change in an ecosystem.
A “disturbance” might sound like something to avoid, but ecosystems rely on such events, when they occur naturally, to diversify and evolve.
Storms are natural disturbances that break up the uniformity of the forest, creating gaps and patchworks so new species can become established.
All of a sudden, sunlight can reach the forest floor. Mosses, ferns and seedlings can sprout. The craters left by upended tree root systems become ponds where salamanders can live and other animals can drink.
“This is a place of rebirth,” says John Perez, a biologist for the National Park Service.
“It’s an area of a lot of activity because the sun’s energy is there. The seeds are already on the forest floor and when the sun hits it, boom, it’s just like a Chia pet.”
In short, plants and animals take advantage of the new microhabitats formed by a storm’s destruction.
In the relatively unbroken forests that were home to West Virginia’s Native American people, these events would have created healthy opportunities for growth and change.
Now, though, we already have plenty of patchwork in the landscape — whether because of towns, railroads, or mountaintop removal sites — and so the New River Gorge is seen as an important area of unbroken forest, worthy of preservation.
“Natural gaps were always a good thing, generally, because they were a place of rejuvenation,” says Perez. “But in this era, it’s also a place where bad things can get established, like exotic plants. So we need to keep an eye out for those areas so that Japanese knotweed, kudzu and other sun-loving plants can’t get established in an otherwise unbroken forest.”
The flipside of rejuvenation, says Perez, is that some invasive species are a little too good at it. Now, the sun-drenched gaps of the post-storm forest could be overcome by non-native species, which threaten to choke out native varieties.
The park maintains monitoring plots to watch for this kind of dynamic, and they apply herbicides where possible.
In addition, when the storms snap the tops from trees, it’s like opening a wound on skin. Bugs, beetles and other pests can get established. Trees like the eastern hemlock, which are already vulnerable because of the hemlock woolley adelgid — a non-native insect that kills hemlocks — could suffer an even faster decline.
Superstorm Sandy and the summer’s derecho appear to have affected the New River Gorge area in different ways.
Sandy was hard on shallow-rooted species like the Virginia pine, which were easily uprooted by the heavy snow and wind.
Evergreen trees, perhaps because their thick needles were able to catch more snow, were hardest hit — hemlock, pine and spruces snapped or endured broken branches. The weight of the snow also damaged hardwood trees that retained their leaves, or more brittle species like tulip poplars.
On the other hand, in the summer windstorm — which Perez says was far more destructive than Sandy — the biggest, oldest and tallest trees were brought to their stumps.
“The oldest trees in the park came down in the windstorm,” he says. “It appeared to me that it was the biggest trees that had a canopy that could catch a lot of wind, almost like a tent or sail.”
Carnifex Ferry State Park was one of the hardest hit areas by the windstorm, where trees as old as 400 years old blew over.
Some healthy hemlocks in the Fern Creek area also met their demise, though Perez says he was almost glad to see them go by natural causes, rather than slowly dying at the mandibles of the hemlock woolley adelgid.
Down along the river, areas near Stonecliff lay almost flat from the windstorm.
“It was particularly bad right along the edge,” says Perez. “I think we may have had some really high winds in the Gorge. I don't know, really, what was going on in the Gorge, but I would say we almost got some tornadic type winds.
“I even saw sycamores uprooted and snapped off, and that is a tough tree.”
To endure two major storms in less than six months is remarkable, says Perez.
“We’re starting to see a lot of big storms and I think it’s because of a changing climate, possibly. We’re having 100- year storms every 10 years now.”
He has seen and weathered other major “disturbances” in his career as a biologist, including another monumental snowstorm in 1998. But compared to these other events, the derecho was particularly memorable.
“There’s no question it was more than a 100-year event for this state,” he says. “It was one of those storms you probably won't see another one in your life time. At least I hope not.”
NPS crews, volunteers join to clear trails
FAYETTEVILLE — Before they could get back on trail after Superstorm Sandy, local hikers, bikers and climbers had to give back through volunteer service.
Members of the local outdoor community assisted crews from the National Park Service in the aftermath of the storm, helping clear fallen trees and branches from well-loved trails at New River Gorge National Park.
“We have been absolutely overwhelmed with the commitment of local volunteers and people who like to use the trails,” says Robin Snyder, chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at the park.
“They have been out in force clearing stuff and communicating with people in the park about what they are doing. We’ve had reps from the New River Bicycle Union, New River Alliance of Climbers and other people that just like to hike, bike or climb.”
“We all share a passion for the trails,” said one of the volunteers, Levi Rose. “I think it’s just that there are a lot of good folks in the community here that really enjoy these trails and wanted to see them get back into shape as soon as they could.”
Rose cleared trails as a volunteer on five occasions, and even created trail status maps with GIS to update those who wanted to pitch in about what still needed to be done. The volunteers largely used social networking to coordinate the effort.
“We were a little more prepared for this storm to jump into action and get organized,” says Adam Stephens, owner of Marathon Bikes and a member of the New River Bicycle Union. The volunteers learned from their experience helping out after the derecho.
“It’s important to get these trails clear because they are a huge part of our community now,” says Stephens.
“Plus, there’s the economics of it. If people come here and can’t use the trails to run, bike, and hike, they are going to get in their cars and go to another location and everybody loses out.”
Snyder says that for a national park, having such partners is “a perfect place to be.”
Park officials aren’t certain that they’ll be getting any support for the storm recovery from the Washington regional office, so they are trying to take care of all the work in-house.
Primarily, the park’s Protection and Maintenance staffs have taken on the lion’s share of the work.
Early on in the extreme weather event, park leaders set up an incident command team and sat down as a group to prioritize clearing roadways, campgrounds and the most popular trails.
Afterward, park employees spent days assessing the damage.
“What we found was hundreds, probably thousands of downed trees. We feel like this most recent blizzard brought down the trees that had been weakened from that wind storm,” says park ranger Frank Sellers.
In particular, they saw a lot of downed pine and hemlock, as well as snapped treetops. The summer’s derecho, on the other hand, brought down large hardwoods like oak and maple.
A week after the storm, the incident command team dismantled and staff began to work in earnest cutting and clearing the detritus, sometimes with sheer person power and sometimes with chainsaws and heavy equipment.
Protection rangers — law enforcement and public safety folks — took the lead in organizing cleanup efforts.
A week’s worth of clearing by volunteers and about 20 staff members had most trails, park roads, and boat launches open.
A few, like Kaymoor Trail, Butcher’s Branch, Glade Creek and The Bridge Trail, are open but not entirely clear.
Sellers estimated on Wednesday that the overall task was about three-quarters complete.
“With volunteer help and the park crews we’ve got out there, we’ve actually made good progress,” he says.
Snyder expected that by the end of the week most of the regularly used trails will be cleared, at which point staff will move on to some of the more obscure ones.
Most of the large obstacles have now been removed from the popular paths, but there are still some low hanging branches and greenbriers lingering that could snag a biker or hiker.
“When people are out on the trails, if they just take the time to move a branch or trim something back — even one branch — every time they get out, the trails will be back to normal here before long,” says Rose.
But Sellers has a feeling that normal might not last too long.
“If we get more heavy snow this winter, we expect to have more trees come down that were weakened by that storm. It’s possible that after we get done this first go-round of clearing that we may be doing it again here in a couple of months,” he said.
Stephens says he hopes to work with NPS to get access for volunteers to motorized chain saws so they can do more in the future.