by: Charlie Mize, RGS & AWS Public Lands Wildlife Forester – Southwest Virginia
There it went, exploding out of the rhododendron and beelining for refuge in the next holler, the elusive Virginia public land grouse. It was my first encounter on the job as the RGS & AWS Southwest Virginia Public Lands Wildlife Forester, a post I took up in February 2022. I was deep in one of the more remote forests in southwest Virginia with two colleagues from the U.S. Forest Service, surveying some stands slated for harvest under an upcoming Environmental Assessment.
We’d left the pavement hours ago but were still en route to our target forest stand. We spent the morning inching a UTV down a long-unused forest road, negotiating landslides, blown-out culverts and rock falls and sawing through several years’ worth of vegetative growth and downed trees on the once gravel roadbed. The state of the road was evidence of the recent lack of timber management on the National Forest in the region.
Not an hour later, we came upon a woodcock bobbing along the shoulder of the road, probably stopping briefly on its way up north. When we reached our destination, we parked the UTV beside a 30-year-old clearcut dominated by tulip poplar. We were lucky to see the grouse and woodcock. It’s common knowledge in these parts that these bellwether birds are scarce and getting scarcer. The critical 5- to 20-year-old young forests that ruffed grouse depend on are no longer present on our National Forests in the region at biologically relevant levels. Older regeneration harvests like the one we parked beside have grown out and not been replaced. The decline of young forest habitat isn’t the only problem; our forests have also transitioned from oak to less desirable tree species such as poplar.
My position is focused on collaborating with the Forest Service to advance our shared goals of increasing forest structural diversity and promoting healthy oak forests in southwest Virginia. In this role, I support vegetation management projects on the Clinch Ranger District, Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and the Eastern Divide Ranger District of the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests (GW-Jeff).
I’m fully embedded with the Forest Service in these three districts helping the Forest Service achieve objectives from their Forest Plan, including creating young forest habitat that will support ruffed grouse, woodcock and a whole suite of forest wildlife species.
Through my work, I conduct stand exams, write silvicultural prescriptions, layout timber sales and cruise/mark timber. Combined, these efforts are expanding the capacity for active forest management on the GW-Jeff. I’m also working on a spatial prioritization analysis to help direct our efforts in the region using variables such as forest type, elevation, ease of access and current stand conditions to identify places where habitat restoration will be most rewarding. This includes identifying project areas we can efficiently move through the Forest Service planning process and partnering with the Forest Service to implement.
RGS & AWS’s nimbleness allows us to address some of the persistent challenges the Forest Service faces. For example, RGS & AWS is collaborating with the Forest Service under our Timberdoodle Stewardship Project on the Clinch Ranger District in Lee and Wise Counties. The project area has historically been an important local grouse hunting destination, but the young forest component of the habitat matrix has all but grown out, and the grouse have dwindled with it. By partnering with forest product companies under our Stewardship Project, RGS & AWS are helping make the Timberdoodle timber sale more commercially viable. Once completed, the project will restore young and open forests across 173 acres. Through Stewardship Agreements, RGS& AWS plan to increase capacity for active forest management projects on the National Forest. This includes shelterwoods, group selections, thinnings, midstory removal, crop tree release, wildlife clearing creation, clearcuts and maintenance, road daylighting, invasive species removal, supplemental plantings and prescribed fire. As our program grows in southwest Virginia, we plan to develop a pipeline of similar projects on state and private lands as part of our all-lands approach to forest conservation.