Rural System, Inc.
 Sustained rural lands; sustained profits

The Forests of
Wise and Dickenson County

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This is a story about and observations obout the wonderful forests of Wise and Dickenson County. It is a mixture of fact and fancy, science and scenic analysis, love of the ancient and hope for the not-yet.

Lands in Wise and Dickenson County
There are a quarter-million acres of forests in the county boundaries. They color the mountains, darken the field edges. They are very different things to different groups of people, even people within the same named groups. That makes them interesting, more complex than they appear, and very difficult to manage.

As a result of a mere 200 years (now about two human life-times) of active settlement, of land clearance, wood use by families, taking logs to the mill, fires, in some cases using wood for commercial purposes, and for pulpwood production, a large proportion of the forests of the county are in a "young growth" stage. That may have been the way it has always been, for the area has, for most of the past 10,000 years, been hit by several large uncontrolled lightning-started fires each year. The forests are patchy, with different clumps of species (depending on conditions right after the last timber cut or disturbance; seeds, roots and rain; and soil conditions). "Patchy" has also been caused, at a very fundamental level, by geological and soil conditions, drought, fires, and wind storms. (Excessive moisture has rarely been a cause of the patchy stands but certainly of certain trees.)

Land may be covered by trees. Land that was once covered by trees may have no trees but may still be called forest land. We start with land as the fundamental unit, then discuss whether it has trees; their size, age, and type. For legal and other reasons forest land is defined as land area with a minimum size of one acre and 100 feet in width which is at least 10 percent stocked with trees of any size.

Minimum stocking is determined by either crown cover or basal area (definitions may be found in the Glossary):

  1. tree crowns occupy at least 10% of the potential canopy area and/or (in the young forest)
  2. there are at least 100 seedlings and sapplings (in any combination) to the area.

Some trees were densely clumped, others widespread, reflecting removal of in-between trees. The structure of the resulting groups of trees (called "stands" and named after the dominant tree species, e.g., "the white-oak stand") is fairly simple and they often have two layers and little understory or ground vegetation. This lack of vertical structural complexity probably limits habitat components for several species of vertebarte animals, including many species of birds. We can try to restore the vertical layers in some areas by reducing competition among overstory trees and increasing the amount of sun light reaching the forest floor. This will help develop an understory that will be used for foraging and nesting, ground protection, water-and-nutrient-sharing among roots, and producing insects for birds and other animals.


Thinning inluences abundance of several species in the first few years following the action. A mixture of thinned and unthinned stands will provide the diversity of conditions needed for a wide range of species. The thinned condition - a 3 year period has to be in a county-wide rotation, just as total stands need to be to achieve a stable supply of the desired early-forest species. The problem can be come very serious. perhaps unsolvable, if an adjacent area to any proposed thinning must be in a thinned condition so it can serve as a refuge or escape area for species affected by the thinning operation. Other complications result from the thinning intensity. As with other wildlife, a thining operation will affect some bird species negatively, others positively. The effect is believed to be short-term, and if managed with other on-going rotations a desirable mixture of conditions for all species and resource values can be achieved.


Trees provide shade (hardwood and conifer differ), litterfall, large woody debris to streams but these are all a function of its species, size, distance from the stream, topography, and stream velocity. Thus the amount and type of debris entering a stream varies with the location.

The Forest Animal Resource ,,,,,,

A major concept of silviculture is the study of the consequences (all types) of different levels of tree harvest, ranging along a continuum from single-tree selection to large-area clear cuts. The landscape pattern of such harvest is also of interest and it too can be described along a continuum. A result of harvests are well-known timber yields but there are other consequences.

One of these is changes in faunal populations. "Wildlife" is viewed as an over-generalized, functionless, and misleading word. Tree harvests result in increases in some animal species, decreases in others, and some are unaffected over the rotation age. The loss in one species may equal gains in another. Since animal species, like tree species, do not have the same value to humans (or role in ecosystems) it is necessary for foresters to compute net yield of faunal value when serving rational land owners who seek tree harvests that may maximize (or achieve a specified level of) faunal value over a stated period. It seems inappropriate to continue to generalize about the wild animals produced, extra, as a result of tree harvests. Perhaps potential desired faunal value produced over a stated period may be one way of expressing for a land owner one consequence of tree removal. Other production from the same removals may then be analyzed, compared, and perhaps someday optimized.

Information about the management of individual species and some species groups is available in this Web site.

End statement

The members of Rural System, Inc. work closely together and with managers, researchers, and decision-makers to develop and convey reliable information for the difficult decisions affecting the rural character of Wise and Dickenson County for the future.

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