The benefits of maintaining large tracts of forest lands can sometimes come in unexpected forms. Few people would guess it, but an interesting story from down in Virginia illustrates how working forests contribute to higher groundwater quality even better than older forests that are left primarily untouched.
A team of foresters on the Newport News Waterworks crew spend a lot of time checking on the health of trees in the heart of the Virginia Peninsula, which is bounded by the York River, James River, Hampton Roads and Chesapeake Bay. Within these 8,100 acres, trees are performing an essential function that can’t be seen: filtering contaminants out of water before it makes its way into the utility’s reservoirs. The watershed forest is currently the oldest and largest certified tree farm under the American Tree Farm System.
The foresters work to maintain species diversity among the trees to keep the forests healthy, noting that single-species forests are highly susceptible to being wiped out by a single disaster like a storm or pest. Loggers bid to be able to harvest the wood when trees need to come down. The utility brings in classes or scout troops from local schools to reseed and plant new trees, teaching them about conservation in the process.
Forests require maintenance and forests make for clean water, said Eddie Harrah, Waterworks’ director of forest resources. “An old forest isn’t necessarily a healthy forest.”
Harrah and James McCabe, the other forester in Newport News Waterworks, spend much of their time on the clock making observations about the trees — looking for crowding, signs of bad health or unwanted infestation. They make decisions about clear-cutting an area and whether to replant or just let nature bring in new trees.
They know that about 15 years after trees are planted, about half will need to be cut down to let the others flourish. Another 20 years after that, the less-healthy trees will be thinned out, and in another three or four decades, those fully-grown trees will be cut down and the cycle starts over.
Top photo by Jim Rhodes/Flickr Creative Commons