Monongahela National Forest: Big Rock Vegetation Project


The National Forest is currently working to incorporate climate change considerations into their management planning.

The Big Rock vegetation management project will address the potential environmental impacts due to creating early successional forest; enhancing the growth and mast production of forest stands; and increasing wildlife habitat diversity on the Gauley District of the Monongahela National Forest. The purpose of the Big Rock Project is to implement land management activities that are consistent with the Monongahela National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan (Forest Plan) and will help to bring the Forest closer to the desired condition. The desired condition relevant to this project is for a full range of forest age-classes of primarily hardwood trees and associated understories to be distributed in a mosaic pattern, thus providing for the habitat needs of a variety of wildlife species. Harvest of trees is expected to provide sustainably-produced timber to the market. Roads and trails systems provide access for recreation, administration, and management purposes, including transportation of forest products. 

Contact: Patricia Butler

Project Location and Partners

The Big Rock Project is located in the Cranberry River watershed, north of the community of Richwood, in the Allegheny Mountains region of West Virginia. The 23,490 acres in the project area include an estimated 21,767 acres of National Forest System Land and 1,723 acres of privately-owned land. No activities are proposed on private lands. The majority of the project area is upland characterized by mid- to late-successional communities of mixed cove hardwoods, northern hardwoods and mixed oak forests. Many of the stands contain closely-spaced trees in crowded conditions that affect growth, crown size, and mast production.

The current management goals are to: create early successional forest, enhance the growth and mast production of forest stands, and increase wildlife habitat diversity.

Climate Change Vulnerabilities and Opportunities

The Big Rock project team worked with NIACS over the winter of 2014 to identify large-scale climate trends and projections for the region (Butler et al. 2015). They also considered how the local characteristics of the project area might modify some of the projected impacts of climate change. The Allegheny Mountains region has experienced substantial changes in temperature and precipitation over the past 100 years, and the rate of change appears to be increasing. A few notable climate trends include:

• Warmer temperatures in each season

• Reduced precipitation and drier soils in the fall or summer months

• A shift toward more intense events and longer periods between events

• Longer growing seasons

• Projected decrease in suitable habitat for red maple, black birch, sugar maple, and American beech

• Potential increase in invasive plants and pathogens

• Increased disturbance from wind and storms

A few projected climate impacts that could be particularly important for the Big Rock project area include:

• The complex topography of the project area is expected to provide a diversity of microhabitats, which may be more or less buffered from projected climate impacts. Specifically, north-facing slopes are expected to retain more moisture and serve as refugia for mesic species like sugar maple. Concave positions that typically accumulate and store moisture and nutrients are also more likely to be buffered from climate changes.

• An intensification of rain events is expected to cause erosion and sedimentation issues in this area, where steep slopes and shallow soils are already prone to slipping. When combined with wind, blowdown can also increase during times of heavy soil moisture, especially on shallow soils.

• Increased streamflow and flood events are expected to result in increased erosion and siltation, as well as increased transport of invasive species propagules.

• There is strong agreement among models that important species will decline: sugar maple, American beech, and hemlock. There is some evidence that decreases in suitable habitat is likely for many species common to this project area: black cherry, white ash, bigtooth and quaking aspens, northern red and chestnut oaks, basswood, red maple, sweetbirch, black locust, and yellow poplar. Within the Allegheny Mountains region, however, this project area may be able to provide some areas of refugia for these species as they decline elsewhere.

• Xeric species that can tolerate drier conditions are likely to fare better than mesic species in this region: mockernut, pignut, shagbark, and bitternut hickories; cucumbertree, white oak. 

In summary, these climate trends point to a future that is warmer and more variable, presenting greater stress for mixed cove and northern hardwoods forests. Indirect effects of climate change on invasive plants will likely result in increased competition with native regeneration. Models used in this project did not include interactions with insect pests and diseases, although forests are already being heavily impacted by emerald ash borer and hemlock wooly adelgid. Insect pests and diseases, such as oak decline, is expected to increase as temperatures warm.

Management Challenges and Opportunities

Based on the projected impacts to the area, project team members identified challenges and opportunities to meeting their management objectives. Examples of climate change-related challenges for forest restoration in the Central Appalachians region include:

• Increases in invasive plants will likely result in increased competition with native regeneration, especially with regeneration in the understory

• As beech declines, resprouting will also likely compete strongly with desired regeneration

• Many desired species are projected to decline (e.g., hemlock, sugar maple, beech, balsam fir, aspen)

• In riparian areas, there is no other native conifer to replace hemlock, which is already decline due to hemlock wooly adelgid

• Several important mast species are projected to decline, including pin cherry and beech, resulting in reduced food for wildlife species

Climate change related opportunities for forest restoration in the Central Appalachians region include:

• Although many species common to the project area are projected to decrease, it is expected that the project area itself contains many microhabitats that may serve refugia in the larger landscape

• The existing understories now include a high number of native species representing a mix of future winners and losers, as well as a mix of shade tolerances. These young populations are a great opportunity for release treatments to promote desired species

• Thinning of dense stands that opens up the canopy and reduces moisture will could be a benefit to establishment of oak species, which could buffer the loss of other mast producers

• The mortality of riparian hemlock will provide large woody debris in the short term, which will help regulate stream temperature

• Scattered areas of early successional habitat are likely to resist certain forest pests

Adaptation Actions

The project team considered these challenges and opportunities relative to meeting their management goals and objectives. Within this context, a number of potential adaptation actions were identified with the overarching intent to maintain the resilience of the forest to changing conditions, or to facilitate a transition to a sustainable forest condition. The project team generally views the adaptation actions as slight adjustments, rather than a significant departure, to the current management trajectory. Additionally, several “contingency plans” were discussed for responding to disturbances or other unforeseen events. For example, riparian areas with a large hemlock component were identified as at risk from near-term mortality from introduction of hemlock woolly adelgid, emerald ash borer, or a combination of these threats. Although no active management is currently planned in these stands, white pine and Norway spruce were identified as potential nonnative species that could be planted in riparian areas to maintain conifer cover if intervention was deemed necessary.

Table of adaptation actions

Current Project Status

Monongahela National Forest staff completed the Adaptation Workbook in the winter of 2014 and is using this information to incorporate climate change considerations into the Proposed Actions and Alternatives.