A Recycled Park

For many years, the NPS presented a pre-SNP scenario of severe land abuse, erosion and general decimation of forest resources.  However, more recent interpretation presents a different picture, suggesting that, for the most part, the park land was not in such a dire state of degradation. 


The first SNP forest-mapping inventory of 1937 showed that only 14.5% of the park acreage was open, either as cultivated or pastureland and that only 25.7% of the Park land showed evidence of burning. Eleven watersheds, or parts of watersheds, were identified that retained significant forest communities with no evidence of previous logging activity.  These included Hogwallow Flats, Hogback (south side), Beahms Gap (south and east sides), Pass Run to Shaver Hollow (upper slopes), the Robinson River watershed, Staunton River, Big Run, Loft Mountain (east side), Hangman Run, Devils Ditch and the Upper Conway River, and the lower slopes of Cedar Mountain.  Only four areas were noted with serious erosion; the northwest side of Neighbor Mountain/Jeremiah Run, the South Fork of the Thornton River, Pond Branch, and the North Branch, Moormans River.  Not surprisingly, the last two identified areas were also the most impacted areas in the Park from the 1996 Hurricane Fran flooding event.


In 1937, Darwin Lambert wrote his first major SNP publication (Beautiful Shenandoah: A Handbook for Visitors to Shenandoah National Park).  In it, he writes,


 Seven-eighths of the Shenandoah National Park is covered by a green blanket of forest. This forest is composed of approximately eighty species of trees, at least that many more shrubs and vines, and almost countless kinds of smaller plants . . . Throughout the entire area, in nearly all kinds of environments, the oaks are the most common. These oaks are of about ten different species.  Chestnut oak is probably the most numerous, but there are many splendid white and red oak trees.”


Certainly, the conditions at the time of the Park’s creation are subject to interpretation.  What we do know is that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), created in FDR’s first year of office in 1933, was given the task of making the ‘unnatural’ Park ‘natural’ again.  From 1933 to 1942 an estimated 10,000 men planted hundreds of thousands of trees, shrubs, and vines in Shenandoah National Park, including Fraser fir, red spruce, Canadian yew, table mountain pine, Virginia creeper and trumpet creeper, and others.  Many of these were grown in three CCC plant nurseries from seeds collected within the park.


Much of the displays of mountain laurels that today line the Skyline Drive were, in fact, planted by the CCCs.  Surprisingly, after the November 2000 fires, remnants of the contoured planting beds paralleling the Drive between Thornton Gap and Skyland were once again revealed. 


Most of the blue-blazed trails within the Park take the hiker along former wagon roads that took the mountain residents from one side of the mountain to the other, or from one ‘holler’ to another.  The astute hiker might notice that every former roadbed in the Park has a nice, flat, or horizontal, surface.  This is not due to the original inhabitants of these mountains.  They certainly wouldn’t spend the time and energy to flatten the road surface, nor would they need to for their oxen and wagon.  In fact, it was the result of extensive efforts expended by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), who leveled every mountain road, rut and trail in the Park, adding most of the rock retaining walls as they proceeded, in order to make the roads suitable for car and truck traffic.


A hike in the Park, especially in winter, can reveal some of the plethora of mountain resident artifacts still visible throughout the Park.  Rusty galvanized buckets, mason jars, fine china, auto bodies and carriage parts, even broken 78 rpm records and bits of shoe leather may be found among the stonewalls, spring houses, house foundations, and hundreds of rock piles that are the result of generations farming and living on the land.  What was once considered trash by the NPS, who encouraged PATC hikers to remove in the 1960’s, now represent cultural resources, which should not be handled.


But, other artifacts from these former residents can also be observed if one is careful to look.  Tulip poplars, all of the same diameter and height, and all lacking branches on the lower third of their boles, now repopulate acres of land.  Certainly, this is not a natural forest.  Rather, it represents former cropped or grazed open lands, and the tulip poplars represent the growth that has occurred since these fields went fallow.


Despite the disturbances resulting from the previous century of users, the forest community was still intact at the time of SNP’s establishment. With each cutting of a forest, the succession of the forest towards a ‘climax forest’ was set back, but not changed in species or potential diversity. More of the same species of plants and trees would replace them, and the forest community would continue. This is much unlike today, when an opening of the canopy would likely bring about an uncontrolled explosion of exotic plant growth and elimination of native plant populations by overpopulated deer.


As the introduction of exotic plants, animals and fungi and natural catastrophic events continue to affect the forest community, we can be assured that SNP will not be the same place in another 20 or 200 years as it is now.  We must appreciate what we have now and make decisions that will protect our natural environment for future generations to appreciate.


Bob Pickett, PATC’s Naturalist