A huge partnership between Weyerhaeuser, the DNR, and many others is pioneering sustainable new practices within the forest industry.

This story was originally published in the August 2022 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit wonderfulwv.com

Written  by Lydia Owens

First image: Wood thrush on nest photographed by Tessa Nickels

In the summer heat of 2021, two graduate students from West Virginia University trekked through 15,000 acres of forest and underbrush to hear birds warble. This wasn’t just a search for the perfect picnic ambiance—the birds recorded are the focus of a huge project with many different partners across state and national lines, all working together to create sustainable practices and a profitable future within the forest industry.  

The project is designed to engage both institutional and individual landowners in forest management and to study the landscape and patterns of various species that live within the central Appalachian forests, encompassing roughly 737,000 square miles. 

Image courtesy of Jennifer Byerly

The Matter of Birds

Golden-winged warbler photographed by Joey Herron

Currently, nine organizations are working alongside the Weyerhaeuser Company on a plot of forest spanning 250,000 acres, focusing specifically on three at-risk songbirds whose population is declining: the golden-winged warbler, the cerulean warbler, and the wood thrush. 

“Though there are many reasons why these bird species are in decline, a big driver is habitat loss,” says Rich Bailey, state ornithologist from West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources. “West Virginia is a forest state and the third most forested state in the country. Because we’re so forested, we have a pretty large responsibility for some of these species. We need to start moving the dial on conservation for the species. And that means habitat management, in a lot of cases.” 

Habitat management doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the forest untouched. “Not all cutting is bad,” says Chris Lituma, assistant professor of wildlife and fisheries resources at WVU. “There’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction in the conservation community to not cut anything, but there’s a lot of good research to suggest that a lot of our forests are too undisturbed.” 

While unfettered growth initially sounds like a good thing, it stunts the natural shape and range of a balanced forest environment. 

“Before the European settlement, the forests were a diverse mosaic of ages and structures,” Bailey says. “There were canopy gaps. There might have been wildfires that created interesting habitats within a generally forested landscape.” But through the 1800s and early 1900s, vast areas were logged. “As time went on, forests grew back into mature trees, but all the trees are the same age, with a closed canopy—they’re not structurally diverse. And because of that, the habitat is not as optimal as it should be or could be to support thriving bird populations.”

And Where They Nest

Discovering how to support a thriving ecosystem for bird populations is a large focus of the collaboration.

The first stage was implemented in 2021 to study at-risk birds within the Weyerhaeuser property. “It’s a two- to three-year project that’s funded through an organization called the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation,” says Todd Fearer, coordinator of the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture with the American Bird Conservancy. “We really focused on doing a lot of bird monitoring to get a baseline understanding of what birds are on the Weyerhaeuser property and how they’re responding to the different types of forest management that Weyerhaeuser was doing.” The project is also funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement.

Initial data collected in 2021 showed promising counts of golden-winged warblers that benefitted from Weyerhaeuser’s timber harvesting. “They do tend to like areas that have been recently harvested,” Lituma says. “These songbirds are migratory and are only here during the breeding time.” 

And their breeding ground needs a fresh bed of growth. “They require what we call young forest,” Fearer explains. “Forests that grow up after a mature forest has been harvested. Five- to 10-year-old, really thick seedling saplings—that’s where they nest.”

Cerulean warbler photographed by Tessa Nickels

Now, the research team needs to learn where to best facilitate young forests. “One of our main goals is to figure out where birds are occurring on the landscape like this—which species are utilizing which areas,” Lituma says. “I have two graduate students who just left to begin collecting the data and will be out there all summer going to different parts of the property. It’s 250,000 acres that Weyerhaeuser made available to us to do our surveys where we see fit and collect data about the bird communities, tree species, and forest infrastructure.”

As new research informs Weyerhaeuser on the best practice of forest management, it also informs the next step of the project—spreading across Appalachia. “A secondary goal is the potential application of the project’s findings to other forestland,” says Jennifer Byerly, director of communications for the nonprofit Sustainable Forestry Initiative. “Birds don’t see property lines or country borders, so SFI and our partners are tasked with taking the project’s findings and applying them at scale across North America.” 

Foresting the Future 

Image courtesy of Jennifer Byerly

WVU’s Lituma hopes that, in working with Weyerhaeuser, they’ll be able to come up with plans that protect both the birds and the company’s bottom line. “If we know certain birds are occurring at a particular place on the property,” he proposes, “we might be able to go to Weyerhaeuser with a plan and suggest, rather than start some new harvesting, maybe go back to where the birds are occurring and create some additional habitat for them.” 

This plan of large forest conservation and profitability doesn’t stop with just Weyerhaeuser. When successfully implemented, the project will progress to more institutional landowners in an effort to guide them through sustainable forest management. Part of that occurs through a certification process designed to protect wildlife that was created by the SFI. 

“The SFI standards include requirements for attending to Significant Species of Concern,” Byerly says. “These requirements ensure that landscape-scale analyses and research inform management decisions at the landscape level.” 

It’s important that Weyerhaeuser’s and SFI’s certification standards are in line with the science for forest management, for birds, for the state, and they are, says the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture’s Fearer. His goal is to push it further, to adjust the standards in a way that entices more foresting companies into achieving those sustainability requirements. “Can we actually create a kind of a bird-friendly forestry label or marketing mechanism based on that existing certification?” 

That’s what the research is set up to find out. “We’re really looking to develop a set of practices and desired conditions that can be scaled up to large landscapes,” DNR’s Bailey says. “We’ve been working with small family landowners who maybe have 50 acres or so, and we’re looking to evolve a way for us to scale it up to tens of thousands of acres—or to have a landscape approach where you have a single landowner like Weyerhaeuser, and they have a comprehensive set of guidelines and strategies to manage their properties for these species. We want to develop a template for implementing these practices that is consistent with SFI certification requirements but also with the management objectives of the landowners.” 

This works as an attractive allure for lumber companies because it provides balance between capital and conservation. “It demonstrates that you can have an industrial force that is managing their land for profit,” Fearer says, “but is very compatible with stewardship, sustainable forest management, and providing good habitat as well.” 

The Growing Impact

Although this project initially spans only a couple years of research, it’s expected to continue with much longer goals for the future. Working with Weyerhaeuser will be the first step to developing partnerships with more companies across Appalachia. 

“This is one of our first partnerships with a big forest industry company,” says Fearer. “We also work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which works with private landowners that have property surrounding the Weyerhaeuser ownership, to use the property as an anchor point or proof of concept. I’ve already talked with them about reaching out to some of the other forest industry partners in West Virginia, having them come to the Weyerhaeuser property, looking at what Weyerhaeuser’s doing, and having that same conversation with them, to be able to build on that and expand out to other forest industry partners.”

Image courtesy of Jennifer Byerly

It’s an invigorating prospect for the DNR. “As an agency, we have not had a huge amount of engagement with these large forest landowners in this kind of way,” Bailey states. “We’ve engaged with them in various other projects, but actually developing a model where we can have a coordinated approach to bird conservation, other conservation, and create the context of what we call a dynamic forest landscape is exciting.”

The coordination of so many different working partners proves it takes a village to raise a forest. “That’s one of the things that I’m most proud of,” Lituma says. “That we’ve got a bunch of people who have come to the table and organizations that all agree that this research is important. And these collaborations are really important in what we do.”

It inspires a hopeful vision. “Years from now, the region will be filled with songbirds in numbers that only previous generations were lucky enough to listen to,” Byerly reflects. “By taking leadership toward collaborative approaches for bird conservation, West Virginia is earning a rightful place in conservation consistent with the critical importance of the natural resources in the Mountain State.”