Solitude and human history intertwine in the Dolly Sods
by Jay Turner
Four thousand feet up on a plateau in northeastern West Virginia, the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area experiences some of the most volatile weather in the mid-Atlantic. The week before I arrived, a storm blew across the mountain highlands, dropping the mercury into single digits and frosting the forests of red spruce with fresh snow. My wife, Darcy, and I reached the Sods as the storm moved east, and if our timing was right, ahead of a southerly warm front that would break winter’s spell.
Perched on the crest of the Allegheny range, the Sods promises some of the wildest land east of the Mississippi. Unlike the rest of the densely forested Alleghenies, much of the Sods is barren, making it easy to set off cross-country on skis, traversing a windswept expanse without a trail in sight. Four years before, on my first trip to the Dolly Sods, I forded rain-swollen streams, tracked a black bear through a bog, listened to coyotes welcoming dusk, and wandered for two days until I found the way back to my car. The entire Dolly Sods region measures only 32,000 acres, but it seemed like perfect wilderness. This time, I knew there was human history to be discovered, too.
A startling sign welcomed us: “Warning. Live Bombs. Do Not Touch.” At the edge of a landscape known for scenic vistas and tricky navigation, World War II mortars definitely seemed out of place. Today, only a few of these relics from military maneuvers remain, rusty memorials to the long history of human use that has shaped these mountain highlands. Since the early 19th century, logging, grazing, and military training have transformed the Sods. We returned not in search of pristine wilderness, but of restored wilderness.
Most Americans associate wilderness with the relatively untouched expanses of the West. In keeping with this ethos, Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, protecting 9 million acres, nearly all of it in the West. Few tracts in the East met the U.S. Forest Service’s stringent standards for unspoiled wildlands. But wilderness advocates soon began urging the Forest Service to consider rejuvenated parcels of eastern national forest for this highest of protections. These recovered lands, near the populous eastern seaboard, would help expand the wilderness system nationwide. In 1975 Congress responded by passing the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act, conferring protection to 15 new locations, including one-third of the Dolly Sods, and broadening the wilderness designation to include rehabilitated wildlands.
When Darcy and I woke at our campsite, the warm front had picked up its pace, arriving a day early. As we shouldered our daypacks, the sun broke through a thin haze of clouds, and melting snow soon revealed a patchwork of meadow and forest lying in gentle folds before us. Spaghnum bogs with insect-eating sundew plants and snowshoe hares make the Dolly Sods an important outpost of a more northern biome. But it is the wide-open plateau of fly-back grass and heaths that evokes the spacious feel of the Arctic. From our vista, it looked as if glaciers, not people, had sculpted this upland ecology.
In 1746, when surveyor Thomas Lewis traveled through the area, he described woods so dense that “horse or man Could hardly force his way through it.” Until the late 19th century, a tall forest of red spruce lay like a crown along the crest of the Alleghenies. Trees 2 to 4 feet in diameter, measuring 60 to 90 feet high, thrived on the moist, acidic soils of the Allegheny highlands. Rhododendron and mountain laurel crowded the understory, casting shadows on moss and humus two feet thick. Lewis’s party became so entangled in the forest that he described it as a “prison.”
As we hiked across the first watershed separating us from Bear Rocks, a small knob that marks a rise in the Sods, we kept to the miles of open meadow. No labyrinthine forests
obstructed our way. Although large stands of spruce and yellow poplar covered the hilltops, few of those spindly trees measured more than a foot in diameter. Our progress slowed only where old railroad ties protruded from the melting snow. Splintered and rotten, the ties looked like the ribs of an industrial fossil buried long ago.
In the late 19th century, railroads split these mountain highlands wide open. Parson Pulp and Lumber set up band-saw mills east and south of the Sods in 1899 and 1902. Loggers felled the immense forest and shipped the wood via rail to mills in the valleys below. The whistles of Shay locomotives climbing the mountain grades gave a soundtrack to the industrial economy sweeping across West Virginia. Black-and-white photographs from logging operations reveal a ghastly landscape of overturned soil, tangled roots, and the clutter of branches and limbs left behind. Between 1879 and 1912, loggers cut 20 billion board feet of timber in West Virginia, leveling 85 percent of the state’s 10 million acres of forest.
In 1916, the federal government purchased surface rights to the Dolly Sods and added the denuded land to the newly established Monongahela National Forest. As with many eastern national forests, the government bought these tracts from private owners, hoping that in time a new forest would take hold to protect the headwaters of eastern rivers. Yet after the
loggers moved on, sparks from locomotives and lightning set the mountains ablaze, keeping the saplings of a new forest from taking root. In July 1930, one fire engulfed 24,000 acres in the middle of the Sods. Some fires smoldered for weeks, burning down through logging slash and the deep soil until they scorched the rocks below.
After the logging and fires, resilient plants like fire cherry, bracken fern, and the heaths had reclaimed much of this broken landscape. Where limestone underlay the land, fields of grass followed the fires, lending the name “Sods” to the plateau. (“Dolly” comes from the Dahle family, one of many German families who had lived nearby since the early 19th century.)
Darcy and I forded Red Creek, continuing northeast toward Bear Rocks. Alongside the stream, the weathered stumps of three large trees stood sentinel, reminders of the forest past.
Unlike a museum, with artifacts lined up in showcases, in these highlands the reminders of history lie like puzzle pieces across the landscape. During World War II, the Army staked out the Dolly Sods for live artillery and mortar practice. For two years, munitions charged with white phosphorus rained down on the northern Sods. Before turning the area back over to the Forest Service, removal teams searched the terrain for unexploded ordnance. We kept alert for what they may have overlooked.
Bear Rocks does not stand high above the Dolly Sods, but from that modest vantage, a tangle of history and ecology lay before us. Looking north, we could see the tallest smokestack of the Mt. Storm power plant. The 1975 wilderness designation saved the Dolly Sods from strip mining: The plateau’s rich vein of coal would have become so many carloads, helping to fire Mt. Storm’s boilers.
After lunch, we turned away from the power plant and began working our way back toward camp. These highlands have a story to tell, one illustrated by railroad ties, horseshoes, and rusty scraps of metal--as well as big-tooth aspen and red spruce saplings poking through the snow. Each young tree marks the forest’s steady advance into the Sods’ broad meadows. Collectively, they set forth the promise of eastern wilderness, one of nature redeemed.
Jay Turner is a graduate student of environmental history at Princeton University.
The Dolly Sods Wilderness Area protects only one-third of these open highlands. The West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club is working to protect another 6,200 acres as wilderness, which would free them from the threat of natural-gas development. For more information, contact Dave Saville of the West Virginia Sierra Club at P.O. Box 569, Morgantown, WV 26507; (304) 284-9548; e-mail email@example.com.
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