August 2011 Issue
Vinton Furnace State Experimental Forest offers valuable research opportunities and rugged back-country recreation.
Timber Rattlesnakes like to live alongside fallen logs. They wiggle down into the forest floor vegetation, but keep their head very still on top of the log. When a small rodent runs across, the snake feels even the tiniest vibration and lunch is served.
Local lore also says you don’t want to be the third hiker walking single file. The first person wakes up a sleeping timber rattlesnake. The second person makes it angry. And the third hiker gets bit.
Anyone who cares to test that theory can visit Vinton Furnace State Experimental Forest (VFSEF) near McArthur, 75 miles southeast of Columbus. It is one of only a few sites in Ohio that is home to the state-designated endangered rattlers. The 12,089-acre forest in Vinton County was purchased by the state of Ohio in 2010 from Forest Land Group, an investment company, and was the largest remaining privately owned large block of forest available for preservation in Ohio. Eighteen different federal, state and private funding agencies (including a $1.5 million grant secured by The Nature Conservancy) made the $15.1 million purchase a reality. The cooperation assured that the Appalachian forest will remain protected. “The property changed hands many times. We are so lucky it wasn’t divided and subdivided,” says Nate Jester, acting district manager-Southern District, Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), Division of Forestry.
The region is also home to bobcats, cerulean warblers (an elusive songbird) and Indiana bats. More than 50 species of trees dot the hills, ridges and hollows, including oak, Ohio buckeye, red maple, yellow poplar, black gum, cherry and sassafras. Several rare plants, including Bartley’s bent reed grass, can also be found. VFSEF is considered one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the United States.
It is an amazing story because much of the land had once been plundered.
Vinton Forest’s struggle to survive began in the mid-1800s, when iron and steel production was a large industry in Ohio. Companies needed huge amounts of charcoal to operate iron furnaces. Charcoal was made by mounding massive piles of logs, covering them with moss and letting them “age.” Vinton Forest provided the timber to produce the charcoal, and ovens extracted the iron from local ore until the late 19th century, when high-grade ore was discovered around Lake Superior. Almost nothing remains of the village where workers who fed the huge outdoor Belgian coke ovens lived. Parts of the rock foundation of one of the ovens can still be seen today, overgrown by aggressive vines and looking like an archeological site from an ancient civilization.
“It’s gone from being basically a wasteland caused by the iron furnaces to a solid forest that is being managed and one that has been researched for a long period of time,” says Robert Boyles, chief, Division of Forestry, ODNR. “To visualize that you are standing in a completely canopied forest where there used to be a town not that far back, is to understand the resilience of Ohio’s forests.”
VFSEF was established in 1952 and since then has greatly contributed to our understanding of long-term forest management and wildlife conservation. One of the main goals of management has been to encourage the growth of oak trees in areas that can be overshadowed by other species. The oaks’ acorns provide food for more than 62 wildlife species.
Ohio also can boast of an almost $15 billion timber industry, according to Boyles, which supplies products we use every day, from writing paper to lumber used to build homes. The VFSEF research helps keep Ohio’s forests healthy for economic reasons as well.
Daniel A. Yaussy, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service research forester, northern research station, knows studies can take 20 to 40 years to finalize results. Long-term effects of management, tree disease and pest control takes years to be realized. Yaussy, who is the Forest Service scientist responsible for VFSEF research, acknowledges some of the experiments in the forest lab plots, including clear cutting and prescribed burning, are controversial and that “some mistakes have been made.” But he said that is part of the learning process.
Private owners of Ohio’s forest lands (who own 85 percent of the state’s forested acres), are encouraged to visit the forest and learn what methods of management are best for their own needs and properties. (In the 1900s, only
12 percent of Ohio was forestland, compared to today’s 30 percent, according to Yaussy.)
Vinton Forest is open to the public, but is a “working state forest, not a state park,” explains Jester. Don’t expect picnic areas, paved roads, paddleboat rentals, signs pointing to the coke oven ruins or the seven Native American mounds. Visitors must park their vehicles and walk the entire forest unless they copy what turkey hunters do and ride bicycles on sometimes impassable roads.
Next to research by government agencies, universities and other groups, Jester says the forest focuses on “back-country recreation,” including hunting. The forest closes at 11 p.m. If visitors don’t leave by then, they may be staying overnight in their cars. (Can you say black bears?)
Hikers will see plots of clear-cut land, deferred cutting, single tree selection (all methods of forest management), as well as acres of undisturbed woodlands. If patient, visitors may catch a glimpse of a pileated woodpecker, ruffed grouse or a box turtle. In good crop years, in some parts of the forest, the acorns are so abundant hikers feel as if they are walking on wooden marbles.
A favorite destination for visitors who don’t mind a hike within the forest is a sandstone outcropping shaped something like a ship’s bow. Soft moss creates a natural path through the woods and leads to the boulder. Almost iridescent light green lichen splatter the flat boulder like an artist’s painting. Three footholds for climbing were carved into the side of the bolder. Yaussy says the boulder might have been a lookout spot for Ohio Woodland Indians. It is a peaceful place where biology, geology and history come together.
For the record, no official sightings of Big Foot or any other forest monster has ever been confirmed in Vinton Forest. Of course that hasn’t stopped some locals from pointing out to curious but naive out-of-towners that “Big Foot went that way.”
Intrepid forest visitors are better off looking out for a yellow-eyed, extremely dangerous timber rattlesnake that can grow to more than six feet long.
For more information on Vinton Furnace State Experimental Forest, visit dnr.state.oh.us and click on “Forests.”