When the colonists first arrived in Jamestown in 1607, Virginia was a land of vast forests. And one of the first “products” shipped back to England was timber harvested from the land surrounding the settlement. The Cherrybark Oak trees on Jamestown Island were excellent sources of lumber and wooden shingles that were desperately needed by the people of a growing city (London). Over the course of the next 300 years, much of the forestland in Virginia was harvested to build homes in the “New World,” create sailing ships and to clear land for agricultural purposes. Little, if any, replanting of trees was performed.
The Virginia Department of Forestry was created by Gov. Henry Stuart and the General Assembly in March of 1914. Formed under the state Geologic Commission, the agency was charged with the suppression of wildfires and the reforestation of a nearly denuded Virginia – two core missions that still exist today. Over the past 100 years, Virginia Department of Forestry employees have battled 150,000 wildfires that have burned more than 3 million acres of forestland, and they’ve grown and planted more than 2 billion trees.
Chapin Jones began work March 1, 1915 as the State Forester of Virginia. He was not just the first employee at the new agency, he was the only employee. He began his tenure by creating a series of informational posters designed to educate the citizenry on the dangers of wildfire and the importance of preventing them in the first place. He expanded his duties the following year when he developed a tree nursery on land near the University of Virginia. After “going it alone” for several years, he was able to hire a handful of people to help fight wildfires in the western portion of the state. Over the next several decades, the VDOF grew slowly and steadily. One nursery expanded to two, then to three, as the need for more tree seedlings grew. The agency now has two nurseries – one in Sussex County that grows 27 million pine seedlings each year, and one in Augusta County that grows about 3 million hardwood seedlings annually.
While battling wildfires and reforestation work remain core functions, VDOF is also responsible for the quality of water through its efforts to ensure that timber harvest operations do not add sediment to streams, creeks and rivers. The agency is also working hard to conserve forested landscapes and ensure working forests remain working forestlands. Seven years ago, VDOF launched its Forestland Conservation Division. In these few short years, the division has secured more than 100 conservation easements (legal agreements that forever protect the land from development while still being the property of the private owner of the land) that cover more than 30,000 acres of forestland. VDOF also provides unbiased, scientifically-based forest management recommendations to ensure the 373,600 private forest landowners in Virginia meet their goals and objectives they have for their land. The Virginia Department of Forestry oversees 24 State Forests that serve a number of purposes: timber resource, recreational opportunities (hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, horseback riding), ecosystem services (clean air and water), and aesthetics. The forests range in size from just over 100 acres to nearly 20,000 acres and are located in most areas of Virginia.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the Virginia Department of Forestry, the agency has conducted a number of special events throughout the year. These include partnering with the Virginia Lottery on a scratch-off game; working with the Virginia Department of Transportation to focus the content of the 2014-2016 state road map on the agency and its State Forests; an exhibit of VDOF firefighting vehicles at the Virginia Museum of Transportation; an exhibition of original paintings of Smokey Bear by artist Rudy Wendelin at The Chrysler Museum of Art; displays at four NASCAR race tracks, and participation in a number of parades and the State Fair of Virginia.
As we near the end of the centennial year, the leaves are changing color and turning the vistas into sweeping palettes of scarlet, crimson and gold. We encourage you to take a drive this month to enjoy this annual event. There are ample opportunities to check out the beautiful fall foliage along the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Scenic Byway. You can learn more about peak periods and other information at www.dof.virginia.gov. All of us at the Virginia Department of Forestry look forward to a second century of protecting and serving the citizens of the Commonwealth.