Traces of Industry in the Trees of Jefferson National Forest
This essay on the legacies of industrial production in Jefferson National Forest is the fifth piece in the Unpure Imagination series, which seeks to engage with and challenge themes of toxicity, purity, pollution, and restoration in an always compromised world. Series editors: Ben Iuliano, Kuhelika Ghosh, and Richelle Wilson.
There is a three-mile clot blocking the flow of natural gas from the shale formations of West Virginia to the cities of the Atlantic Coast. Almost three hundred miles of the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s (MVP) pathway have been cut, cleared, and planted with pipe—nearly all but this three-mile tract in southwest Virginia, a stitch of land that crosses the Jefferson National Forest (JNF). Because this is national forest land, these three miles have kept MVP tangled in permit issues since the pipeline first began to burrow through the Appalachians in 2018. Local resistance movements work hard to keep it tangled in hopes that the embattled project will be abandoned.
So much depends on this splinter of federal woodland. “National forest” may sound like “national park,” but the management practices each extends to federal land are very different. National parks are under the domain of the National Park Service, national forests under the U.S. Forest Service. National forests prioritize “multiple uses”—recreation, yes, but also the harvesting of “forest products.” Forest Service policies centered on multiple use mean that national forests like the JNF are entwined with centuries of ongoing extraction and ecological violence.
The trees of the Jefferson National Forest hold in their roots a deep history of human–forest relationship. For generations, Indigenous peoples known as the Yesa lived as active coparticipants with forest ecology. Through controlled burns and selective girdling, the Yesa created clearings to promote the growth of berry bushes and nut-producing trees, to restore soil nutrients, and to facilitate the hunting of deer and elk. Descendants of the Yesa—among them the Monacan, Occaneechi, and other Tutelo-speaking peoples—continue to live throughout this part of Virginia, but with the arrival of European-American settlers west of the Blue Ridge in the eighteenth century, the history of human–forest relationships shifted toward one predominated by colonial notions of use.
Two of these uses—first fires for iron, then pulp for paper—remain engraved on the landscape, legible in stone ruins, slag heaps, and lumberyards choked with the smooth cylinders of branchless trunks. First: more than a hundred years ago, ironworkers harvested thousands of hardwoods from today’s JNF and cooked them into fuel for the furnaces of Virginia’s nineteenth-century iron industry. Then: mere decades after President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the Jefferson National Forest in 1936, commercial pulpwood buyers and their voracious hunger for trees carved out the priorities of JNF timber policies, leading to a battery of clear-cuts from the 1960s through the ’80s. Though the JNF adopted ecological forestry practices in the 1990s, paper mills continue to eat from its woodlands. These entangled histories of iron and paper, and the deep destruction they unleashed on the trees, make it easier now for companies to propose still more extractive uses for the JNF. This land is no pristine wilderness, the thinking goes—what’s the harm in letting a pipeline pass?
The harm, in my opinion, is the rigid mindset that a “used” place is a “used-up” place, no longer worth our care. The work of restoration in our shared historical moment asks us to care for precisely these places, the post-industrial wastelands and scraggly second-growth forests. This is why I bring my students to the JNF: so they can see the palimpsest of iron and paper layered on the land, but, more importantly, so that they can sense the possibilities of restoration trying to break through those layers of use. The poet-farmer Wendell Berry has said, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” I think of Berry’s sacred and desecrated whenever I enter the JNF. The woods within its borders are fugitives and refugees of a deep history of desecration. As an archaeologist, I am drawn to the places where this deep history is written on the land in heavy residues, places where it folds in on itself in texts of stone, metal, glass, earth, trees. I walk these archival landscapes and wonder whether desecration is a fixed and inflexible state. Can a desecrated place recover its sacredness? I think I know my answer, but I want my students to discover an answer for themselves.
Today I’m taking my class to Roaring Run Furnace, an old iron furnace in the JNF. We pile into the van and I steer us west, out of our idyllic college town in the Shenandoah Valley and up into the Alleghenies. It’s a good day for a field trip. Last week, we had to cancel plans to go to West Virginia. Hackers cyber-attacked Colonial Pipeline, and gas stations across the state went thirsty for oil. This week, the fuel is flowing again. Our tank is full.
Roaring Run is one of ten iron furnaces now decaying within the patchy borders of the JNF. Today they are ruins, almost quaint, quietly crumbling in the pockets and hollows of the Allegheny Mountains. But just a scant handful of generations ago, the furnaces ate ravenously of ores—and of woodlands. Trees made charcoal, and charcoal kept the first furnaces in blast. Ironworkers would slow-cook vast forests into charcoal to keep pace with the alchemical work of smelting; a single furnace burned through an acre of mature forest every day. The iron that flowed from the furnaces was cooled into ingots and shipped off, later to be shaped into plows, cauldrons and frying pans, rails, wrought iron, and filigree—the stuff of Victorian America.
To us, that all might feel like a long time ago, but the distance is less if you’re a pine or a poplar. Before and since the JNF’s christening in 1936, the forest has been logged for a series of uses. The oldest trees in the JNF were still saplings when most of the modern national forest lands were bare terrain studded with stumps. Circling just beyond their bark, these trees hold a collective memory of cutting: first for the charcoal of iron, then for the paper industry’s carnage of commercial pulpwood.
As our van climbs into the mountains, we pass trucks. They creep along, heavy and sluggish under loads of lumber, felled trees stacked and still glistening with resin. The trucks belch out angry black clouds from their own gas tanks, but even so, the aroma of pine wafts into the van with each truck we pass. The cuts are fresh.
We stop first on a bluff overlooking a vast and heaving mass of machinery: the WestRock paper mill in Covington. WestRock is one of the largest corrugated packaging companies in the world. The students stand quietly in awe and disgust; they didn’t know this was here, so close to the tranquil valley where we live. The apparatus of the mill is staggering. Smokestacks pierce the sky like steeples, billowing out dense plumes of gas. Below, the Jackson River curls around the mass, accepting into its waters a torrent of foaming runoff. The river is an opaque green-blue, the color of bottle glass, and the air carries the sharp and unmistakable scent of pollutants. I feel a dull headache blooming.
WestRock has been here in Covington transforming trees into packaging under changing names since 1899. Some of the pulpwood comes from the JNF. Virginia timber relies on the national forest; Covington relies on WestRock, and WestRock has given Covington the highest toxic air emissions in the state. All those trucks loaded with tree trunks meet their explanation here in this place, where forests are transformed into corrugated cardboard, the pizza boxes and generalized paper detritus of modern convenience.
For a moment I watch my students watching the paper mill, wondering if they’re all getting headaches too. I want them to feel this overwhelming place before they feel the quiet of the abandoned iron furnace and forest. I want them to know that, though hidden, the cycle of use churns on in the JNF, collapsing together the histories of iron and paper and the still-unfolding fate of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Then I turn back to the smokestacks. The chemical stench of the paper mill fills my lungs.
We leave Covington. Soon we’re on backroads, twisting through the mountains. The road is shaded by lush, late-spring woodland, and away from the paper mill, my headache fades. After a few winding miles a weathered sign appears and tells us, in retro Forest Service font, that we’ve arrived at the Roaring Run Furnace.
Today Roaring Run is a designated “recreation area” in the JNF. It’s a popular spot, but many hikers seem to barely notice the furnace ruin nestled off to one side, or realize that the woods around it are not an old-growth forest. These trees descend from the survivors of the industrial hunger for charcoal and pulpwood, or are survivors themselves.
Roaring Run was named for the rushing water that powered its bellows. During the summers of the 1830s and 40s, the ironworkers of Roaring Run—hired white laborers and enslaved African Americans—harnessed the creek and made it blast hot air into the furnace. In the hottest months of the year, the ironworkers shoveled charcoal, iron ore, and limestone flux into the furnace’s hungry mouth. When they’d tap the base, molten iron would surge hot out onto sand to cool.
Each year when summer ended, the fires went out. The brick cores and limestone sheaths of the furnace cooled, and the work changed. Some ironworkers became miners. They stripped ore from the iron seams that spider through the hills above and around the furnace. Others became charcoal makers. They cut and stacked trees into pyres, then interred the arboreal bodies under a crust of earth and baked them. Through this sorcery they transformed the forest acre by acre into the blackened food for next summer’s iron.
Roaring Run struggled to compete with the northern iron industry and was shut down in 1854; Virginia charcoal was no match for Pennsylvania anthracite. But then the war began. With the Confederacy cut off from Northern supply chains, Virginia iron furnaces were stoked back into blast. Again the creek was harnessed, again the squat stone belly of Roaring Run Furnace became a crucible, and again ironworkers shoveled into its maw the stuff of the landscape—ore, limestone, trees—to transform the living land into crude iron. The iron journeyed down the river to Richmond. There, in Tredegar Iron Works, the transformation was finished: wood, water, and rock became railways, wheels, and weapons. For Roaring Run, this revival lasted only as long as the war. The furnace went out of blast for good in 1865.
One hundred and fifty-six years later, we gather around the furnace ruin. Some students bend to read the ground: they see the slag, shards of black crystalline impurities belched out of the furnace and left behind as waste, a glittering witness to the old alchemy of turning forest to iron. Tall pines and lofty hardwoods surround us. Less than two centuries ago, this whole landscape would have been stripped bare.
I pass out forestry measuring tapes and tree identification books. The class fans out to estimate the age of some of these trees. I hang back with three students who choose a conifer growing only a couple dozen paces from the furnace. We find one of its boughs, needles still attached, and study the bark. This is a white pine. Standing heart to trunk, the students measure around the tree and calculate the diameter. Then they multiply this by the growth factor for white pine to approximate the tree’s age, which they can use to estimate a year for its birth. As one of the students works out the math with her phone, I realize I’m holding my breath.
“1865,” she announces at last. The year hangs there until they flip the page over to the timeline I printed. “That’s the year the Civil War ended, the year the furnace was shut down for good.” I feel a low hum of surprise ripple through the circle, and on reflex the four of us tilt our heads back to take in this white pine with new recognition, new reverence. As a seedling, this pine was a fugitive—just barely escaping the blast of the furnace to become a leader in the land’s healing. In that moment, I sense the sacredness of this place. I trust these students sense it, too. In relief I breathe out, and I breathe in pine.
Iron, Paper, Pipeline
“Land of many uses,” insists a favorite slogan of the Forest Service, containing an entire worldview in just four words. Many uses, over many years, start to make a place seem used up. What difference would one more use make? The Mountain Valley Pipeline crouches in wait on either side of the JNF, ready with one more use for a tired land.
The remnants of past uses linger still. During the Civil War, Roaring Run ate the forest and spat out ingots, which floated down the James to Richmond, and at Tredegar Iron Works were transformed into weapons. Some of that iron is rusting in battlefields. Some of it is in museum collections.
A couple months after our class trip to Roaring Run, in summer—iron-making time—I go to Richmond to visit Tredegar. It’s a Civil War museum now, and offices. The exterior of the building preserves the semi-ruined brick of the foundry, a husk around a sleek modern facility inside.
As I approach the ironworks, imagining the apparatus of war distilled from forest and mountain, I’m interrupted by a sudden glare: a beam of sunlight refracted from a corporate building perched on a grassy hummock just beyond Tredegar. In summer sunlight and with the reflection of sky and lawn shimmering up onto it, the building appears an opaque green-blue, the color of bottle glass, just like the river at the paper mill in Covington. I squint to read the corporate logo at its peak. It says: WestRock.
Far from this glittering corporate headquarters, the WestRock paper mill in Covington churns and eats trees still. But Roaring Run and other furnaces, desecrators of their own day, sit quiet as the forests around them reclaim and restore what was lost. The tallest trees at Roaring Run remember sending down taproots even as the furnace stones were still warm. Desecration is not ironclad.
The following winter—charcoal-making time—I return to Richmond to find that WestRock’s logo has disappeared from the glass behemoth behind the ironworks. What this means, I don’t know. But that same winter, the Richmond courts revoke the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s permit to cross the Jefferson National Forest. The Mountain Valley Pipeline corporation keeps extending the pipeline’s timeline to completion. The day the gas is promised to flow floats farther away.
Layers of history fold in on themselves: I am back in the forest watching as my students wander out from the ruin of Roaring Run furnace, measuring trees and reading a history of restoration written in growth rings. They are participants in the possibilities of restoration breaking through the layered vestiges of use. This is the seedling of recognition I hoped they would find: that the desecrated can become sacred again, that desecration is not ironclad.
Featured image: Students and author at the Roaring Rock Furnace in Jefferson National Forest. Photo by Shelby Mack.
Chelsea Fisher is an environmental anthropologist who uses archaeological approaches to document deep histories of environmental justice conflicts. As a researcher, she investigates sustainability claims, food sovereignty, and the long-term interactions of colonialism, industrialization, and traditional ecological knowledge. She teaches classes on the environmental humanities in the Environmental Studies Program at Washington and Lee University. Website. Contact.