There are\nno bodies, no police tape, no cluster of curious onlookers. Yet there is plenty of evidence of a historic\necological crime: the deforestation of\nthe eastern United States and consequent massive loss of topsoil. It began slowly at Jamestown and culminated\nquickly just a century ago in the Appalachian Mountains. Archives document the destruction of virtually\nall of the vast original eastern forests. The woods remember, too. \n\n\n\nOld fences\nrecall livestock. But were animals\nfenced in or out? European\nsettlers brought the ancient tradition of access to forests regardless of\nownership, for essentials like firewood, game, and forage. They found Appalachian woodlands far more\nproductive than in Europe, and loosed livestock to eat chestnuts and acorns\nacross the mountainsides. They set out salt blocks to keep the animals near\nhome, recollected today by places named \u201cLick.\u201d \nOften using rot-resistant American chestnut logs, farmers fenced\nlivestock out of gardens and crops. \n \n\n\n\nBy 1900, county\nordinances required farmers to fence livestock in. Barbed wire was patented in the 1870s, and by\nthe 1920s was being nailed to living oaks as four billion American chestnut trees\ndied from an imported fungus. Some oaks have\ningested the wire, and chestnut rail fences still molder in remote places, reminders\nof the loss of this most productive tree for both humans and wildlife. \n\n\n\nChestnut\noaks \u2013 a different species -- are common and often multiple-trunked in a ring of\nmature trunks leaning outward. A circle around the base of each trunk approximates\nthe size of the mother trees, cut not for wood but for bark high in tannic acid.\n Leather was a necessity before plastic,\nand tanning depended on acid leached from bark. Chestnut oaks are particularly\ngood at stump sprouting, and deer had been severely overhunted by the early\n1900s, so the sprouts escaped browsing. \nBy the time synthetic chemicals replaced it around the 1940s, bark was\nbeing harvested by the millions of tons annually. Naked logs were sometimes left in the woods\nto rot. \n\n\n\nLess\nconspicuous than many-trunked trees are grey, lichen-spotted stumps, often\nembedded in moss, with the straight-edge cuts of a saw. Whittle off a chip and the fresh, piney scent\nis a whiff of Christmas. Yet these trees\nmay have been harvested in the late 1860s, when Virginia\u2019s Shenandoah Valley\nfarmers favored shortleaf and other yellow pines to rebuild barns burned during\nthe Civil War. Dr. James Finley,\nprofessor of forest history at Penn State University, assured me that, due to\nresin content, \u201cPine stumps can last a very long time.\u201d They may be lasting longer than many barns. Shortleaf pines are less abundant now due to extensive\nharvesting, land clearing, and wildfire followed by fire suppression. \n \n\nFlat, unmarked hearths in the woods where trees were smoldered into charcoal\nare difficult to find, but hundreds of iron furnaces fueled by charcoal still\nstand along seams of ore down the mountains. \nIron making began by the mid-1700s. \nBy the late 1800s, when coal replaced charcoal, hundreds of thousands of\nacres were being clearcut annually to produce hundreds of thousands of tons of\niron. \n\n\n\nAccessible\nforests had been cut over, but railroads brought industrial-scale logging almost\neverywhere. Higher slopes and ridges\nstill had huge virgin trees many feet in diameter. Historians date the worst destruction from\n1880 to 1930. Hundreds of private timber\ncompanies had what was reported as a \u201ccut out and get out\u201d attitude. Steam equipment powered by wood or coal threw sparks\nthat ignited slash left by loggers. Wildfires burned regeneration across entire\nmountainsides. If an old blackened skeleton leaves char on your fingers, it may\nhave been a living tree killed by a hot fire, which renders some trees rot\nresistant. \n\n\n\nRain gushed\ndown bare slopes, eroding deep trenches and carrying away tons of soil and stones. Floods drowned thousands of people, ruined\nmillions of dollars of property, and smothered streams with sediment. So terrible was the immediate damage that Congress\npassed the Weeks Act in 1911, authorizing the establishment of eastern national\nforests. With help from the Civilian\nConservation Core during the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service extinguished fires\nand built erosion fences. Ironically, the\ndestruction of the most biodiverse temperate forest in the world led to a\nnational forest commons now producing clean water, air, carbon sequestration, wildlife\nhabitat and recreation for all. \n\n\n\nBut millennia\nof soil-building were lost. Decades of regrowth\nnow obscure the reduced fertility, but in 1943, a Forest Service report on the Virginia\nmountains noted that the better growing sites \u201cbecause of fire or other past\nabuses are of low productivity.\u201d \n\n\n\nWhere did\nall that soil go?\n\n\n\nDr. Carole\nNash, an archaeologist at James Madison University, said that "excavations\non the South Fork of the Shenandoah River consistently demonstrate the impacts\nof logging on mountain soils. It\u2019s\ncommon to document three feet of alluvial deposits over the earliest levels of\nhistoric occupation in the 1740s. Below\nthat, only an inch of soil takes you back in time a thousand years.\u201d \n\n\n\nSome of the soil eroded from logging as well as poor agricultural practices was initially impounded in thousands of downstream mill ponds. After water milling ended, the abandoned dams failed, and soil began moving downstream. It\u2019s still moving. Called \u201clegacy sediment,\u201d it will \u201ccontinue to contribute to stream turbidity into the foreseeable future,\u201d concluded researchers at the University of North Carolina in 2013. It is \u201ca source of nutrients and trace elements [that] may add significantly to the degradation of downstream ecosystems such as the Chesapeake Bay,\u201d according to research published in the journal Geology. In 2017, the Chesapeake Bay Program held a Legacy Sediment Workshop to discuss remediation of \u201cthe enormous volumes of legacy sediment stored in valleys of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.\u201d \u201cThe past is never dead,\u201d wrote William Faulkner. \u201cIt\u2019s not even past.\u201d Chris Bolgiano lives on 112 wooded acres on the border of the George Washington National Forest.