Skyline cleanup is slow-going Crews resume clearing trees after ice storm closes Virginia park


FRONT ROYAL, Va. -- The Great Tree Blow-down in the Shenandoah National Park looks like a giant game of pickup sticks.

Ice-laden branches broke, crashed and are tangled in each other. Trees were uprooted and lie willy-nilly. Limbs cracked apart and hang over roads and trails. Thousands of downed, bent branches -- like arrows in drawn bows -- wait to slap workmen trying to clear the way.

"This is like crawling around in barbed wire," said Bobby Lang, of Luray, Va., who was chain-sawing his way through a large scramble of limbs at the Indian Run Overlook on the Skyline Drive. "It's worse than Hurricane Fran in the fall of '96. The damage is everywhere."

This week the crews, augmented since they began clearing trees on the Skyline Drive in late January, were slowed temporarily. A new covering of ice and heavy fog accompanied rain storms in the Blue Ridge Mountains. One maintenance truck slid into a deep ditch.

But the men pressed on with their grueling work, which some said they were used to and preferred to any job indoors.

Meanwhile, deer were seen a dozen times feasting on twigs from the newly created underbrush in a drive along the 31-mile North Section.

A series of ice storms, especially one in early February, brought heavy snow, then ice 4 inches thick, then wind. They arrived after the well-publicized ice storms in New England and Canada.

In the Shenandoah Valley, damage was slight. But above 2,000 feet, the confluence of events has cost $700,000 in damage so far, closed the drive for seven weeks and created the hazardous, back-breaking tree-clearing work.

Lang was one of five working in Garland "Bubba" Gochenour's National Park Service team. All wore hard hats as they untangled, cut and transformed wood from shaky trees into chips. They wore hoods or goggles to shield their faces. They wore earplugs against the screaming log chipper and chain-saws.

The going was slow and dangerous among the oaks, hickories, hemlocks, pines and other trees in the largely deciduous forest.

Gochenour's crew cleared a half-mile of roadside blow-down in the 105-mile drive during one foggy day this week at mile 11. Farther south, they are likely to clear just 100 or 200 yards all day.

"I'll swear that every tree along the road between mile 16 and 23 is broken -- 100 percent tree damage" said William D. Cardwell, 43, of Front Royal, the National Park Service's North District ranger.

Some visitors worry about the destruction of the forest. The blow-down has thinned out many places in the park, such as a large grove of yellow poplars -- stripped of branches and now looking like a grove of telephone poles.

But thinning is not bad, Cardwell said. "This is a natural event. This is not a catastrophic event.

"Nature is very resilient. You have a consistent series of changes. We had a thick canopy of tree cover. The storms of the last few years come. A net effect is that more sunlight comes in. Different things will grow. Wildlife such as deer will have a better food source.

Gochenour, 50, of Luray, said, "I had a bad storm in the '70s, but this is my worst in 28 years here. It's still going on. I had a friend killed last weekend in Stanley; he was walking through his yard. A wind came up. Knocked a white oak on him."

Eddie Olson, of Vienna, Va., said a huge branch hit and bruised two discs in a fellow worker's back, and "I got whacked by a log feeding the chipper." No serious work injuries have been reported.

It will be weeks before 60 workers, some on duty since January, clear the entire two-lane road and side roads into resorts and campgrounds. A path one lane wide was cleared end-to-end for work crews, but it shifts back and forth depending on where trees fell.

Workmen fear the threat from above of what they call hangers. Thousands of trunks or branches split off but didn't make a clean break.

Despite some media reports, the Skyline shutdown surprises many. Three disappointed carloads of Montgomery County, Md., visitors were turned away Tuesday. "Many Marylanders visit us," said Cardwell. Or try.

"We turned away 221 cars Sunday," said Pam Brinkley at the North Entrance Station. "They can't see the damage from here. You couldn't put up a pup tent at Matthew's Arm campground."

More than 300 trees fell there. The campground was set to open in April; now it's May.

Back-country campers with permits can walk in but are told "Look up before you set up -- there may be dead wood above you."

No Skyline Drive opening dates are set; the road will be opened in sections to be announced. The park normally draws 2 million visitors a year.

Cardwell volunteered answers to questions of would-be visitors: Why clear underbrush near roads at all? Answer: Forest fires could threaten cars.

Why use chippers that grind big logs into little piles of chips? Answer: It's quicker and easier to clear away vast amounts of dead growth. The wood decays faster and becomes part of the soil.

Why can't the public be allowed in to collect cut logs? Answer: It's too dangerous.

Undaunted by storms, hardy hikers have still made the trek up the rough Ridge Trail to the top of 3,268-foot Old Rag, where nature illustrated its sturdiness on the eastern edge of the park.

The most demanding and famous mountain for hikers in the Mid-Atlantic region, Old Rag is set apart geologically and in spirit from the heavily wooded summit ridge of the Shenandoah with its much younger trees and tourist road.

The upper part of the craggy peak, largely open space, has elaborate rock formations interspersed with hardy pines stunted years of swirling winds and hard climate, said Steven Bair, the park's wilderness specialist.

The same January and February storms hit Old Rag. They bounced off. The mountain survived the storm virtually intact. The old trees had seen onslaughts like that before.

Skyline Drive information: (540) 999-3500.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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