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LAKIN — After a 60-year career in which tens of millions of forest tree seedlings were produced for surface mine reclamation, reforestation projects and soil conservation work, the Clements State Tree Nursery has quietly been let go.

Located on a 126-acre tract fronting the Ohio River once owned by the grandparents of author and humorist Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, the nursery was bought by the newly created West Virginia Division of Natural Resources in 1961 and shipped out its first seedlings in 1964.

At the time of the purchase, the DNR controlled the state Division of Forestry, which operated the nursery in the decades that followed, until two weeks ago. Without public announcement, Forestry ceased operations at Clements and removed all links to the nursery from its website.

“It was never set up to make money, but it was also never set up to lose the kind of money it’s been losing in the past 10 years,” said Division of Forestry Director Tom Cover when asked about the decision to close the nursery.

The nursery’s losses had to be covered by tapping into Forestry’s operating budget, which now faces a third consecutive fiscal year of flat-line funding and another year without income from the state severance tax on timber, axed in 2019.

Covering Clements’ losses has meant delaying maintenance work and new equipment purchases, Cover said.

“We could have bought new trucks to replace those that have been in disrepair for years, or fixed some of our buildings that are in bad shape,” Cover said.

“We don’t get the support we need from the Legislature, and the nursery is not selling very many trees,” Cover said. “At one time, the nursery sold millions of trees annually. Last year, it sold 200,000. Bare-root seedlings just aren’t in demand anymore.”

Cover added that the majority of seedlings are sold to buyers in Ohio, which has closed its three state-run nurseries.

At the time of its purchase, Clements became West Virginia’s second state-run forest tree nursery. The Parsons State Tree Nursery, in Tucker County, began producing bare-root seedlings decades earlier.

New reclamation laws enacted in the 1960s calling for trees to be planted at former surface mines caused state officials to anticipate increased demand for nursery stock.

By locating the new state nursery along the Ohio River, more than 1,000 feet lower in elevation than Parsons, a longer growing season was possible, allowing the Clements nursery to have root stock ready for planting at least a month earlier than at Parsons.

In 1968, just four years after the new nursery began producing seedlings, its production reached 9.3 million seedlings that were shipped to buyers — a high point never approached in the decades that followed.

By 1982, the DNR determined that demand for seedlings had ebbed to the point that only one state tree nursery was needed. Clements got its first taste of closure that year, when the DNR opted to continue operating only the higher-volume Parsons nursery. Deadly flooding in 1985 wiped out the Parsons nursery but revived operations at Clements the following year.

Since then, seedlings from more than 20 species of forest hardwoods, most of them native to the region, including red oak, white oak, sugar maple, walnut, butternut, sycamore, tulip poplar, redbud, basswood, persimmon and hawthorn have been produced at the nursery. Conifers grown here include white, red and Virginia pine, and several fir varieties.

The nursery also contains an orchard of American chestnut trees planted in the late 1970s from seed collected from some of the small number of native chestnuts scattered across the region that managed to survive the blight that killed 4 billion trees of that species in the first half of the 20th century.

Most of the more than 100 trees grown from that seed died within a few years, according to Mark Double, vice president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation and a research associate in plant sciences at West Virginia University. “But there are also 15 to 20 chestnuts growing there that are 40-plus years old and 50 to 60 feet tall that show no signs of blight. They must have some traits that are blight-resistant,” he said.

Seed from the American chestnut orchard at Clements has been used to produce a second orchard of younger trees to continue the search for genetic resistance to the blight. Nuts from both orchards are collected and used to propagate seedlings with blight-resistant traits. Up to 10,000 of those seedlings have been produced and sold annually to state and federal land managers, conservation groups and private landowners.

Seed orchards have also been established here to propagate genetically suitable yellow poplar and white pine trees and produce Allegheny chinquapin and American plum seedlings.

The Clements nursery in recent years also has produced root stock for a Purdue University-U.S. Forest Service project to restore butternut trees to Midwestern forests, where the species has been devastated by a deadly canker disease.

But surface mine reclamation continued to account for the majority of the most recent seedling sales, although numbers had declined substantially since the late 1960s. One major blow occurred during the past decade, when one of the nursery’s biggest buyers, a surface mine reclamation firm based in another state, developed its own nursery for producing seedlings for reclamation.

Large lots of seedlings also have been produced to benefit farm and woodlot reforestation projects, erosion control work, wildlife habitat improvements and stream restoration work on private and public lands, and to support commercial Christmas tree production.

“This nursery was built mainly to provide low-cost seedlings for conservation and reforestation,” said Jason Huffman, the nursery’s superintendent for the past 23 years.

Customers with tree needs both large and small have benefited from the nursery.

“During the past year, I sold 71,000 seedlings to a single buyer,” Huffman said, “and filled lots of orders for 25 trees,” the smallest quantity of bare root seedlings sold at Clements.

Huffman operated the nursery with the assistance of one other full-time employee and two part-time workers. From 2007 until the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, a crew of up to 12 inmates from nearby Lakin Correctional Center, a state prison for women, helped the Forestry crew with weeding, processing seedlings for shipment, and other chores.

The nursery’s closure was not exactly a shock to its staff, all of whom were offered other jobs within the Division of Forestry. Huffman, who spent his last day at Clements two weeks ago, opted to transition to a private-sector job.

The staff became aware that change was in the air when the nursery was not allowed to buy seeds last summer. Clements was then closed for four months starting last November because of COVID-19 concerns, which reduced the number of seedling orders normally taken, but it reopened in March to ship out what spring orders the nursery was able to book.

Sprinkler pipes used to irrigate seedbeds and newly sprouted trees were removed in mid-May, then returned to the nursery late in the month.

During a dry spell that followed the removal of the irrigation gear, Sally Shepherd, who operates a farm in the Haines Branch area and is a supervisor with the Capitol Conservation District, drove her 400-gallon water tank to Clements three times. There, the tank was mounted on a nursery trailer and used to water some of the most vulnerable young trees. She also helped Huffman, in his last week on the job, string lines of aluminum sprinkler pipe to give a portion of the nursery a soaking before shutting down.

Shepherd said the idea was to keep young trees and seed orchards alive and healthy until a new operator is identified to assume management of the nursery and have seedlings to sell later this year instead of having to start from scratch.

“The Clements nursery has been an important asset for our state,” Shepherd said. “Landowners, people with woodlots, beekeepers and cities need a place to buy low-cost seedlings and to have a source for trees that may not be available from commercial entities.”

After a beekeeper attending a Capitol Conservation District meeting mentioned how plantings of late-blooming little leaf linden could enhance the pollination season, Shepherd passed that information on to Huffman, who was able to get the species germinated and growing at Clements in two years.

“Clements has also been a site where important research has taken place,” Shepherd said. “It should continue.”

Shepherd said she hopes another state agency or higher learning institution would take an interest in assuming management of Clements. The state already owns the land, has graded it to drain properly, and equipped it with an irrigation system. Its buildings, while needing maintenance, are usable.

The Division of Forestry, she said, “has been stripped of funding and really shouldn’t have been given the additional job of running the nursery.”

By necessity, Forestry has had to focus on year-to-year survival, instead of on “planning how to develop the nursery’s full potential,” Shepherd said.

The Clements property’s “highest and best use is still operating as a tree nursery.” she said. “It just needs to be in fresh hands.”

“The Clements nursery hasn’t been all that it could be for a long time,” said Ed Gaunch, secretary of the state Department of Commerce, parent agency for the Division of Forestry.

With demand for coal lagging, the nursery’s focus on surface mine reclamation as its primary customer base is a major factor in Clements operating in the red, at only 20% to 25% of its production capacity, Gaunch said.

The Commerce secretary said he has asked the West Virginia National Guard, state Department of Agriculture and the DNR to consider assuming operation of the nursery, but, so far, none have responded positively.

Gaunch said he plans to meet soon with West Virginia State University officials to discuss possibilities for operating Clements as a base for projects operated by the land grant-funded university.

Meanwhile, Double said the state chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation has been told that, in the absence of a new operator for the nursery, foundation members can nurture the chestnut orchard and collect nuts for seed. But if the land is sold to a private developer, that arrangement is off table and the orchard would run the risk being leveled.

“American chestnut research has been an important component of the Clements nursery,” Double said, and has played a significant role in the national effort to restore the species to the American landscape.

“I think it’s important that the state makes sure the 40 years of research that’s taken place there continues,” he said.

Despite the nursery’s literary lineage, it was named in honor of Charles Clements, a veteran U.S. Forest Service nursery inspector whose last name has a slightly different spelling from Mark Twain’s family name.

In 1803, Samuel Clemens, grandfather of the author of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” moved from the Lynchburg, Virginia, area to what is now Mason County, where he bought a 119-acre farm along the Ohio River and settled there with his wife, Pamela, and five children.

The couple’s first-born child, John Marshall Clemens, later became the father of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain. John Marshall Clemens lived on the farm until about 1810, when the family moved to Kentucky, and later to Missouri.

In 1804, Samuel Clemens was appointed commissioner of revenue for Mason County, formed that year from the northern portion of Kanawha County. The following year, while working on the farm that would later become a state tree nursery, he was crushed to death while felling a tree.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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