Forestry in Chesterfield County, Virginia

Five Forks Work Area
serving the counties of Amelia, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Nottoway and Powhatan

Senior Area Forester: Heather Dowling. Cell: 804.895.4759
Forester: Rich Reuse. Cell: 804.840.2042
Forester: Doug Audley. Cell: 804.712.6322
Forester: Kathleen Ogilvy. Cell: 804.314.5904
Forester: Kirby Woolfolk. Cell: 434.294.1370
Forest Technician: Jack Colyer. Cell: 434.637.0261
Forest Technician: Tommy Nunnally. Cell: 804.931.1243

Virginia Department of Forestry
13209 Courthouse Road | Map and Directions to this office.
Dinwiddie, Virginia 23841
Phone: 804.469.7343 | FAX: 804.469.4221

Location and statistics

Chesterfield County, located in the coastal plain and piedmont sections of eastern Virginia is located 110 miles south of Washington D.C. The James River forms the northern boundary, and the Appomattox River forms the southern boundary. It is bounded on the north by the City of Richmond and Henrico County. All water flowing from the Chesterfield County watershed eventually enters the Chesapeake Bay. The US Forest Service forest survey lists the county as 319,941 acres in size. Elevations range from 10 - 370 feet. The average rainfall is 44” per year. In 2006, the population was estimated to be 306,000 making Chesterfield County the fourth largest municipality in Virginia.


European Settlement

Sir Christopher Newport explored the James and Appomattox Rivers along the Chesterfield borders 5 days before Jamestown was settled. After establishment of the settlement at Jamestown in 1607, English settlers and explorers began settling other areas. One of the more progressive developments in the colony was the “Citie of Henricus,” founded in 1611 under the guidance of Sir Thomas Dale.

In 1612, Tobacco was first cultivated scientifically in America at Bermuda Hundred by John Rolfe. In 1619, Falling Creek Ironworks, established on Falling Creek slightly west from its confluence with the James River, became the site of the first iron furnace in the New World. It also became the site of the first lead mines in America.

On March 22, 1622 many of the smaller settlements established along the James River, which were essentially outposts of Jamestown, were attacked by the Powhatan Indians under Chief Opechancanough. Henricus was one of the most distant outposts from Jamestown and bore the brunt of the coordinated attacks. The one-day surprise attack was referred to as the Indian Massacre of 1622 or Good Friday Attacks. About 347 people, or almost one-third of the English population of Jamestown, were killed. Jamestown itself was spared due to a timely last-minute warning. A well-planned school for Indian boys and college for the sons of colonists was just beginning in Henricus when the Indian attack wiped out the population causing the settlement to be abandoned. Another effort to establish such a school would have to wait over 70 years until the College of William and Mary was established in safer Williamsburg.

Colonists who survived the Good Friday attacks raided the tribes and particularly their corn crops in the summer and fall of 1622 so successfully that Chief Opechancanough decided in desperation to negotiate. Through friendly Indian intermediaries, a peace parley finally took place between the two groups. However, some of the Jamestown leaders, poisoned the Indians' share of the liquor for the parley's ceremonial toast. The poison killed about two hundred Indians and another fifty were killed by hand.

In 1634, the King of England directed the formation of eight shires (or counties) in the colony of Virginia. One of these became Henrico County, which extended to a large area on both sides of the James River. On May 25, 1749, the Virginia General Assembly passed the act that separated Chesterfield from Henrico County and created the new county. Chesterfield County is named for the former British Secretary of State, Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield. Lord Chesterfield was famous for his “good manners and writings.”


Around 1701, French Huguenot settlers to the area discovered the existence of a coalfield. In 1709, Midlothian produced the first commercially mined coal in America. Coal from Midlothian was used to make cannons at Westham, near the present Huguenot Memorial Bridge, during the American Revolutionary War. Remnants of the old mines can still be found in the forests in northern and southwestern Chesterfield.

In 1807, the Manchester Turnpike in Chesterfield County became the first graveled roadway of any length in America. The toll road ran between the coal mining area of Midlothian near the headwaters of Falling Creek and Manchester, generally following the path of the current Midlothian Turnpike (U.S. Route 60}.

In 1825, a group of mine owners decided to build a railway so their markets could be reached better than by the current roads and canals. One of the owners was originally from East Lothian and West Lothian in Scotland, and named his mining company Mid-Lothian, the source of the modern name. In 1831, the Chesterfield Railroad was the first railroad in Virginia, transporting coal from mines near Falling Creek in what is now the Midlothian area to the docks at the fall line at the head of navigation of the James River.

Another small railroad line through Chesterfield was a narrow gauge railroad. The Farmville and Powhatan Railroad, later renamed the Tidewater and Western Railroad, extended from Farmville in Prince Edward County to the tiny village of Bermuda Hundred in far eastern Chesterfield, which was a port on the James River near the mouth of the Appomattox River. Although long gone, portions of the old rail bed can been seen along Beach Road near the entrance to Pocahontas State Park.

Civil War

During the Siege of Petersburg (1864-65), a long defensive earthworks through the eastern part of the county was part of the Confederacy's Richmond-Petersburg line of land defenses to protect Richmond. Portions of these earthworks can still be seen in the forests of Chesterfield today.

Part of the defensive line was Fort Drewry, a key position for the protection of the confederate capital. The fort was located 90 feet above a sharp turn in the James River on Drewry's Bluff, 8 miles downstream from Richmond. The garrison that staffed the fort, consisted of the men of Captain Drewry's Southside Artillery and the former crew of the CSS Virginia which had been scuttled to avoid capture as Norfolk fell to Union forces. The fort contained 3 large seacoast guns (one 10 inch and two 8 inch). The Battle of Drewry's Bluff took place on May 15, 1862. After considerable bombardment, 5 Union warships, including the Monitor, retreated downstream and the US Navy abandoned its attempt to approach Richmond from the river.

Richmond was under siege for four years between 1861 and 1865, during this period trees were cut by the North and the South to provide railroad crossties, firewood, lumber for buildings, rails for fences and lumber for boxes. At this point in history most all of Chesterfield's trees had been cut twice.

History of Chesterfield's Forests

When English settlers first moved into present day Chesterfield County, they found a mix of open grassland and forests of large hardwood trees. The grasslands were kept open by fire used by native Americans. The open areas provided excellent habitat for many species of wildlife. These open areas could be easily converted into farmland, but the large trees in the forests had to be removed to create additional land to farm. Acres of trees were cut for their wood with much of the best lumber being shipped back to England. However, with the abundance of wood, many trees were simply killed and left to rot or burned in order to create fields.

By the mid-1800's, most of the relatively level land had been cleared. After the civil war, much of the cleared land throughout the county reverted back to forest land since there was no longer a large workforce to farm the land.

In 1900, with the invention of the steam engine, the milling of lumber became big business. Small, steam powered woods mills moved from property to property and turned harvested trees into lumber. Evidence of these mills can still be seen today in Chesterfield's forests. Piles of rotten sawdust and a cone shaped hole in the ground where water was taken for the steam engine can be found at old mill sites.

During the Depression, land was often not worth the taxes due on the property. Many acres of land were abandoned and fields reverted back into forest. Often when the trees were cut, the land was given to the logger and many loggers became large landowners during this time.

During the 1930s due to drought and a large amount of cutover land, large forest fires occurred in the County. Fortunately during this time, President Franklin Roosevelt formed the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide natural resource conservation jobs to the large number of the nation's unemployed. In 1933, over 13 million people (25% of labor force) were unemployed in the United States. In it's 9 years of existence, the CCC employed over 3 million men. The CCC worked on numerous projects in the forests and parks of our country. They planted 2 billion trees, built 40,000 bridges, built dams and roads, created 800 state parks and fought fires. In 1935 CCC Company 2386 was formed on 7,600 acres of newly purchased federal property. The National Park Service later donated the facility to Virginia State Parks in 1946, making Pocahontas State Park the largest Virginia State Park. The CCC created many fire trails in Chesterfield County to help prevent the spread of wildfires. Highly traveled Luck's Lane in the Midlothian area was once a dirt firebreak constructed by the CCC. The CCC not only provided young men with jobs and taught them skills, but also prepared them for World War II. In addition, the roads and bridges they built allowed for easier access to the timber that was needed to feed the war effort.

In the 1950's the VDOF became active in offering forest management and reforestation assistance to private landowners. These services continue today and many acres of quality timber has been grown and harvested since that time.

Even though Chesterfield County is rapidly developing, many landowners still actively manage their forest resource especially in the southern and western portions of the County. Chesterfield's forests provide raw materials to Virginia's Forest Products Industry which is still the largest manufacturing industry in the Commonwealth.

Between 1986 and 2006, approximately $56,872,938 worth of timber was harvested in Chesterfield County. The average amount harvested during those 21 years was $2,708,235 per year. The highest amount harvested was $6,334,124 in 2000.

Graph showing Chesterfield County Landowner Harvest Revenues from 1986 to 2006.Timber value harvested in Chesterfield County 1986-2006

Forests of Chesterfield

The US Forest Service forest survey gives the Chesterfield County study area as 319,941 acres. The 2006 forest survey indicated 170,545 acres (53%) of the County were considered forested. Between 1957 and 2006, there was a 24% decline in forestland in the County. During that time 54,455 acres were converted to other uses, primarily development. Between 2001 - 2006 7,633 acres or 4% of Chesterfield's forest land was converted to another use during those few years.

The forests within Chesterfield County are very diverse. The 2006 updated US Forest Service forest survey, indicated the following makeup:

  • upland hardwoods (Oak/hickory type) 51% 87,554 acres
  • Pine stands 30% 51,377 acres
  • Mixed oak and pine stands 10% 16,629 acres
  • Bottomland Hardwood stands 9% 14,984 acres

In 2001, the USFS forest survey showed the forest ownership in Chesterfield County as follows:

178,178 acres of forestland (59% of the total land area).

  • 143,961 acres, private individuals and businesses (79.7%)
  • 20,890 acres, forest industry owning (11.6%)
  • 15,662 acres, state, federal and county government holding 8.7%.

Pocahontas State Park , Presquille National Wildlife Refuge, and County parks and conservation areas are the primary government landowners. Centrally located Pocahontas State Park will be considered a “Green Jewel” in the future as development continues to change land use in the County. Forest industry was once a major landowner in the County and much of the planted pine acreage is due to that fact. However, many of their acres have been sold to developers, investment companies and private individuals. The majority of timber harvested in the County as in the rest of the United States comes from private landowners.

Benefits of the forests and trees

Whether trees are found in a forest or backyard, they provide free benefits such as erosion control, clean and cool water, oxygen production, air pollution removal, noise absorption, wildlife habitat, aesthetic qualities, recreation, flood control and shade and cooling effects.

In addition, trees in our forests also provide the financial benefits of timber and firewood production.

Forests help recharge ground water and clean it for drinking, absorbs carbon dioxide from combustion, and provides oxygen. One acre of flat forestland collects enough water in ground water recharge to provide a one year supply to 2.75 homes every year. (Source: Virginia Department of Forestry, 1999). One mature tree absorbs approximately 13 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. For every ton of wood a forest grows, it removes 1.47 tons of carbon dioxide and replaces it with 1.07 tons of oxygen through photosynthesis. (Source: US Forests; Facts and Figures 1995)

Forest Management Opportunities

Two forest management activities that are highly beneficial and often necessary for maximum growth rate of pine are pre-commercial and commercial thinning.

Pre-commercial thinning

Before pre-commercial thinningYoung pines can seed naturally into areas after a timber harvest and result in seedlings in excess of 5,000 stems per acre. An overstocked stand of pines will grow extremely slowly and the owner will make less money when it is time to harvest compared to a properly stocked (400-500 trees per acre) and managed pine stand. Overstocked pine stands can be pre-commercially thinned by hand crews using brush saws. The work is usually done between 6-8 years old. The VDOF currently offers a cost share program that will reimburse landowners for 60% of the cost to pre-commercial thin their pines, with a maximum of $10,000 allowable per landowner per year. Pre-commercial thinning is necessary to allow some pine stands to grow at an acceptable rate. Landowners should contact their local forester to get more information on this fantastic program.

After pre-commercial thinning.Before pre-commercial thinning on left, after pre-commercial thinning on right.

Commercial Thinning

As young pines grow they will need to be commercially thinned in order to maintain their growth rate and increase in value. Once pine trees reach the minimum commercial size (pulpwood), a logger may be interested in thinning the pine stand and will pay the landowner for the wood. Pines usually reach commercial size between 15 to 25 years old depending on many factors including site quality and stocking rate. The idea is always for the best quality trees to be left to continue to grow and the poor quality and competing trees harvested. A properly performed thinning will provide the landowner with income, increase the quality, growth rate and value of the trees, improve the trees' resistance to insect and disease, improve wildlife habitat and improve the long term aesthetics of the property. Landowners should contact their local forester if interested in thinning. Properly performed thinning is somewhat of an art form and landowners should select loggers that specialize in this work.

A properly thinned loblolly pine stand.

Threats to the forest


Wildfires can damage and kill trees and destroy homes built in forested areas. The VDOF works closely with the Chesterfield Fire Department to prevent and suppress forest fires. Forestry bulldozers, also known as tractor plows are a important tool used to control large, fast moving wildfires.

Chesterfield Transport and Tractor Plow with V-Blade

Many people think that most forest fires occur during the hot, summer months. This is true in the western states, where relative humidity is low in the summer and lightning often starts fires. However, the primary fire seasons in Virginia are Spring and Fall due to several reasons. Relative humidity is normally lower at that time of year. Hardwood tree leaves are no longer on the branches which allows sunlight to reach the forest floor and dry the leaves on the ground. Wind can more easily blow through the forest when the leaves are off of the trees.

Fires escaping from debris burning is the major cause of forest fires in Virginia. Children are the number one cause of forest fires in Chesterfield County. In order to help reduce the chances of campfires and other outdoor fires from escaping, State law only allows outdoor fires between the hours of 4 p.m. and midnight during February 15 through April 30 if the fire is within 300 feet of dry grass or woodlands.

In addition outdoor fires must always be attended and extinguished before leaving if within 150 feet of dry grass or woodlands.

Any person that negligently or intentionally allows a fire to escape will be liable for all costs incurred by the VDOF for extinguishing the fire.

Insects and Invasive Trees

Another threat to our forests is invasion and/or attack by alien forms of life. No, not little green men from Mars, but green bugs and trees.

Ailanthus or Tree of Heaven was brought to this country over 200 years ago to use as an ornamental tree. Since that time it has seeded naturally into openings created when forests have been disturbed. These weed trees can be found on the edges of forest, fields and roadsides. Tree of heaven is a prolific seed producer, grows rapidly, and forms dense thickets that do not allow native vegetation to grow. Ailanthus trees also produces toxins that prevent the establishment of other plant species. These trees should be controlled with herbicide whenever found on your property.

In the 1980s, imports into our country dramatically increased and this trend continues today. Many products are shipped into the country from all over the world and many of them arrive in wood containers or other containers placed on wood pallets. The dreaded Asian Longhorned Beetle is believed to have been introduced into the United States from wood pallets and other wood packing material accompanying cargo shipments from Asia. This pest was first discovered in 1996 and has become a serious pest in the New York, New Jersey and Chicago areas. The beetle burrows into and kills maples, birch, elm and other trees. Maples make up the largest percentage of our landscape trees and it is very likely that it will arrive in Virginia at some point.  Citizens should become familiar with this pest and contact the VDOF if they suspect that have found this insect.

The most serious pest threatening Virginia's forests at this time is the Emerald ash borer. It was first discovered near Detroit in the summer of 2002. The larvae of the beetles  feed on the inner bark of ash trees and kill them. Emerald ash borer probably arrived in the United States on solid wood packing material carried in cargo ships or airplanes originating in its native Asia. Emerald ash borer is currently in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Missouri and was discovered in northern Virginia in 2008. Since its discovery, Emerald Ash Borer has killed more than 40 million ash trees in southeastern Michigan alone, with tens of millions more lost in the other states Ash is a valuable landscape and lumber tree and this pest threatens to kill all of them in the United States and Canada.  One of the primary routes of spread of this serious best is through the movement of firewood. Citizens should become familiar with this pest and contact the VDOF if they suspect that have found this insect.

The Gypsy moth is native to Europe and Asia but has become a major pest of hardwood forests in the eastern United States. The gypsy moth was originally introduced into Massachusetts in 1869 by a French astronomer that wanted to develop a commercial silk industry. Since that time the gypsy moth has established populations as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as Virginia and has defoliated nearly 90 million acres. Natural spread first brought gypsy moths to northern Virginia around 1980 and populations now cover approximately two thirds of the state. Gypsy moths favorite food are the leaves of white oak which is abundant in Virginia's forests and yards. This caterpillar is easy to identify since they have distinguishing pairs of blue and red bumps along their backs and striking dark markings on the head that resemble vertical eyespots. Citizens should contact their local forester if they think they have found gypsy moth in their trees.

Southern pine beetle is one of the most serious native insect pests in southern forests. The beetles lay eggs under the bark of pine trees. When the larvae hatch, they tunnel and feed just under the bark of the tree. This movement cuts off the flow of water up the tree causing the tree to die. The beetle population can increase dramatically during warm weather and quickly kill many acres of pines. Landowners should look for pines with yellowing or brown needles as an indication of possible beetle infestation. Citizens can also look for pitch tubes (popcorn shaped sap on the trunk) on the trunk of pine trees. The pines often create the pitch tubes in an effort to trap and expel beetles from the tree.

Other threats to forests and forestry

Other threats to our forests include conversion to development, fragmentation, conflict with new residents over traditional forest management activities, local government regulation and poor forest management and timber harvest practices.

As more people move into Virginia, more forests are cut as land is cleared for development. Due to the increasing population, the benefits we receive from our forests are depending on fewer acres.

Forest fragmentation is the break up of larger forested tracts into small parcels that are owned by more people. The forests on these smaller parcels are more difficult to manage for several reasons. Loggers are not interested in harvesting the timber on small parcels since they can not do it economically. They also do not like operating logging trucks on busy roads or using their equipment near residences and subdivisions. In addition tree planters can not economically travel long distances to plant trees on small parcels of land.

As new residents move into previously “rural” areas, they may not be familiar with forestry practices traditionally used. They may be offended by noise from a logging operation, the appearance of a clear cut, or smell of smoke from a prescribed burn. Complaints from citizens often limit foresters abilities to help landowners properly manage their forests. New residents seem to complain when trees are harvested to make lumber or paper even when the area is reforested, but they forget that trees were cut and NOT planted back when their new subdivision or store was built.

Local government regulation also limits the ability to manage some forest stands. Loggers do not want to deal with the frustration of regulation by multiple government agencies in order to harvest timber. They will simply harvest timber in a more rural and forest industry friendly county elsewhere. The result could be that landowners in Chesterfield are unable to harvest their timber or get a good price for their timber some day soon. If a landowner can not manage their timber and harvest it when it is mature, then they can not afford to keep the land. The landowner will then be forced to sell the land to a developer and more forested land will be lost.

Another threat to the quality of our forests is a method of harvest called “select cutting.” Unfortunately, select cutting in Virginia  is a technique often used by uninformed landowners or one that is ready to sell or develop the land and no longer cares about the long term condition of their property. Poorly done select cuts are referred to as “high grades” to Department of Forestry foresters. During a high grade, the biggest and best trees (usually above a specified diameter) are removed without any regard for removing poor quality trees. The result is a forest of poorly shaped trees and lower value species. Landowners often think they are being environmentally friendly by choosing select cutting over clear cutting. Although, proper select cutting can be done in northern states where quality hardwood trees can grow well in the shade. This is not the case in the south where quality hardwood species require full sunlight provided by clear cuts to grow to their potential. Some people think that trees of a smaller diameter are younger and still need time to grow so only the large trees should be removed. In reality, if the trees are the same height, they are most likely the same age. Removing the largest trees and allowing the smaller diameter trees to continue to grow can be compared to a dairy farmer turning his best milk producers into hamburger and keeping his dry cows to provide his future milk. Not a smart thing to do. If poor quality trees are left on the property after a harvest, those trees will capture most of the available sunlight and growing space and prevent high quality stems of more desirable species from becoming established. If you leave smaller, junky trees after a timber sale then all you will have in 50 years are bigger, junky trees.

The best way to manage our hardwood forests is to start early, often when the trees are around 4” in diameter. Choose the best trees while they are relatively young, protect them from damage and provide them with plenty of growing space by removing the poor quality trees. This will provide a more valuable and aesthetically pleasing forest.

If a clear cut is totally objectionable, an alternative is to save some of the best trees and remove the rest. This preserves much of the aesthetic and habitat value while allowing enough light to reach the ground for a new forest of desirable species to grow. Once this new forest is established, the saved trees can be removed at a profit. Another option, is to harvest the forest in stages by cutting patches that are large enough to be profitable and allow the establishment of a new forest, but small enough to avoid a sudden change in the overall character of the property. There is no reason that properties must be harvested from property line to property line.

Possible Solutions

As residents become more concerned that their quality of life is decreasing due to traffic, noise, poor water quality, smog and aesthetics of the landscape, they need to take responsibility for being part of the problem and become involved in efforts to improve the situation.

Local government should require every new development built in the county to include “Green infrastructure” - an interconnected network of green spaces that conserves natural ecosystems and provides associated benefits to the human population. Simply stated it is a system of conserving and linking parks and other green spaces for the benefit of the people and the environment. A series of undisturbed, wide buffers along streams and property lines can be part of a system to provide these benefits. Citizens and public officials need to seek a balance between developed growth (gray infrastructure) and forestland retention (green infrastructure) before it is too late. Once forestland has been replaced by development, it is gone forever.

Homeowners can do their part by planting quality trees suited to their particular site and properly caring for the trees they own. Very valuable information can be found at this tree care website.

Citizens must learn to use outdoor fires carefully and keep an eye on their children to help reduce the threat of dangerous forest fires.

Homeowners and forest landowners need to monitor and stay aware of the condition of their trees. Contact their local forester if they notice unusual or high populations of insects.

New resident to rural or agricultural area or properties bordering such areas need to learn to adapt to their new surroundings. They made the choice to move to the new setting and should be expected to tolerate traditional practices that occur in rural areas. Long time rural residents had to learn to tolerate the clearing and burning of trees to build new subdivisions and accept heavier traffic patterns. New residents to rural areas often want privacy and solitude and build their homes as far from the paved road as possible. Often NOT building your home near your property line will solve many future problems.

Local governments need to learn more about forest management and the associated practices. This will allow landowners to continue to manage their forest resources, resolve conflicts with loggers and help to realistically preserve the aesthetic character of the rural landscape.

In the early 1900s chestnut blight arrived from Asia and quickly wiped out the dominant species in the eastern deciduous forests. In the 1930s, Dutch Elm Disease arrived from Europe and killed millions of elm trees, the primary street tree at the time, in the United States. The trees planted in development projects in our “urban” forest must be diverse so our landscape trees are not decimated by a single pathogen or insect pest. No more than 5-15% of a single tree species, 10-20% of a single genus or 30% of a single family of plants should be allowed to make up the landscape and street trees of our area. Unfortunately, a large percentage of our planted landscape trees consist of maple and holly. The County planning department can restrict landscape requirements on new development projects to help diversify and adjust the percentages in Chesterfield's landscape which will help prevent catastrophic losses. In addition, the trees selected for planting must be suited to the rigors of the stressful conditions found in urban planting sites. Proper tree selection and planting on new developments will help to ensure the new trees will thrive. Also, the trees must be properly planted and maintained in these new landscapes.

Forest landowners must become good stewards of the land by properly managing their forests. It is an honor and privilege to own part of Virginia's forest. Landowner's should contact their local forester for advice on managing their particular piece of land.

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Last modified: Friday, 12-Jun-2020 11:19:47 EDT

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