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Your Woodlands: Making Good Forest Stewardship Investments

Posted: November 1, 2012

With the long growing cycle of Pennsylvania's forests, many landowners work to make improvements, the benefit of which they will never see. Yet, forest stewardship must involve consideration for those who will come after

Stewardship is about both today and the future. It involves taking responsibility for something, caring for it while you can, and ensuring it well serves those who will hold it in the future.

Woodlands provide an excellent opportunity for describing stewardship. Most woodland owners find real value in their land – they either have or develop a concern for the trees, wildlife, water, beauty, and solitude afforded them by their land.

A steward, according to some definitions, is a person who has the responsibility of caring for someone else’s property. If forest stewardship is about ensuring the future values of woodlands, the current owner is in fact a steward. By looking forward to a time beyond the current owner’s tenure, a steward cares for the land for those who will steward the land in the future.

A woodland steward generally wants to protect, enhance, and ensure the continuance of those values they place on the land. To purposefully degrade those values through soil erosion or poorly conceived or conducted timber harvests is not something they would do intentionally. Rather, the intent is to improve the land – to make it better than when it was acquired. Caring for land ensures it will continue to provide desired values, such as habitat, water, timber, beauty, and solitude.

Pennsylvania has an estimated 738,000 private forest owners who together make stewardship decisions on about 11.5 million acres, or about 71% of all the state’s 16.8 million acres of forestland. Granted many of these current owners have small parcels; an estimated 500,000 individual woodlots are smaller than 10 acres, averaging just less than 3 acres. Nonetheless, together these owners make decisions about one out of every eight acres of our state’s private forests. For these owners, their small woodland parcels are more likely part of their residence and the decisions they make do affect current and future values. Think backyard habitat, water quality, and invasive plants, for example. On an individual basis, each parcel seems small – “Why should I worry about that? I only have two acres?” However, cumulatively these lands account for much of our urban and community forests and provide many more public values than just a setting for a home.

The nearly 250,000 holders of 10 acre and larger parcels have the potential to really influence Pennsylvania’s forests through their stewardship decisions. Yet we find that many of these woodland owners are passive about their stewardship role. The land is there, they enjoy it, and, when it is appropriate, they engage active management – maybe they invest in a road, harvest some firewood, or, perhaps, conduct a commercial timber sale. We often hear that Mother Nature does not need our help. Yet, human impacts have introduced threats that our forests have not adapted to. Think about invasive pests such as the emerald ash borer, Asian long-horned beetle, or hemlock woolly adelgid. These threats were brought in by global trade and introduced into a landscape where there is ample food, but few to no predators. We find that in many ways, we must undertake action to help mitigate or improve the forest health and protect it from introduced threats.

Active forest stewardship, especially if it does not create income, is sometimes difficult. Finding funding and resources to invest into the care of forestland, especially when that investment will extend beyond a given tenure of ownership, demonstrates a long-term commitment to stewardship. Across Pennsylvania, in every county, there are forest stewards who consistently make such investments. They harvest trees that compromise the health of their forest stands, even if these trees are smaller and have no economic value; they plant riparian buffers with white pine and mixed hardwoods to ensure long-term stream cover when the hemlocks die from the adelgid; they reclaim old fields from invasive plants to ensure that early successional habitat is available to wildlife species which require specific forest structure to breed and thrive. These landowners may not see the benefit in their lifetime, but are instead working to improve the forest for the future.

There has been much recent talk about today’s tight economy. For many woodland stewards, finding resources to invest in the future of a forest is difficult; however, sometimes, with careful planning and help from confident forest resource managers, it might be possible to make improvements with little or no investment, maybe there is even the potential to reap some income. Sometimes fortunate woodland owners find windfall income – something unexpected – perhaps an estate gift or income from a gas lease or royalties. Maybe it would be prudent to invest some of those resources into the stewardship of woodlands and to demonstrate forest stewardship. If the windfall is large there may seem to be little reason to plan for, manage, and harvest woodlands. The income in the short term is not important. Yet, as forest stewards, consider how you remain responsible for the care of woodlands and its future owners.

Many woodlots across the state have been poorly managed in the past. With poor understanding, inadequate planning, or the need or desire to create income, some harvesting practices have led to less than sustainable outcomes. Sometimes, past practices have shifted tree species composition, or competitive plants and white-tailed deer have limited tree regeneration, especially for desirable species.

In these and many other cases, active, future-focused stewardship would call for planning, investing in practices, and harvesting trees to establish future opportunities and options for owners yet to come. Good stewardship in many woodlots is not stopping activities; rather, it involves making decisions to move forward. If you are fortunate enough to have the fiscal resources to invest in your woodlands, consider giving the future generations of Pennsylvanians a healthier and more sustainable forest that they can carry forward for the next generations.

To learn more about how you can steward your woodlands, request copies of Forest Stewardship Bulletin 1: Our Link to the Past-Our Legacy to the Future; Bulletin 6: Planning Your Forest’s Future; and Bulletin 9: Understanding and Conserving Biological Wealth in Our Forests.

The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of free publications, call 800 234 9473 (toll free), send an email to RNRext@psu.edu, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, Natural Resources Extension, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and USDA Forest Service, in Partnership with Penn State’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.

Written by: Jim Finley
Email: fj4@psu.edu
Phone: 814-863-0401