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Implementing a Small Landowner’s “Forest Stewardship Plan”

Posted: February 11, 2014

What do you do with smaller sized woodland parcels? Can you care for them the same way that you can larger parcels? Follow these landowners' example and learn how to inventory and come up with a plan for a smaller woodlot.

By Gary & Page Wetterberg, Forest Landowners Somerset County, Pennsylvania

We became PA Forest Stewards (peer volunteers promoting good forest stewardship) in 2005. One our first activities was to participate in a PAFS group reviewing draft copies of the 2006 (Kays, Finley et al.) manual “The Woods in Your Backyard: Learning to Create and Enhance Natural Areas Around Your Home.” This piqued our initial personal interest in a Forest Stewardship Plan.

Our own small forest “patch” is less than 5 acres, located adjacent to “Laurel Hill Creek,” a PA-designated “High Quality Cold Water Fishery” trout stream. It is surrounded by lands heavily logged most recently in the early 90s. As part of the 67% of PA forest landowners with less than 10 acres, we readily recognized opportunities for commercial forestry were severely limited in our small stand of “pole timber.” Already cut in the late 1800s, it now has passed through succession stages of “Herbaceous Opening,” “Scrub/Seedling Brush” and is in the “Sapling/Pole” Stage. Our overall goal is to encourage our natural vegetation (about 75% of the property) to evolve towards the “Mature Forest Stage,” with a reasonable mix of wildlife species.

Also, we were too small for any financial support for planning and implementing activities, or even acknowledgement by the Bureau of Forestry (BOF) that our 2009 Forest Stewardship Plan existed. But we wanted to become personally familiar with the 2006 manual’s techniques to be able to knowledgeably discuss it with others, and as opportunities arose, to share Pennsylvania forestry history and our own appreciation for the woods.

Our 2009 Plan Objectives were to use the learning experience and related techniques to:

(1)    guide development of our small property, including realistic forest stewardship activities commensurate with its size, and

(2)    record property-related information of personally relevant interest, acquired through our 20+ ownership years, which also may be of interest to our six children, neighbors, or others who may someday own the land.

We gave added emphasis to discussions on “Regional Context” and “Water Resources,” both of relevant personal interest, in meeting the above objectives. And, while preparing our Plan, we had the good fortune of courtesy property visits by three BOF Service Foresters with whom we walked the property and exchanged implementation ideas.

They characterized our property as having a “well stocked mixed Oak-Hickory polewood stand with pioneer species (Black Cherry, Sweet Birch, Tulip Poplar and Aspen) sprinkled within.” Oak-Hickory forest communities are the most abundant types in PA. The Service Foresters also found the health of the natural vegetation “generally good although some of the Black Cherry exhibit ‘Black Knot,’ and several of the Scarlet Oaks have buttswells which likely harbor Chestnut Blight.” They found no evidence of Wolly Adelgid in Eastern Hemlock planted along the driveway. 

An initial draft was reviewed by a consulting forester who made excellent suggestions as well as a courtesy visit to walk our area. While no BOF “Grand Poobah” could give an “imprimatur” for our Plan, we felt comfortable it had been adequately vetted and met our own personal objectives. We also felt we could knowledgeably, as PAFS, help guide others through the process.

Our first step was to have our property boundaries surveyed. The plats for its four lots were originally at different scales and with different map orientations. The survey provided an accurate single map, which we transferred to Google Earth, using our handheld GPS, for further elaboration and refinements of our Plan. The surveyed land area was crossed by the 100-year floodplain of the adjacent trout stream.

Our second growth mixed hardwood forest naturally lent itself to three Management Units with their own distinguishing features, primarily determined through the online USDA NRCS “National Cooperative Web Soil Survey:”

  • “Structures and Roads” (with heavily altered areas, cottage, outbuildings, lawn, etc. all in the floodplain and the USDA  soil survey classification of hydric “Chavies Silt Loam” on 0-3% slopes below 1890’ above sea level (ASL)).
  • “Floodplain Forestland” (also hydric “Chavies Silt Loam,” previously logged but with regrowth, also <1890’ ASL).
  • “Upper Forestland” (classified as non-hydric “Rayne-Gilpin Channery Silt Loams” on 25-65% slopes, >1890’ ASL, more than half of our land area).

Each Management Unit was described in terms of its specific goals, location, vegetation, and anticipated projects. The implementation projects were generated from other sections of our Stewardship Plan entitled “Land Management Constraints and Potential” and “Personal Interests in the Land,” together with the USDA Soil Survey Classification.

So what types of activities can small landowners carry out to implement their “Forest Stewardship Plan”? . . . More than one might expect. In all cases we followed up on advice of the BOF Service Foresters and Consultant Forester. Plan activities below are ones which we have implemented or otherwise have underway:

Structures and Roads Management Unit

  • Maintain riparian buffer along immediate stream bank.
  • Stabilize existing deck over stream.
  • Enhance visible presence of wildlife, mainly birds, with feeder designed to discourage bears, squirrels and raccoons.
  • Initiate National Science Foundation citizen-scientist “Project Budburst” web-based phenology observation records on trees and plants.
  • Remove alternate boundary spruce trees, closely planted in the early 60s by original owner about 1 ½ -2 feet apart along most property lines and directly under power/phone lines.
  • Plant arborvitae and construct fence along southern boundary to maintain visual privacy.
  • Plant decorative trees/bushes for color and fruit (Lilac, Redbud, etc.).
  • Plant flower and vegetable gardens, protected from squirrels, moles, etc.
  • Mow tight and trim around structures (to better spot and coexist with numerous water snakes).
  • Mark all property lines with small aluminum boundary signs on both sides of trees, using aluminum nails to avoid any possible future damage to saws.
  • Construct connector trail to other Management Units on property, including foot bridges across lesser streams, and installation of sitting bench on island they form.
  • Maintain an ongoing Natural History Log, noting wildlife sightings, flowering of trees and plants, heavy snowfalls, creek flooding, hurricanes (Ivan, Sandy) etc.

Floodplain Forest Management Unit

  • Significantly reduce mowing along adjacent entrance road by establishing a “soft edge” for small wildlife and birds.
  • Establish wildlife cover brush and rock piles.
  • Prune non-productive and overgrown legacy apple tree to increase flowering.
  • Remove invasive species (honeysuckle) along roadway.
  • Control ferns by spraying to encourage natural regeneration.
  • Occasionally remove firewood as opportunities arise through windfall.
  • Enrichment planting of about a dozen American Sycamore (including American Forests’ Historic American “Moon Sycamore” tree from seeds taken on Apollo 14 to moon and later germinated on earth), and planting Red Osier Dogwood & Silky Dogwood along seep runs and intermittent streams to enhance bird habitat and visible winter stem color.
  • Safeguard special or unusual species on unit such as Winterberry Holly with red winter fruits.
  • Plant evergreens along two seep runs across unit to provide winter bird cover in deciduous forest.
  • Construct walking trail through Management Unit, connecting with others on property.

Upper Forestland Management Unit

  • Install and maintain “No Trespassing” signs along far boundaries of property.
  • Assure two primary seeps within unit are maintained undisturbed. Plant evergreens near water sources to provide winter cover for birds.
  • Join The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) and establish small stand (10 trees, spaced 20 feet apart) of American chestnut trees obtained through TACF, to illustrate the chestnut story and maybe produce nuts during our lifetime. Replace with blight-resistant seedlings when available at a reasonable price for private landowners, to compliment already existing chestnut stump sprouts identified on property (and confirmed by TACF’s Sara Fitzsimons at Penn State).
  • Control ferns to allow regeneration.
  • Remove firewood occasionally.
  • Construct walking trail through Management Unit, connecting with others on property.
  • Install bench along trail near property high point, overlooking chestnut plantation.

All Management Units

  • Continue existing voluntary association with groups and activities that promote forest stewardship including:
  • PA Forest Stewardship Program (PAFS)
  • Laurel Highlands Forest Landowners Association
  • Somerset County Planning Commission Board
  • Somerset County Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP Advisory Council)
  • Forestry for the Bay
  • Laurel Hill Creek “Critical Area Resource Plan” Advisory Committee
  • Somerset County Conservancy
  • Casselman River Watershed Association

To date we have been moderately successful in implementing most of the tasks anticipated in our Forest Stewardship Plan’s “Project Schedule” during the past several years. We have shared the Plan with our children, neighbors, and anyone else interested. Our “Project Record” shows our biggest expenses so far were for our professional tree removal along property lines and under power/phone lines, and for the official land survey. Our original plantings of redbud, sycamores and chestnut have had a tough time with drought and blight, and have had to be redone. Most of the remaining items have been completed or continue underway. We welcome hunters and fishermen. And our walking trails bring happiness nearly every day as we enjoy the change of seasons, observe the natural “pole timber” forest as it evolves, and check our seedlings/saplings in their tree tubes. And, the occasionally sighted ruffed grouse, deer, bear, golden and bald eagles, Allegheny wood rat, osprey, mink, wild turkey, and others that come through our front yard, keep us always vigilant.