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Tragedy to Triumph – A Forest Stewardship Plan

Posted: January 7, 2014

As stewards of a small piece of Penn’s woods in southeastern Cambria County, the members of the Beaverdale Sportsmen’s Association have recognized recent changes in their forest and decided it was time to do their part to ensure the diversity and sustainability of their woods.
Bat boxes and the installation crew.  Photo by Adam Katrancha

Bat boxes and the installation crew. Photo by Adam Katrancha

By Adam Katrancha, PA Forest Steward and Secretary - Beaverdale Sportsmen's Association

Rolling hills on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Plateau once forested with hemlock, pine and American chestnut are now a smattering of black birch, red maple and beech. The thickets resulting from the turn of the century clearcuts are only memories to the oldest of today's woodsmen as the upper canopy closes with the maturing trees. The native brook trout that have inhabited the upper reaches of the Conemaugh River are declining, as are the stands of sugar maple on the ridges. As stewards of a small piece of Penn's woods in southeastern Cambria County, the members of the Beaverdale Sportsmen's Association have recognized recent changes in their forest and decided it was time to do their part to ensure the diversity and sustainability of their woods.

The concept of a management plan was initially conceived nine years ago when the club's president attended the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Training and first learned of forest stewardship plans. Sporadic attempts at woodlot betterment projects had been attempted in the past with limited commitment and success. The notion of developing a comprehensive plan was initially just a conversation piece at the club's meetings…a good idea… but maybe too costly. For a small club with limited assets it seemed as if prohibitive costs would prevent the full potential of the club's property from being reached. Through insightful planning, the PA DCNR Bureau of Forestry was able to offer assistance through the Forest Lands Enhancement Program...there was still hope that the property could be saved from further degeneration.

The early club founders were not the first visitors to frequent these woodlands. The Cambria County Historical Society records " …There is evidence that the Delawares and Shawnees frequently passed through the area. An old Indian trail - the Conemaugh Path - extended from Bedford to Johnstown and thence through the Conemaugh Gap westward to the Ohio Country... " A legacy of respect and admiration for this forest was established by the Native Americans who passed through these woods. Would the Beaverdale Sportsmen be able to perpetuate that legacy?

The fateful day finally arrived, the November 2005 meeting of the Sportsmen's Association. Would the members see the potential of a plan? More explanation, discussion and contemplation followed; then the members voted. With anticipation, the club elected to proceed with the plan's development. The Forest Stewardship Plan for the Beaverdale Sportsmen's Association would be created. The active club members optimistically chose to try to make a difference!

The Forest Stewardship Training provided the knowledge for the club to initiate the plan's growth and development. A flurry of activity followed. Applications were submitted to DCNR Bureau of Forestry for cost sharing. Consulting foresters were contacted, interviewed and finally selected. More meetings followed where the foresters learned about club goals and objectives. Surveys returned by the Sportsmen indicated they were primarily interested in enhancing wildlife habitat with a secondary objective of limited timber production. Wildlife and timber…there was a goal, a purpose.

As winter passed and spring arrived, the plan saw little growth whereas the members had hoped to see it sprout and flourish with the forest greenery. The foresters completed their research, identified property boundaries; it seemed as if work stopped. As the club members knew all too well, the tract managed by the Beaverdale Sportsmen is 325 +/- acres on the Allegheny Front. The geological past had elevated the area's former swamps and deltas of the Carboniferous Period to over 2,600 feet in elevation. Winter comes early and lasts longer than in the surrounding river basins. The foresters worked on other projects as the members awaited the spring growth on the ridge top. Spring rains eventually led to summer emergence. The foresters set about their work establishing management units and representative plots. They counted seedlings, poles and saw timber; identified tree species, age, locations; and assessed forest health.

As the foresters progressed through their structured tasks, they were saddened and disheartened at the condition of the property. They recognized that the forests had been exploited. They could see the history of the clearcuts after the 1889 Johnstown flood when, three days after the dam ruptured, timber company surveyors began laying rail lines up the Conemaugh River tributaries. Prior to the flood, the dam impeded the economic removal of timber from the upper reaches of the watershed. These would be the last virgin timber clearcuts in Pennsylvania. The only remnants of this forest are a few old growth hemlock logs, victims of a spud (debarking tool), now mostly turned to duff, serving as nurse logs for other flora stretching for the summer sun.

After the clearcuts, the years passed. Oak trees began to dominate the landscape, spurred by the extensive disturbance that stimulates their germination and growth. Other hardwoods also took root: maples, cherry and beech. But again, today's oaks were remnants of a past glory. Numerous oak stumps, like random tombstones across the hillside, indicated that past high-grading (diameter-limited cutting) had removed the valuable timber, shortchanging wildlife by removing their food source before ample seedlings assured the next oak generation. As the foresters continued with their work, they perceived their plan might be written as a literary tragedy, merely documenting the past unsustainable and damaging practices.

After several weeks of field work, and a few more for report preparation, the foresters finalized the plan. For most club members, this was the first time they had seen a forest stewardship plan. Many members ignored it, some briefly flipped through it, but there was a group of inspired members who upheld their vow to improve the forest and correct the past misguided activities. From the plan's tangible numbers - board feet, stems per acres, unacceptable growing stock - it was clear, there were trees, and lots of them. But, was it a healthy forest?

As the sportsmen worked with the foresters and Bureau of Forestry, they began to understand the dynamic relationship between regeneration, light, ferns and deer. They saw how high-grading allowed the striped maple to capture space. How the deer enabled the carpet of ferns. In disbelief members wondered how previous generations had not recognized the error of removing the best genetic material and desirable species, leaving the stunted, defective and struggling trees to establish the next forest. No one would fault a rancher for harboring his prize bull. Why didn't the woodland champions garner the same ecological worth? Whether the past timbering practices were performed out of ignorance, necessity or greed…it didn't matter. Current members moved ahead with their commitment to take corrective actions.

The sportsmen aligned their resources and abilities with the plan's recommendations. They learned about competing vegetation, early successional habitat and the herbaceous layer. With a cache of tools they began their work, removing striped maple as a gardener removes dandelions to reduce competition for water and light. Season by season, they advanced on the daunting foe. Different tactics for different seasons: cut and treat, hack and squirt, foliar spray and basal spray. The work was exhausting as there were large acreages dominated by striped maple. But each year advances were made and a revitalized understory began to emerge.

Other management units monopolized by hayscented fern exhibited a high canopy but no understory. The foresters, masters of their trade, recognized the need to contract herbicide spraying to engage this adversary. Acknowledging limited club coffers; a timber harvest to salvage declining sugar maple was recommended, to both open the canopy for early successional development and to generate needed funds. First, the club removed the shade tolerant striped maple that had persisted in the understory. Members had learned how repetitive high-grading removed much of the desirable competition and allowed striped maple to slowly dominate the unit. Unfortunately, deer, which find other species more palatable, did not browse striped maple. Through the club's efforts and contract spraying, the canopy and understory were opened and new growth burgeoned on the forest floor.

Club members, who in the past saw the forest as a whole, now noticed characteristics between individual units. With the forester's tutelage, they understood existing and developing challenges. Beech were dying from a scale/disease complex. Emerald ash borer would eventually claim its victims. Hemlock wooly adelgid had not yet climbed to these ridges. Understanding these risks and hoping to avoid catastrophic losses similar to the chestnut blight, the organization has made supplemental plantings part of their annual activities. With support from the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Cooperative Farm-Game Program, hundreds of tree and shrub seedlings are planted each spring. Evergreens are planted for thermal cover, fruit bearing shrubs for soft mast and assorted hardwoods hopefully stave off disastrous losses that could befall a monocultural woodlot.

The club's efforts have not gone unnoticed. The Cambria County Conservation District praised them with their 2009 Forestry Award. The club also coordinated the development of a Wildlife Habitat Management Recommendations Report through the Pennsylvania Game Commission. While still working on forestry improvements, the club now includes wildlife habitat enhancements in their activities. Wood duck and mallard nest boxes were installed in riparian environs. Bat boxes were erected for these mammalian aviators. The club's achievements were rewarded in 2011 when the Pennsylvania Game Commission cost-shared 75 acres of contractual spraying along with 11 acres of edge and border cuts through the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP). Most recently, the club has partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to create Golden winged warbler habitat.

In less than a decade, the property has been transformed from a stagnant forest suffering from a century of abuses to a woodlot with yet untold opportunities. With great pride, members look at their accomplishments and know they have made a difference. They also recognize that there is no end to their work to improve their forest. They need to maintain openings as woodcock "singing grounds," control Japanese knotweed threatening from public rights-of-way, and address black birch and beech saplings in newer cuttings.

Our active members now appreciate how quickly directed planning can change the forest. Recent understanding and intervention is rewriting the forest's story for future stewards. As an enduring legacy, the Beaverdale Sportsmen's Association is now investigating conserving their cherished lands with a conservation easement with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Through the club's hard work and commitment, along with assistance from multiple agencies and supporters, this forest stewardship plan, one of many throughout the Commonwealth, is inspiring us to pass on a legacy of caring for Penn's woods for future generations of woodsmen and wildlife.