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Forest Green and Other Woodland Lessons

Posted: December 13, 2016

For the members of the Beaverdale Sportsmen’s Association in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, the conglomeration of green leaves and woody vegetation on their property were thought to indicate a healthy and productive forest…green is good…or is it?

For millennia, the rolling hills of Cambria County, with moist lowlands extending from ephemeral seeps, have been a haven for forest dwellers. The lush greenery thriving on the summer sun, where the birds harmonize and salamanders cool under damp moss, is still regarded as a retreat for today’s wildlife and woodsmen alike. For the members of the Beaverdale Sportsmen’s Association, the conglomeration of green leaves and woody vegetation were thought to indicate a healthy and productive forest…green is good…or is it?

Since the organization’s inception in 1924, the Beaverdale Sportsmen’s Association (BSA), performed forest management activities on an as-needed basis. With few exceptions, forest management consisted of cutting timber when financial need dictated. Those original members and their heirs would confidently tell anyone that they did not need to be told which trees to cut. “You cut the biggest trees, the most valuable species. More trees will grow back.” More recently though, through a mixture of educational and on-the-ground forestry initiatives, BSA members learned that a lush green woodlot is not always fruitful and healthy.

Calling the harvests “select cuts” and ignorantly assuming that the remaining trees would perpetuate a healthy and productive forest, past members allowed high grading on large swaths of the property. At the urging of the logger, other areas were clear-cut. Without any thought to advanced regeneration or the residual trees that would repopulate the future forest, members allowed the harvester to manage the forest for his financial benefit.

Fortunately, for the forest and the organization, the current generation of active stewards recognized their limitations. In 2004, Tom Kakabar, the club president, attended the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Training offered by The Center for Private Forests at Penn State. Returning from the training, enlightened with his newfound knowledge yet discouraged with the historical management of the club’s lands, Tom proposed the development of a Forest Stewardship Plan for the club’s 325 acres. Not only did the club support developing the plan, several other members and colleagues in subsequent years followed Tom’s example and have completed the Forest Stewardship Training.

These now enthusiastic outdoorsmen and women were not professionals, but willingly set about their forest improvement tasks at the low end of the learning curve. Sharing his knowledge about shade tolerance and regeneration, Tom led his supporting workers in an attack on striped maple that had aggressively colonized stands after past unsustainable harvests. This shade tolerant tree full of broad leaves, functioning like miniature green beach umbrellas, blocked the energizing sun from the less shade tolerant seedlings on the forest floor. For months on end, small work crews would visit the club’s property, cutting the saplings and poles, following with an herbicide sprayed on the cut stump to kill the root system. It was a time consuming job; backaches from repeated bending with a chainsaw coupled with carrying a backpack sprayer were shared among the workers. The early work, along the roads and trails, soon led to longer hikes through the forest to reach retreating antagonists. The difference they were making was evident, opening the canopy, daylighting the ground below, but the acreage was large. Enthusiasm began to dwindle with many of the members, but there were a few still committed to renewing the forest they cherished.This carpet of rhizomatous ferns prevents tree regeneration from getting established. Photo by Adam Katrancha.

In 2010, after several years of self-reliance, the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recognized the club’s accomplishments and identified ways to help the BSA improve their woodland property and develop habitat for the wildlife. At one meeting with the environmental professionals helping to guide the club’s activities, someone mentioned “hack and squirt,” the process of cutting notches around the truck of a tree, followed by a squirt or two of herbicide from a spray bottle to cull the specimen. This process epiphany didn’t take long to catch on with the chainsaw lugging workers as they eagerly traded saws and buckets of supplies for a Woodsman’s Pal and squirt bottle. While the acreage remained, the task became more bearable. The two-person crews were no longer needed; individuals could now lead the assault on striped maple. 

Adam Katrancha, another PAFS, accumulated many long hours with his faithful canine companion Annie, who eagerly watched, defending against the intruding chipmunk, or worse, the rogue porcupine, who shortened a few sessions with emergency trips to the veterinarian. They often trekked to the extents of the property, working alone for several hours at a time, compensated with nothing more than the rejuvenating retreat to the woods and the experiences that come from work among the trees.

Those days also provided an education only obtained in a classroom illuminated by solar radiance and conditioned by a northerly breeze under a cooling forest canopy. Laboring in close quarters with the trees, one learns to avoid the entangling snares of the spined micrathena and marbled orb weaver, forest arachnids that have a preference for constructing webs several feet above the ground. Finding a wood turtle carapace among scattered limbs leads one to contemplate the existence of predator and prey in such a secluded site. While stopping to rest in a copse of beech, a black throated blue warbler investigated. Learning its chorus from the virtuoso himself is an experience unobtainable in a walled classroom.

With a sizable accomplishment of striped maple control, the workers directed their attention to an NRCS contract in 2012 that created young forest habitat for the golden-winged warbler. Once again, working with the professionals, BSA members learned that beech and black birch had replaced the more valued black cherry, oak, and sugar maple after subsequent diameter limited harvests on the 27 acres under contract. The members, slowing advancing in their schooling, became reacquainted with the club’s antiquated chainsaws. The 1974 Homelite models, older than some of the operators, were put to use opening the forest, exchanging the dull green beech and birch canopy for the lustrous growth emerging from the soils below. Their woodland education continued. After misjudging a sizable tree’s direction of fall and pinching the saw, they quickly recognized that carrying a second saw to the work site was a worthwhile endeavor. On occasion, the quarter mile trek to retrieve the backup unit proved an unnecessary exertion when Mother Nature’s gentle breeze persuaded an uncooperative tree to makes its final drop to the ground, freeing the bound implement during the operator’s temporary absence. Under the forester’s tutelage, the novice operators learned new techniques. Felling wedges and bore cuts were introduced and employed. While safety was emphasized, emergency room stitches helped members understand the importance of chainsaw chaps and other protective equipment.

More good fortune befell the BSA in 2016, when the PGC offered to fund, through the VPA-HIP program, herbicide spraying to help control fern, beech brush, and black birch sapling thickets on portions of the club’s property. Once again, the ground cover provided by the ferns, so often viewed with benevolent affection, proved detrimental to regeneration essential for filling voids in the forest structure. In an effort to maximize the benefit of the herbicide treatment, the foresters recommended clipping off the leafy tops of the oak seedlings within the spray blocks, thereby saving the valued juveniles from the foliar spray, hoping to see them resprout the next spring. With clippers in hand, groups of members wandered the woods, looking for oak leaves hidden beneath the fronds and brush. For some, this experience provided the evidence to convince them that the green fern carpets did indeed overshadow desirable species, or that other areas, under canopies of black birch saplings, were biological deserts providing little benefit to wildlife. Everyone involved left the woods having learned something. Unfortunately, the prominent lesson was that oak seedlings will vigorously resprout light green leaves even when clipped in late summer, something even the forester was surprised to observe. Begrudging members duplicated their earlier efforts in the hopes of saving this established regeneration. As with most forestry endeavors, the true success of the club’s efforts will not be appreciated for decades, when the oak seedlings, rescued from the herbicide, offer the shade of a broad canopy or provide their first acorns to an attentive squirrel.This area was treated to control the fern that had been preventing tree regeration. Competition is greatly reduced giving the desirable trees the opportunity to get established. Photo by Adam Katrancha.

As these active participants learned, not all green in the forest is good. Some of the botanical inhabitants like to bully their way into the landscape, forcing out more favorable neighbors. But in the appropriate proportions and structure, the life giving green found in Pennsylvania’s woodlands provides for the physical and ethereal needs of the woodland inhabitants and visitors. Since the inception of the Forest Stewardship Plan, the BSA has received numerous grants from a host of supporting agencies1. With each project helping to restore the forests from decades of degradation, club members continue their woodland apprenticeship under the tutelage of the environmental professionals in their open-air classroom. Assembling a coordinated team, the club and their partnering agencies have provided woodland improvements that exceed that which each group could accomplish independently. As Robert Frost penned “Men work together; Whether they work together or apart,”2 and these men and women are working together to make the green in their forest good for all.

1. PA DCNR Bureau of Forestry, Pennsylvania Game Commission, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

2. “The Tuft of Flowers”, Robert Frost.

Contact Information

Adam Katrancha
  • PA Forest Steward, South Central Region