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Making a Difference—Sharing Stewardship across the Landscape

Posted: March 26, 2018

If you are among the landowners who have engaged in active stewardship of your land, consider the impact you could have in helping other landowners understand what you’ve come to know.

Every five years, the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program collects, analyzes, and interprets various data about the state of our forests. This cyclical reporting process is like a census of the forest, looking at a number of factors, including: the amount of forested land, the age classes of forest stands throughout the state, the species that make up the canopy and the understory, the condition of tree crowns, and other indicators of forest health and long-term function. These reports are important for understanding how (and if) our forests are changing and in turn, helping land managers develop and prioritize strategies to maintain healthy, functioning forests. 

Pennsylvania’s most recent report was published in May of 2017 (Search online for: USDA Resource Bulletin NRS-111) covering the inventory period (2009-2014). One finding is that there was little overall change in the amount of forest cover during the inventory period (2009-2014). Although around 321,000 acres of forestland were lost to residential and commercial development, that loss was offset by a gain in 399,000 acres of forestland, as agricultural and other open land are left to grow into forests. This is good news. Another key part of the story is the composition and age classes of Pennsylvania’s forests. The 2014 FIA report notes that right now, forests in Pennsylvania are diverse in their composition; the inventory tallied 101 tree species and 58 forest types across the state. There is a silent shift occurring, though. 

In general, the trees that make up the canopy today tend to be species that are intolerant of shade, or somewhat intolerant. In other words, these are species that need brighter light conditions to thrive—the kinds of conditions that resulted from disturbances like timber harvesting, weather events, insects and disease, fire, and land clearing. Oaks, black cherry, and red maple are common in the overstory. In the understory of many forest stands, though, many of the trees are species that are very tolerant of the shaded conditions created by the mature canopy. American beech is the most numerous seedling-sized tree found by the inventory, followed by red maple and sweet birch (black birch). Sugar maple, white and red oaks, and hickories are much fewer in seedling sized trees, outnumbered by striped maple, sassafras, serviceberry, and even ash seedlings. These are the species that will eventually replace the current canopy when those trees die naturally or are harvested. 

Another aspect of this silent shift in our forests is an overall decrease in the number of tree seedlings. As in the last FIA report, the inventory shows that younger age classes of trees are lacking and seedling establishment and growth is challenged. The three big challenges to establishing the next generation of forest are: 1) limited light that results from fewer disturbances in the canopy, 2) the impact deer cause through damage to seedlings and browsing on preferred species like oaks, and 3) competition from other plants—whether native species or non-native invasives like bush honeysuckle or autumn olive. 

Why does all this matter? The Forest Service report notes that in order to sustain a diversity of tree species and to ensure that a new generation of desired tree species is being established, forests need to be actively managed. Through management, we mimic disturbances that allow the growth of trees that are less tolerant of shade, to add diversity to the shade-tolerant trees that currently dominate the understory. Without management, the oaks that are currently found throughout the state won’t be sustained. Management is also needed to create more young forests, since seedling establishment is challenged in the ways previously noted. We also must consider which tree species are being cut most, and which tree species are being left to provide seed for forest regeneration. 

The future of the forest is in the hands of the owners. Since most of Pennsylvania’s woods are in private ownership, the responsibility and the opportunity is in our hands. Two of the most common reasons people own woodlands of any size are the aesthetics and solitude, and often the only management is the occasional cutting of individual trees for firewood. As the Forest Service report notes of woodland owners, “The vast majority does not have management plans and most have not participated in any other traditional forest management planning or assistance programs. There are significant opportunities to assist these owners with management and stewardship of their forests.” 

If you are among the landowners who have engaged in active stewardship of your land—controlling invasive plants, talking with your service forester for advice before you considered cutting trees, working with a consulting forester to write a stewardship plan for your land, attending educational programs, or any other activity—consider the impact you could have in helping other landowners understand what you’ve come to know. You might feel that your actions are not very significant in the big picture, but consider the difference your actions could make if you let others around you know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and where other landowners can find trusted advice and resources. If you look at the community and the forested landscape around your own property, it begins to make sense that small actions, if they are also taken by those around us, can begin to amplify and make a difference at a larger scale. 

There are clear ways that we can try to attract attention and engage other landowners in learning about what stewardship actions they may need to consider. How do you see yourself helping to spread the word?

  • Let others see what you’re doing. Make some of your management activities visible to passers-by or to adjacent landowners. Post a sign that lets people know you’re proud of the work you’re doing to control invasives or to improve the chances of successful regeneration. Invite your neighbors over to walk your woods with you.
  • Share resources with other landowners. When you meet with your service forester, a consulting forester, a trusted logger or other service provider, recommend those people to others. When you need work done in your woods that may be considered too small scale for some service providers, talk with your neighbors about opportunities to get the work done together.
  • Let people know in writing. Write a guest column in your local newspaper. Share what you’ve learned and are doing with nature group pages on social media. Even writing a letter and sending it to neighbors is a great option, and it gives people time to think.
  • Link your stewardship to your love of a shared place. Places become special through our experiences and through a shared love. Do you live in a place that already has an identity? The Poconos, for example, or Happy Valley, or Penn’s Valley? Can you link your pride in being a land steward to the cultural heritage or pride in natural features of your Place? Are there local or regional groups that you can celebrate your place-making and the care of that place with?

Whether you share what you know and what you’re doing to care for your woods publicly or in informal talks with your neighbors, know that by sharing your passion, concern, and knowledge you are helping the collective stewardship of all our woods. Small actions can make a big difference.

Contact Information

Leslie Horner
  • Forest Stewardship Program Associate
Phone: 814-867-5982