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Can we go home again?

Posted: May 16, 2016

Thomas Wolfe says no but Bon Jovi says yes. Who is right?

Pennsylvania was named such - Penn's Woods - because of the expanse of forest that stretched from horizon to horizon. And those forests existed long before 1681 when Charles II of England granted it to William Penn to settle a debt.

Pennsylvania became forested 10,000 – 8,000 years ago. Those forests looked like this before the Europeans arrived:

Allegheny Plateau

  • Northwest PA - beech (31-43%), hemlock (20-27%), sugar maple (8%), birch (6%), white pine (3-6%)
  • North-central PA - Beech (33-50%), sugar maple (8-17%), hemlock (17-32%), birch (8%), white pine (2%)
  • Allegheny Mountains - White oak (19%), maple (15%), chestnut (14%), white pine (11%)

Ridge and Valley

  • Central PA Valley - White oak (41%), hickory (12%), pine (13%), black oak (9%)
  • Eastern PA - Pine (28%), white oak (23%), hemlock (9%), chestnut (7%), maple (6%)

Pocono Plateau

  • Pine (38%), beech (12%), hemlock (9%), spruce (7%), white oak (7%)

More than 90% of Pennsylvania’s 28.6 million acres was covered in dense forests. That was all going to change with the arrival of the Europeans about 400 years ago. I’ve never been to Europe but from the pictures I’ve seen, they don’t have many trees. No worries - the first sawmill was established in 1662!

Looking at forest composition pre-settlement shows just how much Pennsylvania forests have been altered. The American chestnut, of course, is practically gone (but hopefully coming back!). But another notable absence is the white pine (Pinus strobus). It’s the tallest tree in eastern North America and there are pre-colonial accounts of trees over 200 feet tall. White pine logged from northern forests before 1900 measured into the HUNDREDS of BILLIONS of board feet.null

While the white pine did not dominate Pennsylvania forests, it was an important component for wildlife. White pine seeds are eaten by at least 16 species of songbirds, red and gray squirrels, mice, and even deer. It is browsed by hares, rabbits, and, of course, deer. Beavers, hares, porcupines, rabbits, and mice also find the bark yummy.

Even black bears like the white pine. A study in Minnesota found that sows with cubs made over 90% of their spring beds at the bases of old white pine trees. Those trees comprised <0.5% of the available trees in the area. That’s pretty black and white.

White pine in today’s forest comprise less than 1% of the trees. A drastic decrease from pre-settlement forests. Another example of what has been lost.

Between 1760 and 1895, more than 4 million acres of forest were harvested 2 to 4 times! By 1900, only 9-13 million acres of forest land remained. Then came the fires. In 1908, almost a 1 million acres of Pennsylvania were burning. It was no longer Pennsylvania but Pennsolitudinem – Penn’s Desert.

When Pennsylvania entered the 20th century 50-65% of the forest was gone.

In this case, Mr. Wolfe is probably right. Past forestry practices focused 100% on exploitation and 0% on sustainability and assured that we can never set the clock back. [And while Bon Jovi thinks you can go home again, do they really want to go back to being an 80s hair band? I think not.]

The assault and years of abuse inflicted on Pennsylvania’s original forest set the framework for what we see today. Those forests were also shaped by an explosion in the deer population and it is well documented that deer herbivory alters ecosystems.null

But are there other factors at work molding and shaping the woods (and the deer) we see today?

The question is not whether we can go back but how can we go forward? Is there a way to maximize the “good” we see while minimizing the “bad”?

Maybe, but in order to win this game you have to know the players. As it turns out, the bench is deep. And the Deer-Forest Study is trying to figure out the batting order.

-Jeannine Fleegle
PGC Deer and Elk Section

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