Scope and Role

Forests are the dominant ecosystems in Pennsylvania, with more than 16.6 million acres of forestland covering 58 percent of the land area of the state. These forest ecosystems provide a host of values to the people of the state. They grow economically valuable hardwoods, such as cherry, oak, and maple, and a variety of valuable nonwood products, such as maple syrup and ginseng. They protect the watersheds that yield the majority of the state’s fresh water. Pennsylvania has 83,161 miles of rivers and streams; 3,956 lakes, reservoirs, and ponds covering 161,445 acres accessible to the public; and freshwater wetlands covering a total of 403,724 acres. The state’s forests and the streams that flow through and from them provide habitat for the vast majority of the state’s wildlife. They provide open spaces and opportunities for people to experience nature and the outdoors through activities like hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, and boating. In addition, urban and community forests contribute substantially to the quality of the environments where people live. The trees that most residents see every day are in their communities. These landscape trees are vital to a healthy and prosperous environment, providing many environmental, aesthetic, and economic benefits. 

The industries that are based on the state’s forest resources are significant. The wood products, paper, and furniture industries contribute $15 billion annually to the state’s economy and employ more than 81,000 people with a $2.8 billion payroll. Hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation are also important industries. According to the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, 4.6 million people spent $3 billion to fish, hunt, and watch wildlife in Pennsylvania. 

For nearly 100 years the Penn State Department of Ecosystem Science and Management has been Pennsylvania’s premier educational institution for training and educating professionals to manage these critical resources and the state’s leading research institution providing answers on how best to sustain and use our natural resources. We are a primary source of science-based information on understanding and managing the state’s forest and aquatic ecosystems for industry, public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private landowners.

Today, the forest and aquatic ecosystems of the state appear healthy and robust. Yet, a host of problems threaten them. Sprawling human development, which has already consumed a significant area of agricultural land, is also increasingly encroaching upon the forestland base. Fragmentation and parcelization of forestlands erodes the integrity of the remaining area of these ecosystems. Nonnative insects, diseases, and invasive plants are disrupting key species and ecosystem functions. Overabundant deer populations alter the physical structure of the forest, reduce the diversity of habitat niches for wildlife such as birds, and hamper critical functions such as the regeneration needed to sustain the forests of the future. Acid rain erodes the productivity of forest soils, and acid drainage from abandoned mines and sediment and nutrients from other sources have severely degraded the quality of many streams. Furthermore, climate change has the potential to dramatically affect the state’s forest and aquatic resources, but the extent of this threat is currently largely unknown. Now, Pennsylvania’s forests are once again mature after recovering from extensive harvesting around the beginning of the twentieth century. Harvests are increasing and, with careful management, we have the potential to sustain these harvest levels. However, in spite of this abundant raw material base, the state’s secondary wood products manufacturers are facing increasing foreign competition. Increasing numbers of lumber and veneer logs are being shipped overseas. These trends are expected to continue as long as foreign demand continues to be strong. The effects of international trade in wood products range from higher stumpage prices paid to landowners to the loss of value-added producers in the state. The Department of Ecosystem Science and Management plays a central role in addressing these issues through research, outreach, and collaboration with industry, nonprofit organizations, and federal, state, and municipal governments. 

The Department of Ecosystem Science and Management has good working relationships with the public agencies that manage the state’s natural resources, such as the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Fish and Boat Commission, and the USDA Forest Service. Our collaborations with these agencies help them develop and apply research-based policies and management techniques. However, the majority (69 percent) of the state’s forestland is privately owned, and there is evidence that in many cases the level of management on these lands is not sustaining forest health and quality. As the average parcel size decreases and the number of private owners increases, the likelihood of the involvement of a professional forester in management activities and the options for management are reduced. Similarly, many of Pennsylvania’s cities and boroughs either have poorly developed community tree management programs or no program at all and need to establish municipal tree care programs, with an emphasis on tree planting, tree maintenance for safety, and allied revitalization of urban areas.

A key mission of the School is to reach out to the roughly half million private forest landowners and the thousands of municipalities to provide them with science-based information to help them effectively manage both rural and urban forest resources. Pennsylvania has long been known for its abundant surface and ground water resources. Over three million rural homeowners utilize private ground water wells or springs as water supplies and thousands use private ponds for recreation, fire protection, and irrigation. Unfortunately, the majority of private water supplies are unsafe to drink, and about three-fourths of private ponds are mismanaged. The school seeks to educate homeowners with private water systems and pond owners about the proper management of these water resources to reduce human health concerns and environmental damage.

There is a general lack of understanding in the general public about forest and aquatic ecosystems and the industries based on them. Controversies about deer populations and timber harvesting reflect misinformation, lack of knowledge, and conflicting values. Similarly, the watershed values of forestlands are not broadly recognized by the general public. Many of the misconceptions about natural resources actually originate through misunderstanding and bias in educational and media programs directed at children and young adults. Virtually all natural resources issues have important social, economic, and policy dimensions in addition to the obvious ecological and biological dimensions, and the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management has a key role to play in helping the state’s policymakers develop sound environmental and natural resources policies and programs. While conflicting values over natural resources are inevitable, there is a tremendous need for better information in debates about their management and for a better understanding of the varying perspectives of those with a stake in the management of the state’s natural resources. As the general public becomes increasingly urban, the need for better educational programs about environmental and natural resources issues will grow. The Department of Ecosystem Science and Management can play a critical role in producing both environmentally aware citizens and science-based information on environmental and natural resources issues.