Wooded Landscapes Have Very Few Fences

Posted: March 18, 2016

The limits or boundaries of a landscape are difficult to describe, as one property borders another and yet another. In many ways, we are all neighbors and the decisions we make move across the landscape like ripples from a stone tossed into a pond.

Robert Frost, in his 1915 poem Mending Fences, wrote “Good fences make good neighbors.” Interestingly, this was not his perspective; rather, it was his neighbor’s. Frost questioned the need for a fence as his neighbor’s land harbored pines and his, apples. It did not strike him that his apples would eat his neighbor’s pine cones. Frost saw value in good fences when cows were involved; otherwise, before building a wall he would “... ask to know, What I was walling in or walling out...” He was arguing against rather than for fences. In other words, fences that tend to isolate and enclose do not make for good neighbors — an outward view builds better relationships

We all live in a landscape. For sure there are lines — boundaries — that define our relationships within a landscape and to the property of others. This is the case whether you live in an apartment, an urban development, or a rural landscape. We know where these “imaginary” lines are and to some extent we defend them as our property. For sure, there are reasons in a civil society to know and respect these boundaries against some intrusions; however, they are permeable.

Without getting too deeply into legal arguments over property rights, we experience and observe that what others do on their property does affect us. The neighbor’s new bright pink utility shed may offend your view. The barking dog takes away from a night’s sleep. The barbeque up the street smells delightful, but you weren’t invited to the party. There are many egregious issues involving boundaries that the courts have addressed; however, consider that we all have a duty to others who live in our landscape — our neighbors both close and further away.

The limits or boundaries of a landscape are difficult to describe, as one property borders another and yet another. In many ways, we are all neighbors and the decisions we make move across the landscape like ripples from a stone tossed into a pond.

When managing land, it becomes readily apparent that no one can control everything that moves across boundaries within the landscape. Air, water, wildlife, and seeds cross boundaries within and beyond what we might call a landscape. It might seem that individual choices within a larger landscape are not that important. They are. The trick is to consider how good and bad decisions can add together, and how time adds to the importance of recognizing our individual roles in helping create and maintain healthy, functioning landscapes where we can live, work, and recreate.

Across Pennsylvania, forests and woodlands are dominant features on our landscape. The decisions individual landowners make about use of their woodlands affect the larger landscape and directly affect forest health because their actions reach beyond their boundaries. There many examples.

In about 1904, chestnut blight was inadvertently introduced to North America through infected nursery stock from Japan. In 1905 foresters noted that American chestnut trees in New York’s Zoological Garden were showing symptoms of an unnamed disease. While it is likely the disease was introduced in multiple locations as Japanese chestnut trees were popular additions to gardens, it quickly spread across the East and in less than forty years had decimated this economically and ecologically important species, essentially eliminating it from our forests.

Gypsy moths were purposely brought to the United States with the intent of cross-breeding them with silkworms to develop a silk industry in New England. In 1869, a few of the insects escaped and in less than ten years were defoliating trees in Massachusetts. Despite warnings of the potential threat from this species, there was little effort to contain its spread. By 1937 they had crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, where they have killed millions of trees and continue to wreak havoc on forested landscapes.

Perhaps less dramatic, but demonstrating how seemingly unimportant or poorly conceived decisions move across landscapes, consider multiflora rose, an Asian species first introduced in the 1860s as rootstock for grafted roses. In this role, it was relatively “well behaved.” Then, in 1930s, the Soil Conservation Service promoted it for soil erosion control and as a living fence or natural hedge. By the late 1960s, it was obvious that the living fence was out of control -- it was moving from one property to another across landscapes.

Consider one more example involving a loved native and very controversial species -- the white-tailed deer. This species easily moves across boundaries in any landscape. Some landowners seek more deer; while others want fewer. Too many deer shift plant species composition by selective browsing that “allows” less desired native and exotic plant species to gain the upper hand and exclude many desirable species. Only by working together, across fences, can we balance their numbers with the capacity of our woodlands to support the herd.

The list of species that were once considered controllable and now challenge our ability to manage natural systems is long: emerald ash borer, autumn olive, bush and Japanese honeysuckle, Japanese stiltgrass, Oriental bittersweet, hemlock wooly adelgid, and more.

To address these types of challenges, like raising a child, takes a neighborhood. If people can cooperate by looking both inside their “fence” and across the wider landscape, maybe there is a chance to restore forest and landscape health. People have to become neighbors who work together to restore landscapes. Taking a turn on Frost’s poem, if we are going to have healthy forests, landscapes, or global climates, good neighbors have to take down fences and learn to work together to achieve common goals. This is not easy, but it starts by talking across the fence, to understand shared needs, and to decide to look for balance and health.

Contact Information

James Finley, Ph.D.
  • Professor Emeritus of Forest Resources
Phone: 814-863-0402