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Forest? Woodland? - The Importance of Small Acreages in Stewardship

Posted: January 29, 2019

Smaller-acreage woodlands can play an important role in providing diversity of age and structure in forest habitat.

“Well, I don’t really own a forest. It’s only about 17 acres.” This is not uncommon for forestry educators and forest managers to hear when talking with the public at events like the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg or Ag Progress Days in Pennsylvania Furnace. Landowners and forestry professionals alike use many words to describe the same land—forest, woodlot, woodland, woods, and even other terms. As the statement indicates, many people equate “forest” with large acreage. In fact, social science research has shown that some stewardship-related words resonate more than others. A 2011 survey study conducted for the Northeastern Area Association of State Foresters found that most respondents believed a tract size of 40 acres or more could be considered a forest, and only one-third of respondents considered a 20-acre tract size to be large enough to be considered a forest. Words like “woods” and “woodland” and even “woodlot” resonated with survey respondents when describing privately owned lands.

What is clear from these conversations with landowners and communications studies is that words matter in our efforts to foster land stewardship—whether coming from a natural resource professional or from a fellow landowner. Words matter even more so when considering the range of acreage sizes of Pennsylvania’s privately-owned woods. Nearly 500,000 of the state’s approximately 740,000 woodland owners have 1 to 10 acres, and that number will grow as lands are subdivided over time. Another 217,000 owners have 11 to 99 wooded acres, so these two groupings of owners account for more than 90% of owners, and more than 7 million acres of Pennsylvania’s forested landscape. To effectively care for the health and function of all of Pennsylvania’s woods, it is critical to engage owners of smaller acreages in active stewardship. Using language that is inclusive of owners for whom the word “forest” may not resonate is an important approach.

One reason the health of smaller acreages is important to the health and function of forests in the broader landscape relates to the need for connectivity. Data has shown that since the early 1980s, the number of smaller acreages and the number of owners has grown steadily. Larger parcels are often subdivided between heirs or new buyers, and as this transfer of land and subdivision of land occurs, the likelihood of that land being converted from a functional woodland ecosystem to cleared land (often for development) increases. When looking at aerial imagery, or even looking out the window of an airplane at low altitudes, one can easily get a sense how important it is to wildlife habitat to retain wooded corridors between larger chunks of forest habitat. Small wooded acreages are often where these habitat corridors are provided.

Likewise, smaller-acreage woodlands can play an important role in providing diversity of age and structure in forest habitat. Age diversity in woodlands is essential for supporting diverse wildlife and for forest renewal. However, diversity of age and structure don’t occur without planning help from a forester and active management. Dr. Julian Avery, a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation in Penn State’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management recently shared results of a decades-long study showcasing the need for active management to support bird diversity. Avery and his research team sampled bird species present in a 40-acre woodland in New Jersey which, since the 1950s, has had protections which don’t allow for any living trees to be cut. Some trees on the property are 350 years old. Using the same collection methods at the same locations that have been sampled for decades, the research team was able to document that the diversity of bird species actually declined on this tract as it aged. Using Breeding Bird Atlas data, the team could also show that the abundance of many of the bird species was fewer in comparison to the bird populations in the surrounding area which had younger forests. As a Penn State news article reports, “The researchers found that nearly half the species found in the forest at the time of initial protection are now gone, and that yearly forest species composition is highly dynamic. Ground nesting and migratory species were more likely to be missing than were canopy breeders, cavity nesters, and year-round residents.” The take-home lesson from this research is that leaving woodlands alone many times does not provide the expected or desired benefits to wildlife, and even small acreages can contribute to providing habitat for diverse species when active woodland stewardship takes place.

The leave-it-alone approach on small or large acreages can be also detrimental to overall woodland health and function — particularly regarding tree and shrub diversity. For example, consider a 5-acre tract of land that is part of a semi-rural neighborhood on the edge of a small town. To the north of the tract is a forested mountain, and to the south lies the town. As homes were built in this neighborhood, landowners cleared trees for firewood and supplemental income, evidenced by the stumps still visible in the tract. What remains in this tract now are: dead and dying ash, black walnut, a few black cherry trees, and numerous non-native invasive trees and shrubs. Mature and young Norway maples dominate one section of the 5-acre tract, while privet and massive bush honeysuckle shrubs densely cover the understory of other sections. Down the street, female individuals in a stand of Ailanthus trees (“Tree-of-Heaven”) send seeds through the wind to take root wherever they can. The dominance of non-native and invasive trees and shrubs is an unfortunate example of why non-management simply is not a feasible stewardship strategy in our woodlands today — especially on small acreages which have vulnerable edges for invasive trees and shrubs to take root and spread quickly. However, through active management, which includes removing the bush honeysuckle, privet, Norway maples, cutting the dead ash trees, this tract can begin to be transformed into a small woodland with more diverse native plant species. Planting trees and broadcasting seeds of berry-producing native shrubs, as well as staying vigilant in controlling the spread of invasive trees and shrubs is a start on this journey of active stewardship, and the small acreage can become an important refuge for birds and other wildlife.

Natural resource professionals have increasingly been paying attention to the importance of efforts like this on small acreages, as they can help to functionally piece together the larger forested landscape. Other landowners — no matter how many acres they may own — can also play a very important role in demonstrating active stewardship that can be seen by neighboring owners. Signs explaining your efforts, walks around the property with curious neighbors, and sharing equipment, resources, and even service providers like foresters and trusted loggers are all tools that can make a significant difference in engaging other landowners. In these interactions, we can also have an impact by acting not as an infallible expert but an informed guide, avoiding jargon, and meeting people where they are on their individual stewardship and learning curves.

Contact Information

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