Posted: June 24, 2021

The solstice has come and passed and summer is upon us once again. We faced a long, cold winter and an even longer year of challenge and uncertainty, but life is beginning to feel vibrant again. Our summertime forests are teeming with the buzz and soft flutters of pollinators, are rich with flowers that will soon turn to fruit and seeds, and are brimming with…ecological warfare?

Okay, that might be a bit dramatic, but in the face of the various threats that have marched into and set up camp in our forests, it can truly feel like a battle. So far this summer – and over the past few years – we at the Center have had many calls, emails, and have talked to various people about the concerns they are seeing in our forests. White pines and other conifers are declining due to fungal pathogens and pests, regions of the state are seeing heavy gypsy moth infestations, ash trees continue to decline and die from the impact of the emerald ash borer, the hemlock woolly adelgid remains prevalent on Eastern hemlock trees, the spotted lanternfly expands its range further west and northeast each year, invasive plant species persist in the landscape, and, to ice this dismal cake, changing weather patterns have created warmer and wetter conditions, contributing to the presence and abundance of fungal pathogens and also to tree failure as a consequence of soil that is just much too wet to survive in. In light of all of this, the questions become, “What should we do, where should we start, is there anything we can try?” The answers are often complicated and after reading this, you may want to simply throw up your arms, wave the white flag, and say, “This battle is lost.” But alas, the battle is not lost and it is far from over. Our forests are tough, but in the presence of so many threats, their resiliency is weakened, and so now is the time to for us to be resilient for them. We support our forests when we take active steps to care for them – for their health and vitality – just as we do when a loved one battles illness or physical malady. So, for the love of our forests, which are battling their own maladies, it is imperative for us to now step into the battle field and keep on fighting the good fight to care for our woodlands of today and tomorrow.

So why, then? Why is the health of our forests so important and, really, why do anything when it seems that there is often no cut-and-dry solution to eliminating so many of these threats? Well, to begin, healthy forests support healthy human lives. Our forests provide for our basic needs by cleaning our air and water. Through the process of photosynthesis, trees absorb water and carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere and take in sunlight to create sugar – or food – and release oxygen. Trees use that sugar, which contains carbon, to create wood. Essentially, trees take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it as wood, keeping most of it from re-entering the atmosphere until the trees die and decompose. Think then of an entire forest filled with trees, all taking carbon out of the atmosphere each day and creating safer, cleaner, healthier air for us to breathe. Even when trees are cut down to create lumber that is used to make furniture or build a house, that carbon remains locked away in the wood for generations. Trees and forests also clean the water that we drink. When water below the soil surface moves through forests, tree roots filter and absorb nutrients and pollutants, ensuring that clean water reaches the waterways that sustain our drinking supply. Beyond that, they provide benefits that support our everyday well-being, like wood and paper products, jobs, and recreational opportunities. Pennsylvania is home to more than 12,000 miles of State Forest and State Park trails for the public to access and enjoy, providing for physical and mental health. Our forests also hold historic, cultural, and social significance for communities, families, and individuals. Long before European colonization and before the land became “Penn’s Woods,” the woods of present day Pennsylvania were home to nations and tribes of indigenous peoples: the Haudenosaunee Confederacy stretched across Pennsylvania and was comprised of Six Nations including the Seneca, Cayuga and Tuscarora, the Lenni-Lenape of the Delaware Valley, the Erielhonan of the northwest, the Susquehannock who resided along the banks of the Susquehanna River, the Shawnee, and various tribes throughout time. The land and forests continue to hold significance today for the descendants of these nations who continue to call Pennsylvania home. Our forests also set the stage for learning and discovery, for friends and families to create memories, and, for many, they continue to represent spiritual and personal value. The legacies and stories of our forests represent important history and demonstrate the interconnectedness of people and land, and their continued existence is vital for that history and value to live on.

While the health of our forests today matters for the provision of these benefits, it is also matters for the establishment of the forests of tomorrow. Here in the northeast, our forests replace themselves through a process of natural regeneration – as mature trees die or fall out of the canopy, gaps are created and sunlight reaches the understory where established tree seedlings and saplings will utilize the new-found space and light to grow, eventually establishing the next forest. It might seem to be a benefit, then, that mature trees are likely to die out of the canopy as a consequence of some of the threats we discussed earlier – however, the Catch-22 is that for a forest to regenerate in the presence of canopy gaps, healthy and hardy seedlings and saplings need to already be present in the understory. Invasive plants that outcompete and grow overtop these little trees – and deer that over-browse them – reduce their hardiness and leave them ill-equipped to take advantage of introduced light and space. Therefore, our forests require careful management with a focus on protecting and promoting the strength of regenerated trees so that when the battle does break out and mature stems begin to fall – whether due to repeated defoliation by gypsy moth or death via emerald ash borer or for a planned harvest – these little ones can achieve the higher ground over invasive plants, hold their own against deer, and begin to establish the next forest.

At this you point, you might be thinking “Okay, careful management sounds great, but how do I do that? How do I get out there today and starting fighting the fight to care for the forest?” Like with any battle, there are many strategies, options, and directions to take, but the most important thing to remember is this: no hard-fought battle was ever won alone. In the place where you are today, there are people ready to come alongside you, support you, and march forward with you to find the best options and plans to care for the forest. Talk to neighbors and friends and ask what they are seeing in their forest or on their trees. Talk with your family and loved ones about your concerns and clearly identify and define your values for forests so that you can be ready to create actionable goals and objectives based in those values. If you own forestland, reach out to your local woodland owners association and join in on a meeting to talk with others who likely have similar values and concerns and can share stories of how they are taking action on their own land. Discover the Pennsylvania Forest Stewards in your area, who are landowners excited to meet you and walk through concerns, management, and stewardship together. Contact the Penn State Forestry and Wildlife Extension team, which is rich with educators who are ready to answer your questions, hear your concerns, and provide more information about the pests, pathogens, or plants that are present on your land. Reach out to your local Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Service Forester and invite them to walk your land together. As a free service to you, they can provide guidance and answer questions regarding your concerns, as well as assess some of those threats you might be seeing. They also can share with you about the opportunities in your area to participate in cost share funded management programs, like those administered through the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Visit the links below to find contact information. If you are feeling ready to take some concrete management actions now, contact a local consulting forester who can meet with you and discuss potential management options, such as herbicide spraying, deer fencing, or timber harvest. If you would like to do some of your own homework, read and get to know forest stewardship and these forest health threats a bit better, and check out the list of resources linked below.

And as always, when questions arise, don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at the Center for Private Forests. We care deeply about Pennsylvania’s forests – and we care deeply about you. We know that it can weigh heavy on the heart to think about the challenges our forests are facing. We know, too, that it can be overwhelming to think about caring for them against the odds. But what we are certain of is that our forests are worth caring for, for the sake of our collective lives of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We will be right here, ready to join you as you march on and keep on fighting the good fight.

Contact Resources

Woodland Owners Associations

Pennsylvania Forest Stewards

Penn State Extension Renewable Natural Resources Team

DCNR Service Foresters by County

Consulting Forester List

Resources For Learning

Forestry with Confidence

Forest Stewardship: Principles for Landowners

Forest Stewardship: Conserving Biological Wealth in Forests

Forest Stewardship: Sources of Information and Guidance for Forest Stewards

Forest Regeneration

Invasive and Competing Plants Resources

Pests and Diseases Resources

The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of publications, call 800-235-9473 (toll free), send an email to PrivateForests@psu.edu, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry, USDA Forest Service, Penn State Extension, and the Center for Private Forests at Penn State, in Partnership through Penn State’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.

Center for Private Forests

Address

416 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802

Center for Private Forests

Address

416 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802