Mark & Olivia Ott and Francis Brown were kind enough to share the experience and knowledge they've gained by managing their forestland in Centre County, Pennsylvania.
We had a small forest management plan drawn up by the Cooperative Extension Forester for Centre County in 1979. That plan was not as comprehensive as our current Forest Stewardship Plan. We started actively working to improve our forest land after attending the organizational meeting of the Woodland Owners of Centre County (WOCC) sometime in the early 1990's. We did not immediately join the group at that time but we started to do annual plantings of seedlings we received from the PA Game Commission through being enrolled in the Safety Zone Program. After re-discovering WOCC we joined and began attending monthly meetings where we learned about the many aspects of forest care and use. I have served as a Board member for WOCC since I joined and have held offices of Pres., VP and Secretary and continue to do so.
Being in WOCC alerted me to the existence of the PA Forestry Assoc. which we also joined. Early on after joining WOCC I learned of the Forest Stewardship program which encourages forest landowners to have a plan drawn up for their forest lands based on their desired use of the land. There was and is government cost share for having the plan drawn up and we took advantage of the opportunity. We toured our property with the DCNR Service Forester for our county and discussed possibilities. We were given a list of consulting foresters to pick from to work on our plan. We chose Lyn Greenaway who had recently completed the Centre County Natural Heritage Inventory.
We completed a form which gauged our interest in the property as well as practices and uses we would like to see. We then toured the property with Lyn discussing features and forest types we were aware of and learning from her as she pointed out things we were unaware of. Lyn made several visits measuring trees, basal area per acre, dividing the property into management units, etc. She came out with an extensive 5 year plan based on our objectives as determined by our input. The plan cost about $1,200 and I believe the reimbursement from the government was 80% of that. That is a great deal!
The plan gave us objectives for each of the 5 years including improvement of forest roads as to drainage and fire control access, areas to consider thinning, diversification planting, trail establishment, invasive species control, deer population control, wildlife habitat establishment, etc.
We wanted to accomplish timber stand improvement, tree species diversification, soil conservation, clean up problem areas (an old household dump), increase wildlife food, shelter and habitat opportunities, increase value of standing timber for future harvest, identify and remove invasive species, improve access by foot and vehicle for hiking, working the forest and fire control, establish food plots, plant sugar maple plantation for syrup production and protect seeps and waterways and open a vista.
Over the first 5 years we felt we managed to do very little of the plan, but when we sat down for our 5 year review and renewal with the Service Forester, we realized that we had achieved much more than we thought. We had established a young sugar maple plantation to someday complement the red maples we currently use to make maple syrup, we had established some of the trails, improved road drainage to stop erosion, planted over 600 trees of various types to diversify the forest mix and provide for wildlife food, completely eradicated the ailanthus (Tree of Heaven), discovered and removed early sprouts of striped maple, established a wooded buffer along the intermittent stream, established several brush piles for animal shelter and cleaned up an old household dump containing many bottles, coil springs and leather shoes. We also placed appropriate wildlife houses where possible including owl boxes in the woods, bat houses on our chimney and by the stream and bluebird houses in the open valley floor.
We renewed our plan for the next 5 years, keeping in the unmet goals and adding new goals based on what we learned the first 5 years and suggestions from the Service Forester. At the same time we signed up to be a Certified American Tree Farm, had an inspection to be certified and received that certification. We feel that this will give any timber products added value as they will be harvested from a sustainably managed forest.
We learned that it takes a lot of work to complete the goals and that it is just best to plug away at them when time allows. With both of us working full time and Francis in his late 80's and living 180 miles away, I am left to do most of the work on my own. I have found a friend who loves to cut trees and we managed to knock out 4 acres of TSI in a few days last summer. I hesitate to work alone with a chain saw so that puts a crimp in the amount of time I can spend on that type of work as I need someone there to call 911 if I make a mistake. When hiking trails and roads we constantly remove fallen branches and push trees that are movable off the path to keep the travels lanes open. Spring time is always busy with tree planting. We have learned that the quick make a hole, drop in the seedling and heel the dirt back process does not contribute to a very high success rate. We now spend the time with our more important plantings to dig a hole, remove excess rock, add a little compost, plant the tree as you would in your yard, cover the dug area with leaf duff for mulch purposes and install a hearty tree protector.
Tree protectors have evolved and a local forester has experimental plots that have shown the best protectors incorporate a short shelter tube of 18-24" with a fence or net extending 4' above that. I use 2' tubes from TreePro and green plastic 4 foot fencing from Lowes. For stakes, I am lucky to have several hundred 6' rebar rods which I will be able to re-use for years. (The same forester - Jim Walizer, 2004 PA Tree Farmer of the Year has now come up with a preformed netting, bamboo stake and 18" conical tube that comes as a kit and is available for about $1 less than conventional tree shelters. That may be of great interest to Save the Bay tree planting efforts and I will be happy to place you in contact with him if you are interested.) The many benefits of this type of protector is that the shorter shelter is less likely to attract bees, is less likely to entrap birds, allows the tree to strengthen in the wind and is less likely to be knocked over by bears (because of the lack of bees). The tall shelters that you see in almost every current streamside planting are too tall, (inviting bees and trapping birds and bird exclusion nets tend to decay or blow off in short order) they tend to topple in the wind, the tree is often very weak and tends to bend over when the shelter is removed and bears around here know that there is likely a wasp nest to eat in these inviting white tubes.
I have continued attending many forest seminars, WOCC programs and trained to become a PA Forest Steward (formerly PA Forest Volunteer Initiative Program). The Stewardship program trains interested people in various aspects of forest management with the goal of spreading the word about caring for the forests (and this work with you counts towards that!). We try to stick our nose into every place we can advocating for our forests including school programs, landowner contacts, program presentations, manning booths at PA Farm Show and PA Ag Progress Days, etc. We just keep talking trees whenever the opportunity presents itself.
In the programs I have attended I have learned chain saw safety, tree identification, viewed various types of forest harvest and the results, invasive identification and control, deer density estimation, deer exclusion, tree felling, trail building, timber and forest taxation, PA forest history, alternative forest products (mushrooms, syrup, ginseng and goldenseal), tree planting, timber and log grading, and much more. This is an ongoing educational process and has proved very valuable in our efforts. One of the biggest surprises we learned is that almost all timber in PA is a bout 100 years old. By 1900, almost all forest was gone from the state due to the iron industry need for charcoal and the tanning industry need for tannin. When we look at our forest which is made up of large, medium and small trees, it is very hard to imagine that they are generally the same age trees. Core borings prove the fact. This is an important fact to know as a private forest landowner as a typical logger may try to buy all of your larger trees explaining to you that this will allow the smaller ones to grow and become your future timber harvest. This is called high grading and is not a good practice to pursue. It is best to have a consulting forester work with you in planning any timber harvest to ensure that the proper trees are removed without damaging the sustainability of your forest.
I actually thought all of this would be much harder. By working steadily when able and planning ahead for some of the larger projects, I have been able to get much more done on what I thought was a daunting 5 year plan than I thought possible. The work is endless but satisfying. It gets you outside in the woods at all times of the year, and it is good for the soul.
One of the biggest surprises we learned is that almost all timber in PA is about 100 years old. By 1900, almost all forest was gone from the state due to the iron industry need for charcoal and the tanning industry need for tannin. When we look at our forest which is made up of large, medium and small trees, it is very hard to imagine that they are generally the same age trees. Core borings prove the fact. This is an important fact to know as a private forest landowner as a typical logger may try to buy all of your larger trees (diameter limit cut) explaining to you that this will allow the smaller ones to grow and become your future timber harvest. This is called high grading and is not a good practice to pursue. It is best to have a consulting forester work with you in planning any timber harvest to ensure that the proper trees are removed without damaging the sustainability of your forest.
I would tell others thinking about managing and conserving their forest to stop thinking and act. Join a landowners group where they are established, contact a service forester for further information on establishing a plan, exploring cost share for certain practices and directing you to resources available. Of primary importance is educating yourself so that you do not do damage to the forest. Learn the difference between what is good to do and what is detrimental. Learn how to do something or find someone who can show you. The services are out there, use them. Working to establish an "old growth" forest is a great goal. Leaving the forest alone to do that is not necessarily the way to achieve that goal. There are many factors that need to be considered before any work is done in the woods. I would also suggest that a large proportion if not all monies received through timber sales be plowed back into the forest. Use the money to hire people to get some of the work done, purchase trees, fencing, tree shelters, etc. Join the state and local forestry associations and become as active as time allows. Become certified as a tree farm and/or a stewardship forest (or whatever it is called in your state). Network with neighbors so that you can coordinate practices which complement adjoining property practices which will benefit a larger area overall. Another important area to look at is owner succession. Plan what will happen to your forest land upon your death. Work to ensure that it stays one property rather than being broken up to distribute among several heirs. Forest fragmentation is one of the largest problems facing our forests. As tracts are broken up into smaller parcels, they tend to have many different practices from clear cutting to no attention at all. Consider conservation easements, trusts, donations to conservancies, etc.
Yes, and I would start sooner. If what we achieved in the last 5 years had been ongoing for the last 30 years we would have much more to show and this writing would be 6 times as long!
Most difficult has been allotting time to work on our goals. Between full time jobs, raising a child, gardening and other activities, the forest work often goes on the back burner. But, again, a little bit at a time gets you further down the road to your goals.
Friends and family think our activities are great. The former learn what we are doing as we talk about it, and family is either involved or proud to know that we are taking care of the family forest. Neighbors have varying reactions. Those who are conservation minded like that a forest in the neighborhood is being cared for actively, enhancing their quality of life and theoretically the value of their property by association. One neighbor is a sawmill operator. He feels that he has more knowledge of timber harvest and forest care from a lifetime in the woods than "those desk jockey academics from Penn State that take a walk in the woods every once in awhile." He was disappointed to see the Tree Farm and Forest Stewardship signs at the end of our lane. He was counting on continued harvesting on our property over the years. He knows that we will now bid out harvests (though he will be given preference as we can barter improvements such as roads, clearing for food plots and delivery of large limbs for firewood for the value of timber removed.) He has come to realize that we are committed to improving and caring for our woodland and has been less vocal in criticizing our efforts.
Working with natural resource professionals and foresters has been refreshing, educational and an all round positive experience. I have not found any that push their ideas as the way to go. Rather, as a whole, they listen to what we have to say and what we feel we want to do with our land and suggest how we might work towards achieving those goals. They are flexible and knowledgeable and ready to serve. They are a wonderfully underused resource just looking to help us with the health of our forest.