This is my text before editing of article published in Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine July 25, 1993. The biggest cut was most of the Gilford Pinchot section. This was my first sustained yield on forest issues, and I may have been too easy on foresters---but that might be subsequent years in California talking. I learned a lot on this piece, especially from my old friend, Michael D. Krempasky, who has worked on PA environmental issues as director of a nonprofit watchdog organization and then within state government for most of his career. Thanks again, Mike.
PENN'S HARD WOODS
They're the most valuable hardwoods in America and maybe the world. Who cuts them and who profits? And will we lose our forests for the trees?
By WILLIAM SEVERINI KOWINSKI
The snow is blowing across U.S. Route 80 in Clarion County. It coats the exit ramp and layers along the silent road to St. Petersburg, a town that on this cold Tolstoian morning in January seems aptly named. About halfway between the highway exit and the tiny town center, a gravel road cuts through the trees to George Freeman's land. In the field behind the picturesque red barn there are rows of seedling trees, each in its own plastic coat to protect it from nibbling deer, part of a tree farm experiment. But elsewhere on Freeman's 612 forested acres, the order of the day is harvest.
Winter is the preferred season for timber cutting. In Pennsylvania's past, logs were stacked on the river banks to await the spring thaw so they could be floated to sawmills and market. Today, it's partly because the trees are easier to skid on hard ground, which also pleases foresters trying to minimize damage to the forest floor caused by dragging big logs behind heavy machinery.
But mostly it's that cold temperatures preserve the wood better, especially the lucrative veneer. Some of the timber cut across the state this year will go to local sawmills and eventually to manufacturers of wood products, many of them in the Philadelphia area. But many of the best logs have long voyages ahead: they're loaded on trains carrying them to Baltimore and New York, and then onto boats bound for Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, and increasingly to Taiwan, Korea and Japan.
George Freeman's land is home to several species of hardwoods: oaks, poplar, beech and cherry. Deer roam here, sometimes by the dozen, along with other forest creatures. George watched a bear crash by him once; this morning he spotted coyote tracks. But at the moment wildlife is staying out of sight. The only sounds are the roar and whine of the chainsaw.
Down a steep road within a right-of-way already carved out of the landscape for the high tension power lines hissing overhead that carry current from Homer City to Erie, a two man crew from Georgia Pacific is completing a cut of mostly oak and black cherry. These trees are very valuable at the moment. Wood prices have been going up for several years, and so far this is the best year in the last five. 1993 may very well turn out to have the highest prices in the state's history. As prices increased, so did cutting: the rate has more than doubled in the past decade in the areas of the state that sell the most timber.
But this isn't just any wood. Pennsylvania grows the best black cherry in the world, highly prized for veneer. Here is the kind of red oak that Europe craves, and the white ash that is hewn into hockey sticks and Louisville Sluggers. The state's hardwoods are just now coming into commercial maturity in great numbers, at a time when high quality hardwoods from other forests are getting scarce. The result is that right now, Pennsylvania's hardwoods are the most valuable in America, and the most sought after in the world.
Timber is already a major industry in Pennsylvania--our sixth largest, generating 9% of the state's jobs, and 14% of the industrial employment. Pennsylvania leads the nation in the production of hardwood timber, and hosts the country's largest hardwood manufacturing industry.
Despite urbanization and agriculture, almost 60% of the state is covered with forest. According to the just released inventory figures, 93% of this 17 million acres of forest is classified as timberland--appropriate and available for timber harvest. More than 90% of that potential timber is hardwood--oaks, maples, birches, ashes and cherrys. (Softwoods are pines, spruces, cedars, hemlock: the evergreens.)
"It's All Woods!"
Steve Thorne, Goddard Professor of Forestry at Penn State, was Deputy Commission of Natural Resources in Minnesota for 13 years. He remembers what it was like arriving here a year and a half ago. "Your first impression of Pennsylvania from the air is 'its all woods!' When you get on the ground that impression is intensified. The eastern hardwoods are beautiful. These are magnificent trees, equal in many ways to anything you can find in the west. This still is Penn's Woods--it's still a big expanse of contiguous forest."
"But one thing that has perplexed me since I've been here," he adds. "Back where I come from, forests are a major public issue. Here in Pennsylvania, which is one of the most heavily forested states in the country, people don't pay attention to their forests."
But there are issues involving the Pennsylvania forest industry, and the future of the forests themselves.
"There's plenty of timber out there," says Kent Fox, government affairs lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Hardwood Lumber Manufacturing Association. "The problem is being able to access it." His group supports responsible forest practices, but Fox has no patience with environmental groups who try to stop timbering, threatening to recreate a "spotted owl type situation" in Pennsylvania forests. "This is the type of thing that's beginning to generate into a powerful force that threatens the industry," Fox maintains.
Does that mean there's a jobs versus environment problem here? "It's a false dichotomy," says Dr. Cynthia Walter, associate professor of biology at St. Vincent College, and forest ecology research associate with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. " Jobs and environmental degradation don't have to be linked. The real issue is long term versus short term thinking. Unless handled carefully, hardwoods won't be a long term industry." She urges more caution, and in some cases, less cutting.
There is one long term issue that troubles nearly everyone: as this generation of hardwoods is being cut, a new generation is not growing at anywhere near the same rate, especially the most profitable species. The future of Pennsylvania's present hardwood forests is in danger.
A week or so before this snowy morning, even while the cut on his land was progressing, George Freeman took time out to attend a workshop on Forest Stewardship in Monroeville, outside Pittsburgh. Under this program authorized in 1990 and administered nationally by the U.S. Forest Service, the state Bureau of Forestry gives advice and provides some money for small landowners to develop plans to manage their wooded properties. This was the first such meeting held near a large city, and the organizers seemed pleased with the turnout of about two hundred. Another workshop is planned for Philadelphia in late summer.
Some of Pennsylvania's forests are controlled by the federal and state governments, and timber is cut and sold by both. Timber and paper companies own some forested land, but most--some 75% of the total--is in the hands of half a million individual landowners like George Freeman. It's from them that the state's hardwood manufacturing businesses get 80% of their raw timber. What these small landowners do is the key to the forests' future.
Those gathered this Saturday in this windowless function room were mostly men, but about a third were women. Most wore sweaters and slacks, though there were a few tweed jackets scattered in the crowd, only one black and white checked lumberjack shirt, and no ties.
The basic idea of forest stewardship is to get landowners to think about more than their own land and what they can get out of it right now. So to get them thinking about the future, the morning started with James Nelson, Pennsylvania's State Forester, talking about the past.
The Extinction of a Forest
It was a cautionary tale. For example, there is no controversy in Pennsylvania as there is in the West over cutting old growth forests, for one simple reason: except for a few protected stands, there is no old growth left. And Pennsylvania has already had its spotted owl. It was called the passenger pigeon.
Back when the peoples of Europe and the Middle East were destroying their abundant forests to clear land for crops and for wood for shipbuilding and fuel--creating the deserts of Syria, the bare rocky slopes of Greece and the treeless fields of western Europe in the process--the people of what came to be called Penn's Woods lived in symbiotic harmony with their lush forests for twenty thousand years. But when Europeans arrived, displacing the Lenni Lenape, the Munsee, the Susquehannock and the Seneca, the trees began to fall.
In 1662, Swedish settlers set up the colony's first sawmill in what would someday be the city of Philadelphia, and the first papermill in America was built there in 1793. So many trees were cut by early colonists that the first conservation measure was instituted by William Penn himself, providing in his 1681 Charter of Rights that one acre of forest should be left for every five acres cleared. Even that was ignored.
Forests were cleared for farm land and towns, and to limit the animals living in them that threatened livestock, crops and people. As historian Robert P. Multhauf wrote, "Wood was thus seen as a menace and its disposal as an urgent 'necessity.'" But from the beginning the trees were also cut for profit, for wood and wood products such as potash sent back to Europe, and for new domestic industries.
In the early 1800s, the thick forests of titanic white pines (100 feet from the ground to the first branch) in north, west and central Pennsylvania were cut for the masts of sailing ships, including the Clippers of Baltimore and Philadelphia. Hemlocks fell to feed the iron industry's enormous hunger for charcoal, and tannin was extracted from the bark for tanneries. By mid century, lumber was the leading manufacturing industry in the United States, and Pennsylvania led the nation in timber production.
As he recites this history, Nelson projects images he's carefully restored from old glass slides and photographs: the huge river rafts for transporting logs and the river booms for storing them which created literal boom towns, such as Williamsport, which created more millionaires in the 1860s than any city before or since; the logging roads and railroads, the lumber camps, timber towns and tanneries that grew overnight and disappeared just as fast, as well as the burned and devastated hillsides. Nelson is himself a product of this history. His Swedish grandfather came to America to work as a logger in the feverish heyday of what's now known as forest mining. His father was born in a logging camp, and became a tanner.
Timber production reached its peak in Pennsylvania in 1899, the same year that rain water roared down tree-denuded hills to end up killing more than 2,000 people and destroying a city in the Johnstown Flood.
The white pines were already gone, and because of the unchecked fires that destroyed their seeds, they never returned. The final blow came in the early 1900s, with the chemical process that could distill any wood species into alcohol for fuel, which resulted in the clearcutting of all remaining forests to feed the biggest wood chemical industry in the world. Together with the fires and a chestnut tree blight, more than 90% of Penn's Woods had been obliterated. "The result of this clearing, burning, lumbering and charcoal making," writes horticulturalist Ernesta Ballard, "was the destruction of our native forest on a scale comparable to the current destruction in the Amazon."
The wolf, cougar, lynx, wolverine, the native elk and even the deer disappeared from Pennsylvania. At least partly because the forests were gone, the once abundant passenger pigeon disappeared from the planet, except as a textbook example of extinction.
The timber companies, some of which had cut their way to Pennsylvania from New England, then left the state for the virgin forests south and west. They sold some of the devastated land dirt cheap (a 19th century American phrase) to the state government, which is why we have state forests. (The first two million acres cost less than the 14 acres of Philadelphia's Independence Mall.) The Allegheny Plateau of northern Pennsylvania had been so totally logged in just 35 years that it came to be known simply as "the Blackberry Patch," which was all that grew there. The federal government acquired some of it for the Allegheny National Forest.
The great conifer forests that covered most of the state never really came back, but the hardwoods--deciduous trees like oak, cherry and maple--that thrived in the sunlight from the Atlantic to the Appalachians, took over much of the abandoned range. Now at seventy to a hundred years old, the trees of this second generation forest are considered mature, and timber companies are very interested again.
Pennsylvania's second growth forests are valuable now for their quality and quantity. Because of their slower growth, plus the nearly ideal climate and soil, these hardwoods have better texture than those grown farther south. They make good saw wood for boards used to make panelling, doors and furniture. Lower grade wood is cut for railroad ties and pallets for steel mills, and pulped for paper. But the greatest prize is veneer: the sheets of rich-colored wood used for the surfaces of the finest furniture. Because it is sliced so thin (from 1/32 to 1/52 of an inch thick), a single log can yield a lot of very valuable veneer.
The best veneer comes from black cherry, and Pennsylvania has a lot of it. One-third of the world market in black cherry is supplied by the Allegheny National Forest alone.
But in addition to these intrinsic properties, on the world market Pennsylvania's hardwoods probably benefit from the exploitation of other forests. Nigeria, for example, was one of the world's major hardwood log exporters in the 1960s but now has little left to sell. It's the same story elsewhere in Africa, so high prices for the remaining mahogany make black cherry a better buy. Tropical hardwoods from endangered rainforests may also be in shorter supply because pressure from environmental groups has curtailed exports.
So with high prices and lots of trees coming into commercial maturity, there's considerable interest in cutting into Pennsylvania forests. But the situation now is different than it was the last time there was heavy logging. Today few defend or intend to repeat the devastation in Pennsylvania's past. There seems to be a modicum of agreement, cooperation and mutual respect among many in the timber industry, professional foresters and environmentalists, and a certain willingness to work together. But they can still be at loggerheads on some issues.
There are three main branches of the forest-management tree today, and two of them have roots in our state's history. Although Jim Nelson didn't mention him in his presentation to the landowners, one of his predecessors as Pennsylvania's chief forester is the individual most often credited with beginning the change in policies and attitudes about American forests. He's even been called the father of ecology.
"Drenched! You've been out with the President!"
Gifford Pinchot's family home was in Milford, Pennsylvania, where his grandfather settled after emigrating from France. His father, James Pinchot, made a fortune in dry goods in New York City (and served on the committee in charge of erecting the Statue of Liberty) but built a estate in Milford, where he became involved in the fledgling field of forestry. Developed in Europe, forestry was so new to America that when at his father's suggestion young Gifford Pinchot went to France in 1889 to learn about it, no other American had yet chosen forestry as a career.
The study of forestry proposed that trees are a crop, like wheat, rather than a resource to be mined, like coal. (So later on, instead of letting it become part of the Department of Interior, Pinchot fought to place the federal Forest Service within the Agriculture Department, where it remains today.) With proper scientific management, trees could be cut, a new crop grown to maturity, and trees harvested again. It was (in the words of a Pinchot biographer) "the art of using a forest without destroying it." The forest had to be used wisely, so it would regenerate. But at the time, even this approach was opposed by powerful timber interests.
Pinchot was a skilled and relentless advocate, comfortable among the powerful who had been coming to his family homes since his childhood. He also loved hiking through the forests, had a reputation for skilled shooting and riding, and in an impromptu boxing match with his friend Teddy Roosevelt, knocked the future President flat.
It was that friendship with the like-minded President Theodore Roosevelt that enabled Pinchot in 1905 to consolidate all federal forest administration in the United States Forest Service, with dominion over 86 million acres of the newly acquired national forest, and with himself as its first chief. The American Forest Congress that Pinchot called in Washington warned that if the timber cutting continued at the then current rate, the nation's forests would be entirely depleted by 1965. Pinchot got new laws with enforcement powers to limit exploitation of the federal forests, and he created a system for administering these vast tracts, while loudly promoting the practice of foresty.
Pinchot and Roosevelt still hiked together in Washington; when Pinchot arrived home muddy and soaking wet one evening, his boyhood nurse exclaimed, "Drenched! You've been out with the President!" Together they effectively promoted the new doctrine of conservation, which held that the nation's "natural resources" were not the exclusive property of great monopolies, and should be managed for future generations as well as all the people.
Pinchot later became Pennsylvania's Forester before twice being elected Governor; his populist first term is still counted among the most successful in Pennsylvania history. Today he is best remembered as a progenitor of environmentalism. After his death in 1946, the Sierra Club affixed a plaque to a Redwood in Muir Woods that calls him "Friend of the Forest/Conserver of the Common-wealth."
Today many government officials who have dominion over the trees as well as many managers in big timber companies hold degrees in forestry. Managing the forest as renewable resource has become the conventional wisdom, and Pinchot's principle of "wise use" more or less the official doctrine.
But even during his lifetime Pinchot met opposition from a new direction--represented by John Muir himself, founder of the Sierra Club. They clashed over a power project that would flood substantial woodlands in Yosemite National Park. Muir was a proponent of preservation, of protecting the natural beauty and wildness of the forest. (Pinchot won that round.)
Today's forestry establishment has to some extent accommodated Muir's concerns: both the state forests and the Allegheny National Forest set aside wilderness and natural areas, and protect the last old growth stands (a few 400 year old beeches American survive.) In their approach called "silvaculture," they manage for wildlife and wilderness as well as future timber. Still, when the appreciation of "serene, majestic, snow-laden, sun-drenched, vast domes and ridges" or "rocky strength and permanence combined with beauty of plants frail and fine and evanescent" that Muir wrote are categorized as managing for "aesthetics" and "recreational uses," it seems to lose something in the translation.
When A Tree Falls: Biodiversity
These two old streams of thought have been recently joined by a third, which foresters and timber interests are just beginning to understand and include--when they aren't feeling threatened by it. This latest buzz word in the forest (pun intended) is biodiversity.
Fostered by a new generation of ecologists and biologists, the basic idea is that diversity is good for the forest's health, for reasons known (animals that eat tree seeds in one spot and deposit them in another) and not yet known ('cornerstone' species whose disappearance starts a chain of devastating changes). So besides the more familiar environmental concerns of water impurity and soil erosion, there are hot biodiversity issues such as forest fragmentation, or the breaking up of forest corridors more far-ranging species need, especially those that live only deep in the forest interior. (The disappearance of once-familiar songbirds in Pennsylvania is thought to be due to fragmentation.)
In addition to active and even large-scale management for biodiversity, its advocates urge caution in altering environments we don't understand. Conservation biology is a young science, and a certain humility is one of its current hallmarks. "We Europeans and descendants of Europeans have only been on this continent for a few hundred years--one or two lifetimes of a tree," Cynthia Walter says. "We're not very experienced. We don't know how many harvests a particular site can handle. The forests of Pennsylvania were treated so brutally in the past, it's a miracle the hardwoods have come back as well as they have. Now these same sites are being disturbed less than a century later. We look back with horror at those who destroyed the forests the first time. How do we know that a hundred years from now, somebody isn't going to say of us, 'they had the ecology, they had the biology to know better what they were doing, but they went ahead and harvested at this rate and with these methods'? Will they look back at us and say we blew it?"
But to some in the forest industry, this talk implies unnecessary and harmful limitations on timber cutting. The Hardwood Lumber Manufacturers Association represents some 400 sawmills, paper and pulp companies, and is working with a number of other forest product groups in an industry notorious for its independence. They have their own forestry and biodiversity concerns, but they also worry about local ordinances that restrict timber harvesting on private lands, too little cutting permitted on state land, and the increasing number of environmental appeals that at least temporarily stop timbering in the national forest.
In fact, the appeal process at Pennsylvania's only national forest is the only way citizens can stop or alter timbering directly anywhere in the Commonwealth.
Allegheny National Forest
Spread across four northern counties (Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren), the Allegheny National Forest contains just 3% of Pennsylvania's total timber lands, but it has the greatest abundance of the most commercially valuable wood in the state. According to official Forest Service figures, it is the most profitable national forest in America outside the Pacific Northwest.
By law, the counties where the national forest is located divide 25% of its profits. (Even after costs, the Forest claims a 1992 profit of $10.9 million.) According to their figures, timbering in the national forest meant more than a thousand jobs in 1992, with an estimated value of $56.4 million. "They're a major employer up here," says Mike Bleech, an outdoor writer and photographer who lives in Warren, where the national forest is headquartered. "There's a lot of logging, but people aren't opposed to it."
But some local citizens have joined in the appeals, which began only in recent years. "People from the Allegheny Forest area who were concerned about what was happening there got in touch with us," says Lisa Mosca, one of twenty members of the Eastern Forest Mountain Conservation Project, a student group at Swarthmore that filed several appeals. "They wanted to do something but didn't have the technical expertise."
The Allegheny didn't retain mineral rights in the nation's first oil field area, so private companies keep some 6000 oil and gas wells going, the most extensive drilling on any national forest in the country. Critics such as Sam Hayes, advisor to the Sierra Club, say it has resulted in a steady stream of water and soil pollution. They also claim the 1100 miles of roads through the forest (most of them for oil, gas and timber companies) cause serious erosion as well as disrupting migratory wildlife patterns. New roads are built at the rate of 12 to 29 miles a year (nationally, the U.S Forest Service is the biggest road builder in the world).
"No data shows a seriously affected ecosystem," according to Dale Dungy, Information Management Staff Officer. Others say that there is a serious effort underway to incorporate environmental and biodiversity concerns in Allegheny National Forest management--and that joyriders in all-terrain vehicles are doing as much damage as timbering or drilling anyway.
While environmental appeals don't seem to have seriously disrupted the pace of timbering on the Allegheny National Forest in any case, there is no direct appeals process at all for timber sales on state forests. Some environmentalists question where and how some cuts are done, and how the state arrives at its overall "allowable cut." They call for more access to information about forest practices on state lands, as well as formal mechanisms for input and appeal. But timber harvesters complain that they get to harvest less than half of that allowable cut, basically because there aren't enough state foresters to decide exactly which areas and which trees are to be harvested. A recent report by the Citizens Advisory Council to the Department of Environmental Resources calls for an increase in cutting of 10% a year for the next five years, to help finance needed state forest conservation programs.
But all together, public lands make up only 21% of the state's timberlands. Private lands account for most of Pennsylvania's timber sales, but environmental laws and a scattering of township ordinances notwithstanding, there is little regulation on how much or how private forests are cut.
All this leads some to say that the real jobs issue has little to do with the environment and a lot to do with exports. Officially, about 40% of Pennsylvania's hardwood timber is shipped overseas, although other estimates go as high as 75%. " No one really knows," says Maurice Forrester, of the Citizen's Advisory Council. (He allows that a forbearer might have been a forester, but one who couldn't spell.). "But everyone agrees the volume of raw logs leaving the state is very high, and higher than it ought to be."
The problem is that a greater number of higher paying jobs come after the timber is cut: in kiln drying it, and fashioning it into dimension stock and furniture parts and finally into cabinets and cherry wood tables. These are the "value-added" process jobs, which are lost when logs are exported.
Pennsylvania has a substantial value-added industry, but it is still operating below capacity. According to the state Commerce Department, employment is increasing in these secondary processing jobs, while decreasing in timber cutting itself. Although this is better for overall wages, it has some regional impact: most value-added industries are in southeast Pennsylvania but the timber jobs are mostly in the northwest and central regions. In Philadelphia, for example, 1988 forest products employment exceeded 1300 jobs and average wages exceeded $21,000 a year. But in Warren County, host to the Allegheny National Forest, there were fewer jobs (though they accounted for a greater proportion of the county's employment) and an annual wage of under $14,000.
The Hardwoods Development Council operates out of the Commerce Department with members from other state departments, forest agencies, forest product companies, academia and the state legislature. It gets about $300,000 a year in state funds to help value-added companies expand and retool with new technology, find new ways to use hardwoods (a research and building program for timber bridges is underway) and to convince foreign countries that it's cheaper to buy Pennsylvania value-added wood products than it is to import Pennsylvania wood.
The Council was charged specifically with expanding the value-added industry beyond the southeast quadrant, so its largest single investment was in construction loans, infrastructure improvement and job training for Allegheny Particleboard in the northern county of McKean. Overall, there's been about $85 million in state assistance to over 100 companies in the hardwood industry, which state government claims has created 3500 jobs in 50 counties.
But exports of green lumber is probably still increasing, because foreign importers will pay top dollar, pricing some Pennsylvania value-added companies out of the market.
The economic future of the wood industry depends in the long run on another generation of these valuable hardwoods. But that future is in question. The problem is regeneration.
"Natural regeneration has been the standard practice in the management of eastern hardwoods--you don't plant them, they come back aggressively after harvesting if conditions are right," Steve Thorne explains. But a recent meeting of forestry experts from federal and state agencies, private groups and universities ranked regeneration as the number one problem facing Pennsylvania forests, according to Thorne. The same conclusion was reached in a survey of the state's district foresters, who called it a pressing problem in three-fourths of the districts.
The problem is greater than some statistics seem to indicate. "We're still growing twice what we're cutting" is how Forester Jim Nelson puts it, but he's not talking about new trees replacing those that are cut or die. "In Pennsylvania forests from one year to the next, a lot more is growing than is being cut," explains Maurice Forrester. "But basically that means the trees are just getting bigger. Regeneration--getting new trees to grow after the existing ones are harvested--that is a problem. In many situations where timber is cut, new trees do not begin to grow, for reasons known and suspected."
Among those reasons are disease, pests, low seed production, acid rain and even the greenhouse effect. But there is one that nearly everyone--foresters, environmentalists and loggers--agree on: Bambi.
After they disappeared along with the trees, deer were reintroduced from other states. But their natural predators, the big bad wolves, were not, and limits on hunting along with the deer's adaptability have swollen the herds. They nibble away at so many young trees that few live to grow beyond their reach.
They also eat away the undergrowth that harbors other animals and are crucial to forest biodiversity. Solutions are expensive (fencing) and controversial (more hunting). But solving the deer problem is seen as essential to increasing regeneration.
Because deer and gypsy moths favor them, oaks are especially threatened. But they are also numerous, so some oak decline could make way for more species diversity.
A lack of diversity invites disaster, which is why some are also concerned about black cherry. "That's a big worry here," Mike Bleech maintains. "The National Forest seem to be managing for black cherry to the exclusion of everything else. We've had oak blight and beech blight. If some kind of black cherry disease came through, this would be a plain."
National Forest officials deny they are managing exclusively for black cherry, and others tend to agree. "Certainly they're concerned with maintaining black cherry, which is their most valuable species," says Steve Thorne. "but I don't think that's their only goal, or that it overshadows their other management goals." In any case, in her research at the Powermill Nature Reserve in southwestern Pennsylvania, Cynthia Walter has already seen evidence of a disease that attacks black cherry.
Because of regeneration problems and other factors, the tree species mix appears to be changing. Red maples, already the most numerous trees when the forests were surveyed in 1978, have increased dramatically since then. Some experts (including Jim Nelson) expect it to be the clearly dominant tree of the future. The only problem is that red maple doesn't make for very profitable timber, partly because it is more vulnerable than other species to diseases that spoil its wood. So unless forests are successfully managed to reverse this trend, Pennsylvania's third generation timberlands may be less commercially valuable.
Another cause of regeneration problems may be the timber cutting method called high-grading, which essentially means "take the best and leave the rest." Loggers cut down the biggest, strongest trees of the most valuable species in the stand, taking with them the source of viable seeds for the next generation. In Pennsylvania, high-grading occurs predominately on private land, where the forest's future will likely be decided.
"If we're going to look at whole ecosystems, then we come right up against a very serious difficulty here," Steve Thorne says. "Most of this forest is held in small parcels--about half of timberland is owned in parcels of less than 100 acres--for a whole bunch of different reasons, and not held very long--an average of something like 15 years. You're dealing with 500,000 people and they're turning over the land like crazy. When you look at the data including turnover, it seems clear that virtually all of this land is going to be harvested sooner or later. How do you get consistency, not only over large geographic areas but over the long run? "
Some favor a state forest practices law or model ordinances, but for now, the strategy is to educate the people who log and own that land. State government sponsors a logger training and certification program (which Thorne says is "probably one of the best in the country") that provides courses in silvaculture and ecology, through Penn State. At least as important is the Forest Stewardship program, which provides private landowners with forestry information and specific guidance.
They are especially urged to obtain the services of professional foresters. Only one out of five of timber harvests on private land are supervised by a professional forester, and just 10% of these cuts are done according to a written management plan. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of local sawmills and logging operations in the timber regions, some of them eager to cut whatever they can talk a landowner into selling. Some experts suggest that this is the closest analogy to the forest mining of the past.
So what are these forest owners supposed to do? What they heard in that sunless ballroom in Monroeville from Penn State forestry experts like Steve Jones and Ellen O'Donnell, wildlife biologist Jerry Hassinger, and Tom Schmidt from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, was a mix of still evolving approaches to what should happen in today's forests.
Conflicts still exist: biologists criticize foresters for pushing timber sales, and forestry-minded officials hint darkly that biologists are really Muir-like preservationists out to stop logging which benefits the forests. Some tension was in evidence at the Monroeville meeting. Biodiversity advocates asserted that private landowners attracted to stewardship are often more interested in wildlife and simply keeping a healthy forest than in timber sales. A show of hands seemed to confirm this.
"You might argue that foresters can do better," Thorne acknowledges. "We're learning a lot more. But having a forester involved is a lot better for the land than what happens when they aren't involved. At least they're worried about the health and future of that forest stand. People may argue that they ought to be worried more about things like non-game wildlife--those are valid arguments. Those kinds of issues are being debated in the profession, and programs like stewardship are an attempt to bring those into the process a lot more than they have in the past. It's not perfect but it's moving in that direction."
Towards the end of the day, Jim Nelson seemed to speak for many when he said, "We're still in a learning mode. We need to learn how to merge biodiversity, biology, forestry and fish and game concerns."
But while the professionals were learning to merge, George Freeman had to go back to St. Petersburg and finish his cut.
Whose Woods These Are
It wasn't the first Forest Stewardship event Freeman had attended. In fact he was one of the program's stars: an example of a forest landowner who was doing the right things.
When a tree falls in his forest on this January day, there are several people around to hear it. Besides George and the bearded young man wielding the chainsaw, there's John Chapman, the consulting forester who has been working for Freeman for years, and Ron Weisenstein, the logging superintendent from Georgia Pacific.
John and George walked these acres together for the first time in 1981. George talked about what he wanted to do with his forest, and John applied forestry principles to his objectives and came up with a management plan. Computer programs and even aerial photographs were part of the process of assessing, evaluating and choosing.
When it came time for this cut, John cruised the parcel and marked the trees to be offered. Bids went out to 40 mills, with maps and contract requirements. As procurement forester for Georgia Pacific at the time, Ron took a look, made his own estimates and his offer. John drew up the sales agreement, which specified what trees were to be cut, how the trails will be restored and any damages to the forest rectified, as well as the monetary terms.
Of the trees he knows are valuable to timber companies ("merchantable trees" in the forestry parlance) John slashed blue paint across those he selected for their individual characteristics but also for their relationship to nearby trees or the forest as a whole. For example, a mix of large and small trees of roughly the same age aids in regeneration. The crew is also supposed to leave underbrush low on the ground, to protect seedlings while the dead wood decays and nourishes the soil.
Now there are only a few days left in this cut and everyone seems pleased. While Ron goes ahead to meet his logger, John and George keep looking up and around as they tramp together through the woods. Even in the dead of winter when there is nothing but black branches and white snow, they know these trees, their histories and condition, sometimes even individually. All three took pains to show that they were not high-grading.
John stops and regards a tall red oak. "Look at those upper branches," he points. "They're dead. Gypsy moths got this tree. This time next year it's going to be dead."
George and Ron gather around it now. The tree isn't marked for cut, but clearly John is considering it. "If this tree is worth $100 this year, say, by next year it'll be worth $2. We're better off salvaging it now. I don't know how we missed it before."
Not all dying or dead trees are removed--a nearby red maple was left because wildlife could live in its cavities. Others are cut when they crowd out the growth of a younger or healthier tree. But in this case, the decision is to cut it for the timber value while it still exists.
John and Ron agree on a price. Then Ron talks to the man with the chainsaw--they decide how to cut it so the tree won't hit a nearby poplar when it falls. For all their care the tree falls in a slightly different direction anyway, though the poplar isn't damaged. It thumps to the ground, kicking up a shower of snow.
They all bend down to examine the stump. Small piles of snow lay on the visor of John's green cap, Ron's blue corduroy cap and George's turquoise hunting hat.
"It didn't fall right because it's nearly dead. It's already started to break down," Ron says.
"See how it's cracked?" John says. "That tree was damaged."
Ron brushes the sawdust from the base of the log to look for imperfections. "No problem," he says. "It'll go veneer."
Back at the landing site where the trucks are parked, they swap stories about other timber harvests--about trained horses used to pull timber in Amish country, or Huey helicopters lifting out logs in Alabama. Then the talk turns to local activity, especially in the area from McKean to Clarion counties, where there is a lot of private forest land, and a lot of timbering going on right now--not all of it as carefully and prudently done as this cut.
"Within an 80 mile radius of our mill I found 270 different saw mills," Ron says. "There may be more than that. Not everybody uses good forest practices. But it can be a big temptation for landowners who've never done anything with their timber. It's just out in the backwoods and they get $3000 an acre to clear cut it."
"But they haven't anything left either," George says. "People get greedy, or they need the money. They say instead of leaving some of the good stuff, take it all out. They don't think about the future. We could have come in here and cut all of this. But in another 10 or 15 years we can cut here again. "
"That's right," John agrees. "I've had landowners say to me I want to get all the money I can out of this timber so let's clear cut it. I say first of all you aren't going to get all the money you can out of it by clear cutting. Let's go in and we'll make a select cut of these individual saw timber trees and you're going to make more money going that route, and still have a stand of timber left--still have an investment in your property."
"That's right," Ron says. " With interest rates down to 2 or 3%., timber growing at 6% a year is an attractive investment. And that's just the 6% growth in volume in a good managed stand, plus a greater percentage of veneer and higher quality saw timber."
"I think records show that if you invest in timber land today and hold it for 10 years you can double your investment," John adds. "I've seen it. Probably even more now."
George Freeman is 62, and this forest is his nest egg, but now that he is retired from his sales job at Quaker State, it's also pretty much his life. He's spent untold hours tearing out the wild grape vine that was literally choking many of his trees.
He has his tree farm stands going, his experimental seedlings, and plans new plantings of the decorative pin oaks, his favorite tree. "It's never been about money for me. Maybe it should have been," he says. " We want to do this right, the way it ought to be done. I have three sons. I want to leave this in better shape than I found it."
"Pennsylvania's forests are the result of a tremendous disturbance," Steve Thorne says. "You can't find a forest that's been more abused that the forest here. It's a lot different than the forest our ancestors found when they first landed here in the 17th century. It's less diverse in a lot of ways in both age and species. Now if we're trying to achieve improvement in diversity in terms of age, species mix and their structure, how can we do that?
"Those kinds of problems make Pennsylvania forests ripe for some kind of innovative cooperative approaches amongst landowners and environmentalists, and the industry," Thorne continued. " I don't see any other options. What we really ought to be looking at is designing our harvests so they achieve biodiversity goals and other non-timber goals simultaneously. We have the opportunity, because we're now harvesting, to take this forest which is the result of a whole bunch of disturbances--this accidental forest--and help to design it to achieve some of the objectives that as a people we want to achieve now. Or we can go about it sort of willy-nilly like we did before. But it's going to get harvested either way around."
There's a lot that George and other landowners can't do alone. The average private forest is only 23 acres, and planning for biodiversity and healthy forests needs to be done on a larger scale. Cynthia Walter suggests financial incentives to encourage forest owners to work together with their neighbors, similar to programs that help keep farm land intact. But George Freeman does point the way in several respects. He takes the future into consideration. And it's likely that future will depend in large part on people who walk their land and know every tree on it.