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Sustaining Pennsylvania's Unique Natural Resources

More than half of Pennsylvania -- 12 million acres -- is covered in forest. Forests purify our air and water and provide habitat for wildlife. They also provide areas for recreation and beauty.
Dr. Susan Stout Research Project Leader, U.S. Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station, Warren County

Dr. Susan Stout Research Project Leader, U.S. Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station, Warren County

"The partnership between Penn State's scientists and extension specialists and U.S. Forest Service researchers makes a difference. Together, we gain insights into practices that sustain Penn's Woods, and together we share these insights with the public, foresters, loggers and landowners."

Economically, Pennsylvania's hardwood forests are some of the most valuable and productive in North America. Each year, our wood industry processes 1.2 billion board feet of lumber, employs nearly 100,000 people, and produces annual shipments valued at more than $5 billion. The state's forests also support a vast repository of biodiversity, including more than 3,500 species of plants and animals. These are resources worth looking after. Just 100 years ago, our forests were nearly destroyed by fire, indiscriminate harvesting and poor land use practices. And since European settlement, 156 plant and animal species have vanished from our borders. Another 351 species have become endangered or threatened. Researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences are studying ways to reap the benefits of the forest without destroying the delicate balance of its ecosystem. As new knowledge is developed, Penn State Cooperative Extension educators bring this information to the forest industry and the public. With proper management, Pennsylvania's forests and natural ecosystems can continue to thrive.

The Payoff

Where have all the oak trees gone?

Healthy forests should have a "ground floor" thick with seedlings. But many of Pennsylvania's forests are so open you can ride a horse through them. When today's forest began to grow 100 years ago, fewer than 500 deer roamed the state. Now our forests support 1.37 million deer -- and those deer eat a lot of little trees. As a result, ferns and less-valuable plants replace the trees that are critical to wildlife and the timber industry. Through computer modeling, researchers predict that today's forests, which contain 70 percent oak, will grow back after harvest with less than 10 percent oak. The scientists are testing methods that encourage oak regeneration, such as fencing and herbicide use, on 53 state forestland parcels. With that information, they will develop guidelines that can be used by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and private timber harvesters to ensure a good oak supply for future generations.

Bridging the gap

Three-quarters of Pennsylvania's forests are privately owned, and the timber industry counts on that land to provide 80 percent of its wood. Forestland that isn't managed properly jeopardizes new timber growth and puts animal species at risk. With proper management techniques, however, landowners can grow much more timber and enhance wildlife habitat. That's where Penn State Cooperative Extension comes in. By conducting nearly 70 programs each year, extension educators have reached more than 15,000 landowners with information about sound forest management. They've also trained nearly 250 landowner volunteers to spread the word among their peers. In addition, extension specialists share cutting-edge information with timber professionals, from harvesters to sawmill operators. Most important, they've generated trust among landowners, conservationists and industry professionals, and developed a body of literature that everyone can support. Some of this literature is used in educational programs offered by the industry's Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

A new generation of forest stewards

In 1997, the School of Forest Resources revamped its youth program by hiring a new youth specialist. Now more kids than ever -- both rural and urban -- are learning about natural resources through new programs. The number of young people involved in natural resource 4-H projects in Pennsylvania has risen nearly 40 percent! Through the new "School Forest Stewardship Program," extension also works with teachers and parents to map the forestlands owned by the schools, lay out educational trails, and suggest enhancements and educational activities.

Use it again

Recycling wood fibers can help take the demand for new materials off of our forests. The wood fibers in newspaper, for instance, can be recycled into fresh newsprint. But newsprint can only be recycled a finite number of times and, until recently, it couldn't be recycled into a more valuable product. But Penn State scientists developed a way to modify recycled wood fibers from newspapers and grocery bags so they can be added to cement, creating a valuable "cement composite." Under review for both U.S. and international patents, this material is stronger and more durable than ordinary cement. It's fireproof and can't be destroyed by insects and fungi. It's being used for shingles in California and other parts of the country. Now researchers also are working to add wood fibers to concrete to improve the durability of concrete railroad ties.

Protecting biodiversity

Forty percent of Pennsylvania's native fish are endangered or threatened. Because construction projects can release harmful sediments into streams, researchers are creating a complete "Fish of Pennsylvania" CD-ROM for use on personal computers. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and construction companies can use the CD-ROM -- which includes videos, photographs and vital information on every species -- to identify the fish native to specific waterways. They can then use this information to tailor construction projects to minimize or eliminate sediment runoff. Other researchers are developing tools that can be used to improve designs for wetland restoration and creation.

The College of Agricultural Sciences forest and wildlife resources management programs are collaborative initiatives of the School of Forest Resources and Penn State Cooperative Extension. For more information, contact the School of Forest Resources at 814-863-7093 or visit the School of Forest Resources' website.