Share

Growing Up

By Lisa Duchene
Photos By Steve Williams

Six alumni foresters manage the future of Moshannon State Forest

Doug Mohney in forest

Doug Mohney heads back to his truck after marking trees in a stand not far from Mosahannon State Park.

Doug Mohney crouches to touch the glossy leaves of a three-foot red oak seedling. Thousands more, along with black cherry, fire cherry, beech, red maple, and sassafras, carpet the earth around him beneath towering, 75- to 100-year-old white, red, and chestnut oaks. Occasionally, an acorn thunks to the ground.

“You have oak seedlings scattered all through here,” says Mohney, field forester responsible for this 90-acre oak stand within the 38,000-acre piece of Moshannon State Forest he looks after.

Mohney hopes to coax these seedlings into becoming the next generation of red oak forest. In 2004, his predecessor allowed timber harvesters to remove 200,000 board feet of timber, letting in sunlight that helped the seedlings along. In 2008, Mohney decided to allow a “second-story shelterwood” cut that removed about 120,000 board feet of lumber worth $41,300 from the stand’s midstory. Now, daylight bathes and feeds these tiny trees.

“I chose this stand to work with because the oak seedlings were already here,” he says. “I’m here to regenerate the forest, and I want oak. That’s what’s in the overstory. That’s what I want on the ground.”

Mohney studied wildlife management at Penn State DuBois for two years, and then earned his B.S. in forestry management at University Park. For four years, he’s been the forester overseeing this westernmost hook of the Moshannon State Forest and can’t imagine doing anything else. He loves oak silviculture and hopes to orchestrate the forest’s own natural regeneration. Another forester may have cut these tall oaks to the ground, or left them untouched. But Mohney combined his Penn State studies along with his experience of day-to-day work in the forest, the collective knowledge of previous timber management foresters, and ongoing conversations with Penn State researchers to guide his decision.

Every day, state foresters make judgment calls on how to regenerate forest for timber production, wildlife habitat, and every kind of recreation from a gentle walk to a wild ride on horseback or snowmobile.

Wayne Wynick

“Forestry kind of fits my personality in that foresters are among the last generalists in the world. Almost everybody specializes. A forester must be a botanist, a zoologist, a bit geologist, and a bit of an engineer. We wear these hats interchangeably throughout the day because we’re dealing with a resource that’s got a land base, a plant base, and critters. We’re able to deal with a lot of variables.”

Wayne Wynick,
’71 Forest Science,  Moshannon State Forest Assistant District Manager

At Moshannon, a 200,000-acre swath of forest in north-central Pennsylvania, six of the seven foresters were trained in Penn State’s School of Forest Resources, including Bob Merrill, Moshannon’s district manager, and Wayne Wynick, assistant district manager. “Every time a decision is made about the forest, it’s a long-term decision,” says Mike Messina, the school’s director. “Foresters must have strengths across several disciplines: math and engineering, life and social sciences. They must have good people skills since suburban populations increasingly touch on public forests, and a solid business sense. Our schooling in forest science, wildlife and fisheries science, and wood products all include both education and professional training. When you cross that stage and receive a diploma, you can walk out the next day and do a job.”

If These Stumps Could Talk
About one hundred years ago, Mohney’s oak stand was likely so empty you could see to the next hillside. Today’s tall oaks were tiny seedlings or sprouts from cut or burned stumps. Pennsylvania’s virgin forests, once thick with hemlock, chestnut, white and pitch pines, and white and red oaks, were clearcut between 1860 and 1930. Barely anything from the ancient forest remains.

Wayne Wynick, Moshannon’s assistant district manager, doesn’t mince words. “It was rape and pillage,” he says. “The land was worth nothing to the lumber barons. After they peeled off the trees, they allowed the land to revert to state ownership rather than pay taxes on it.”

From what’s now Moshannon State Forest, loggers floated timber down the West Branch of the Susquehanna to Lock Haven and Williamsport, according to “Great Buffaloe Swamp,” a regional history of Moshannon by historian Ralph Seeley. By 1880, gear-driven steam locomotives climbed the region’s steep grades, allowing logging to spread throughout the Quehanna Plateau.

“Essentially,” writes Seeley, “all the white pine in north-central Pennsylvania was gone by 1895.”

Mohney by ax cut

Mohney inspects a stump of a white pine spared during the cutting of the original Pennsylvania forest.  A rare find with ax marks at its base, he can only speculate why it wasn’t cut.

Mohney has found one remnant of that time: a white pine stump about 18 feet high with ax marks at its base. “It looks like they started doing the back cut with their ripsaw and just quit. Maybe they took a break and put their axes up in the tree. It could have been quitting time. Somebody could have gotten hurt. Who knows? They never finished.”

As the 1800s waned, concern grew for management. Joseph T. Rothrock, known as the Father of Forestry in Pennsylvania, lectured from 1877 to 1897 on the need for forestry conservation. As the state’s first forest commissioner, Rothrock shaped the Pennsylvania State Forest system he’d argued for.

Moshannon State Forest got its foothold in 1898, when the state bought 353 denuded acres along Montgomery Run, north of Clearfield, for $65.45.

Rothrock also urged forestry to be taught as a college-level science. Penn State introduced the subject in 1897, and by 1907 the School of Forest Resources began as the Department of Forestry at The Pennsylvania State College. Since then, the histories of Moshannon, along with the state’s 19 other forests, and Penn State’s School of Forest Resources have been intertwined.

Certified Sustainable

Brian Salvato

“I like working with a renewable resource, like the forest, because I feel I am giving back to the land. I’ve learned how to manage the forest in a sustainable manner. We can utilize the forest now, and in one hundred years, our grandchildren will be able to come back to the same patch of woods and repeat the same process if they choose to. When they need the forest, it will be there for them.”

Brian Salvato,
’00 Forest Management, Forester, Black Moshannon section

Today, the foresters who manage Moshannon have something to work with. “It has come back,” says Merrill. “It was all brush at one stage and now we have a lot of really beautiful trees and timber.”

But what came back is a different mix of tree species than what made up the original forest. Oak, once just part of the mix, now dominates.

Wildfires raged for decades in the early 1900s, taking out the conifers, explains Wynick. By 1913, chestnut blight wiped out the native chestnuts.

But oaks are virtually fireproof. “Oak seedlings have dormant buds that hide below ground, so if the surface is killed by fire, oaks still resprout. Many hardwoods do not,” says Wynick.

In some places, the fires burned so hot the land favored grasses and wild blueberries, not trees. “It was almost bare rock, the soil was so badly damaged and washed away,” says Wynick. As a result, some wetlands were born out of that fire damage since water accumulated in spots where the water-sucking trees could no longer grow.

Foresters tend to think in long periods of time. Their date estimates can be give or take 25 years. They also seem to make the best of the hand they’re dealt. So, near Wallace Mine Road, Moshannon’s managers expanded on the small wetlands to create a lake impoundment for migratory waterfowl. Now, one of the region’s few pairs of osprey nest high above the water.

This last century of stewardship has paid off: Moshannon, along with all of Pennsylvania’s 2.2 million acres of state forests, is considered well managed and certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), regarded as the world’s strongest system for guiding sustainable forest management. In regular audits, Pennsylvania’s forests have scored high across FSC criteria for timber resources, ecosystem management, and financial and socioeconomic impact.

The Big Picture

Rich Johnson

“Joseph Rothrock’s plan for managing the forest was simple: ‘We must care for the land in a way that helps everyone, harms no one, and pleases God.’ Those are the three things I think of whenever I do any kind of management.”

Rich Johnson,
’77 Forest Science, Forester, section north of S. B. Elliott State Park and along forest’s western edge

Even people who never make a trip into a state forest can take comfort in knowing it’s there, peacefully filtering our drinking water. The Moshannon Forest surrounds municipal watersheds serving Dubois, Clearfield, and Cooper Townships. Protecting the water supply is paramount, explains Wynick. In a timber-heavy state forest like Moshannon, timber decisions must be balanced against recreational use and trying to achieve a healthier forest—which means a variety of tree species and age classes. “Timber harvesting is the primary tool we have for adjusting the forest,” says Wynick.

The foresters have ongoing conversations with Penn State researchers about the best ways to regenerate the forest after a cut.

Since 1996 Professor Kim Steiner has been managing a long-term project funded by the Bureau of Forestry to follow regeneration in more than 50 mixed-oak forest stands to learn which techniques lead to oak regeneration. Oak is valuable for both wood products and wildlife but is now diminishing.

“In this part of Pennsylvania we have acre after acre of almost pure, large-diameter red oak stands,” Mohney explains. “We’re trying to manage these stands in such a way that they regenerate as the same type of red oak forest.

“Steiner’s students come in and look at the stands after we do our cuts, and measure what’s coming back. Every year or so, they do a presentation on their findings, then ask, ‘What do you guys think?’ since we’re out here every day.

“We give them ideas for new studies and supply the forest for them to work in,” he says. “They give us feedback on the results of our cuts, which helps direct our management decisions.”

One decision has to do with removing red maple seedlings and saplings. “If we did nothing, red maple would replace oak,” Mohney says. “It’s the big competitor.”

The FSC auditing process led to greater long-range planning, and Penn State worked with the state foresters to develop a harvest allocation model, which is a mathematical model designed to take a 33,000-foot view of the forest and work in 100,000-acre swaths over a 150-year view, explains Marc McDill, associate professor of forest resource management.

Marty Lentz

“I love being in the woods and having the opportunity to see all sorts of wonderful things. I’ve always spent a lot of time in the woods, and it’s great to have a career where that can be the main focus.”

Marty Lentz,
’95 Forest Management, Assistant District Forester, section includes Quehanna Wilderness Area

“We feed all these management objectives into this mathematical model that finds the most economically efficient way to achieve these goals,” says McDill. The model has helped guide management plans for the state forests.

As the foresters work, they face constant challenges. Gypsy moths left 8,000 acres of dead trees around Black Moshannon State Park. Drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus shale is a looming challenge. Five wells so far have been drilled and many more are likely. Merrill and his foresters are working to identify spots where drilling’s damage can be minimized. They want to make sure the forest remains healthy and of value to everyone—public and industry alike.

To guide their activities, the managers continue to draw from their Penn State training and foundation. “We hope we give enough scientific background to evaluate controversial topics,” says Messina. “If students know the basics, they can apply that knowledge to new problems.”

Raining Acorns

 

In his oak stand, Mohney is thinking of the next generation of oak. Silviculture is challenging and unpredictable, he explains. If the young, strong oak forest he envisions fails to take root over the next 10 years, he’ll leave the mature oaks alone and try other techniques such as a controlled burn to knock back the maple saplings and other competitors.

But the steady fall of acorns is a promising sign his plans will come to fruition. At that point, he’ll mark the tall oaks to be cut.

“I know it’s the right thing to do,” he says, “but actually coming in here and putting paint on these oaks will be hard. These trees have survived drought, gypsy moths, oak leaf roller, and a lot more. I have a lot of respect for them.”

An Eye on the Big Picture

Bob Merrill, District Manager, Moshannon State Forest

Bob Merrill in forest

Bob Merrill (Forestry ’72) has worn many hats in his 36-year career: commercial and state forester, supervisor, and policy adviser.

Now, as district manager of the Moshannon State Forest, he bears ultimate responsibility for balancing all demands on the forest: commercial logging, gas drilling, and recreational uses like hiking (500 miles of trails) and snowmobiling (200 miles of trails). At the same time, he is charged with ensuring the health of the forest, including its wildlife and the watersheds it surrounds and protects.

That makes him at various times the unpopular guy, the peacemaker, and “mayor of a small village that’s scattered all over the place,” referring to the leases for 600 camps built in the 1920s.

Merrill handles these challenges, as well as devastating insects and disease, as they come.

Bob Merrill portrait crop“One of the toughest parts of the job, I always say, is to deal with all of the change yet keep everything the same,” he says. “We have a lot of change happening. We have to manage that change to minimize its impact—to keep things as if they hadn’t been disturbed.”

Merrill grew up in Lock Haven, studied forestry at Penn State’s Mont Alto campus for one year, and then finished up at University Park. He graduated in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in forestry, and then worked as a forester for Hammermill Paper Company. He joined the state’s Bureau of Forestry in 1979, first as a forest foreman in Elk State Forest, then as a service forester in District #8 (now called Clear Creek State Forest). In 1992, he moved to Harrisburg and became the bureau’s environmental education coordinator, helping teachers present forest and wildlife lesson plans. Merrill returned to the forest in 1996 as the assistant forest manager for the Elk State Forest, and then in 1999 took over as Moshannon’s district manager.

His Penn State studies, he says, instilled a conservation ethic, as well as the practical skills needed to run logging equipment, map the forest, and measure trees and the land.

Merrill shares that background with Wayne Wynick, once a classmate and now his assistant district manager, as well as four of the five area foresters each responsible for 40,000 acres within Moshannon. “Penn State is our common denominator. We all took dendrology courses [the study of trees]. We all spent days out in the rain—taking quizzes in all kinds of weather. Yeah, there’s a camaraderie you get there that ties you together.” And the continuous exchange of ideas between alumni and Penn State researchers benefits Moshannon.

“It’s a pretty healthy forest,” says Merrill. “As forests go, it looks good. That could change next year, but it looks good right now.”