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Caring for Pennsylvania’s Private Forests

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Staff and volunteers of the Center for Private Forests help Pennsylvania’s landowners conserve forests for generations to come.

On April 27, 1811, Abraham Bussard purchased a tract of land on the side of a Pennsylvania mountain. At the upper part of the wooded property sat a sandstone boulder, which must have beckoned to Abraham and his wife Elizabeth, because it was there that they built their home and spent their lives surrounded by forest.

Over the years, the land welcomed generations of the Bussard family, who raised sheep, pigs, beef, and dairy cows, and raised crops to feed the animals. The property expanded when family members purchased surrounding tracts. It was on this farm that Laura Jackson grew up, living the life of a farm kid—milking cows, baling hay, driving the family tractor. She learned the lay of the land, and what it could offer her as a place to play and explore the forest.

Mike and Laura Jackson
Laura and Mike Jackson look out over their property on Tussey Mountain from atop the sandstone boulder that has been a fixture on the land through generations of family ownership. Photo by Michael Houtz.

As her parents aged, they prepared to divide the farm and its woodlands among those of their seven children who wanted it, seeing this as a fair approach. Laura and her husband Mike received 114 acres, including the dilapidated remains of the home of her ancestors, Abraham and Elizabeth—now simply a spot marked by a pile of builder’s stones and broken pottery.

Generations of Laura’s family had cared for this land on the side of Tussey Mountain, and Laura and Mike wanted to follow their lead. Even with some knowledge of how Laura’s family had cared for the land in the past, the task of acting as the new caretakers was daunting. From the outside, the 114 acres—108 of it forest—looked green and healthy, but the Jacksons knew that without extensive intervention, invasive plant species would take over. For example, over time, they already had seen honeysuckle creep across the land, growing over anything in its path, and Japanese barberry spread as birds distributed its seeds. “We had to figure out what to do about the overwhelming task ahead of us,” says Mike.

The pair began to learn more about the woods after joining a local group of woodland owners, and found that many had the same concerns and questions. Still more help came when someone suggested they become Pennsylvania Forest Stewards (PAFS)—volunteers in a Penn State outreach program that trains forest landowners to care for their property and to reach out to others. Since 2000, the Jacksons have worked with other landowners, hosted educational tours on their property, and teamed up with the Pennsylvania Game Commission to conduct workshops on their land.

Laura and Mike are avid nature photographers, and they have spent years capturing their neighbors on camera: bobcats, black bears, coyotes. They’ve watched the seasons come and go as Tussey Mountain is blanketed in snow in winter and as the forest envelops them in green every spring. Through it all, that sandstone boulder, which still sits in the Jacksons’ backyard, has stood guard. It’s a reminder of the generations who have lived and worked this land before them, who have walked among these trees—and it’s a reminder of the role the Jacksons must play to keep it all going.

The Center for Private Forests Is Born

For 41 years, James Finley has kept an eye on Pennsylvania’s forests as a professor of forest resources, as the Ibberson Chair of Forest Resource Management, as an extension forester, and now as the first director of the Center for Private Forests at Penn State. In that last role, he’s securing a legacy for the state of Pennsylvania and anyone who makes use of a forest.

Jim Finley
Photo by Michael Houtz

The center, housed in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, opened its official doors in 2011, but the idea for the center had been evolving for several decades with the realization that education focused on sustaining forest values must extend across generations. Its true beginnings, really, date back to the early 1980s, when Finley and his colleagues started conversations about the care of privately owned forests through county landowner associations.

The large scale of Pennsylvania’s privately held forests presents many challenges. Seventy percent—an estimated 11.5 million acres—of forested land is held by nearly 750,000 private landowners, including individuals, families, owners sharing property titles, land and family trusts, and businesses and associations such as hunting clubs and campgrounds. And the number of owners continues to grow as people seek to live and recreate in forests. Yet, as the number of owners increases, the average acreage each landowner holds continues to decline, from about 25 acres in 1980 to around 16 acres in 2010.

“The continuing division of woodlands into smaller and smaller properties threatens economic, ecological, and social values, as private forests provide 80 percent of the state’s timber products, protect and provide clean air and water, and support a quality of life that all Pennsylvanians enjoy,” says Finley. “If these private forest landowners, particularly those who are new to forest ownership, lack the awareness or skills necessary for effective stewardship of their land, the future of the forests could be at risk.”

According to Allyson Muth, staff member at the Center for Private Forests, threats to forests include invasive plants and insects, like the emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorned beetle; tree diseases, like beech bark disease and blight and sudden oak death; and businesses hoping to purchase land from private owners for development. “The threats exceed nature’s capacity to respond,” says Muth.

As Finley traveled around the state to speak at Pennsylvania woodland owner association meetings, he observed how eager many landowners were for information about sustainable forest management practices. He watched as the word got out organically—from one landowner to the next—about the importance of these practices. He saw forest landowners discuss land tax issues and legacy planning to ensure that the forests continued to thrive in private hands. And he saw how powerful this peer-to-peer learning approach could be in advancing forest stewardship, particularly when supported by the applied research, outreach, and educational expertise provided by Penn State and its partners such as the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Bureau of Forestry.

Support the Center for Private Forests

The Center for Private Forests at Penn State is uniquely positioned to help landowners meet the challenges of private forest ownership. Together we can conserve Pennsylvania’s signature landscape for generations to come.

To learn more about the center, please contact:

James C. Finley
Ibberson Chair of Forest Resource Management and Director of the Center for Private Forests
814-863-0402

To make a gift to the center, please contact:

Mark Theiss Senior
Director of Development
814-863-1168

Pennsylvania Forest Stewards

To facilitate this peer-to-peer learning, the center established the Pennsylvania Forest Stewards (PAFS) volunteer group with funding from the U.S. Forest Service through the Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry. Through PAFS, landowners work together to learn new ideas and share information about sustainable forest management practices, economics of forest ownership, and legacy planning. “Our volunteers have access to their neighbors and can encourage them to take action, such as seeking additional information and finding professional guidance on how to conserve, manage, and improve their forests for any number of values they identify as important,” says Finley.

PAFS volunteers attend two weekends of training in forestry management practices and then venture off to share the word with the masses. “They’re our choir,” says Muth, noting that center staff survey volunteers every other year to assess their outreach impact, as they share what they know with other woodland owners. In 2013, the last survey year, almost 300 then active and reporting volunteers reached more than 600,000 people and gave of their time the equivalent of seven full-time outreach staff members. The ultimate idea, says Muth, is to help landowners recognize the need to keep forests as forests because they provide us with all kinds of benefits. They house the state’s wildlife. They absorb heavy rains, reducing the amount of flooding. They help to keep our water clean by preventing soils from running downhill and filtering out contaminants before they enter creeks and rivers. The center and its PAFS volunteers offer forest owners local access to expertise and a network in which to share information so they can continue to support their forests in providing necessary ecosystem services.

The center and its work continue to grow and evolve. “Our hope is that the center will increase the support available for private forest owners and users by enhancing undergraduate and graduate education and research on topics of importance to private forest landowners, providing relevant tools and knowledge, and expanding outreach to woodland owners and the public in Pennsylvania and beyond,” says Finley. “People need to know how much private forests contribute to all facets of their lives.”

To that end, center staff members conduct research to understand the interests and needs of private forest owners. For example, they learned that about one in seven households in Pennsylvania owns an acre or more of woodland. These owners have woodlands for many reasons, which often do not include managing for timber. Instead, they express interests in solitude, wildlife, recreation, and hunting. In addition, center staff learned that about 25 percent of the 11.5 million privately held acres are in ownerships smaller than 20 acres. Therefore, it is important to create education programs that incorporate forest management for individuals with diverse interests and varying levels of expertise. Other research has explored how to help private owners protect forests as they pass them onto the next generation, as was the case with Laura and Mike Jackson’s family farm.

As the first director of the center, Finley is eager to see Penn State take on the critically important role of conserving and stewarding forests for today and tomorrow. “We have made significant progress in the past three years,” he says, “and we are looking to continue to support our partners in defining opportunities to spread the word expressed in our motto: ‘connecting people—sustaining forests.’”

Center Professionals and Landowners in Action

Many landowners are accustomed to thinking that forests manage themselves. It’s nature, after all, and nature does what’s right, right? Finley calls that belief “the green lie.” Just because a backyard forest is green, he tells PAFS volunteers like Mike and Laura Jackson, who own that land on Tussey Mountain, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. Jeanne and Tony Riley believed the green lie for a bit. She was a biotechnology executive and he was a geriatrician when Tony and his siblings inherited 113 acres of land—a tree farm in Huntingdon County. Tony’s parents hoped the land would serve as a family homestead, a place for get-togethers such as Fourth of July parties. But the responsibilities of owning and managing the land proved to be an overwhelming burden for Tony’s father. Nature had come pouring in on all sides in the form of overgrowth and invasive species, thus threatening the health of the forest.

When they heard about Jim Finley and the PAFS program, Tony and Jeanne wanted to become involved, not only to take care of the land that they visit nearly every weekend, but to ensure that it’s there for their children, their nieces and nephews, their grandchildren, and for their children, too. Inspired by their participation in the center’s first Private Forest Landowners Conference, held in 2013, they became PAFS volunteers later that year. In 2014, they, along with Mike and Laura Jackson, joined the first steering committee for the Center for Private Forests. At the time, the center was gearing up to host its second statewide landowners conference for hundreds of participants.

To carry forward the ethic of being stewards of their land, the Rileys, armed with knowledge from their PAFS training, embarked on an ambitious plan with their family members to improve the health of their woods. With guidance from Finley, they engaged a consulting forester to develop a ten-year management plan for the property. The couple then designed a series of workshops to enable their family members to learn how best to implement the stand thinning and tree harvesting recommended for the property. These workshops gave the family members an opportunity to learn forestry skills together and to identify what services would be required of the consulting forester to implement the management plan. “Seeing our family members of all ages gain the skills and confidence necessary to become effective stewards of their forests was extremely gratifying, the Rileys said. “Our involvement with the center and the PAFS program made this possible.”

The family now has a ten-year plan in place that involves clearing out invasive species on the property and helping their fifteen stands of trees to thrive, including a beloved group of black cherry trees. They’ve also begun to thin the forest where most needed and to replant so that it grows healthier and stronger—better able to host those family gatherings.

In one of those spots, the family worked with the consulting forester to plant and tend a stand of 1,500 hardwood trees. Siblings, children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren all worked together to design the planting and care for the young trees so they could successfully establish themselves on the property. These days, when the various family members are together, they walk the land, taking special note of a stand trees, many now over six feet tall, that were only a foot tall when they went in the ground. Together, grandparents and grandchildren work and water, protecting and nurturing the next generation of forestland.

It’s just the kind of thing that Finley had envisioned all those years ago—forest professionals teaming up with landowners to ensure that Pennsylvania’s forests prosper; researchers exploring the effects of human interaction with the land; and perhaps most important, an ever-expanding branch of forest owners actively engaged with their land and its future. “Here we have a volunteer effort that’s touched a lot of people,” says Finley. “We think we’re making a difference.”

By Maureen Harmon