"Western Pennsylvania's Forests"

Pennsylvania's Forests

Forests cover more than 57 percent of Pennsylvania’s landscape, nearly 17 million acres, and are the dominant natural feature of the commonwealth. Pennsylvania’s forests support approximately 20,000 species of plants and animals and other important forms of life, and forest-based employment of more than 72,000 people. Pennsylvania’s forestland is also a key component of the state’s recreation and tourism industry. Forests have a multibillion-dollar annual economic impact and provide an untold wealth of ecological benefits such as wildlife habitat and cleaner water and air.

The history of Pennsylvania’s forests is one of resilience and renewal. When Europeans arrived on the continent, the landscape was almost completely forested, dominated by long-lived hemlock, white pine, oaks, maples, hickories and more than 100 other species. The notably vast expanse of forestland in Pennsylvania gave rise to the name “Penn’s Woods.”

Bear Run
Bear Run

In the late 19th century, Pennsylvania was the nation’s leading source of wood, but by the early 1900s, the state’s forestland had been almost completely cleared for agriculture and wood products to support growth and development. Many of these cut-over forests were abandoned, and subsequently acquired by state and federal agencies. Fortunately, since that time, many of the forests have recovered and regenerated to become the forests we see today. Nearly five million acres—30 percent—of Pennsylvania’s forestland is currently publicly owned.

While much of the landscape has recovered, Pennsylvania’s forests face a number of threats, and continue to be reduced in acreage and become degraded. A 2010 Department of Conservation and Natural Resources report noted that at that time the commonwealth was losing 28,000 acres of forest each year to development. Some of the development impact on forests comes from fragmentation due to energy development and its accompanying roads, pipelines, transmission lines and other infrastructure.

A steady threat to forestland is the increase in parcelization, or ownership fragmentation. Today, nearly 70 percent of Pennsylvania’s forests (11.5 million acres) is privately owned. A recent study by Penn State University estimates that there are 738,000 private forestland owners, and the size of the average privately held parcel is less than 16 acres, much smaller than in previous generations.

This trend is expected to continue. As landowners age, their properties are more likely to be subdivided and sold or divided up among family members. As parcel sizes grow smaller, they become more attractive for development and less suited to management as forestland. Fragmentation leads to further threats such as increased spread of invasive species and loss of already dwindling connected and interior forest habitat for wildlife.

“The individual decisions of these private owners will collectively influence the future of Pennsylvania’s forests and the many public benefits they provide. Unfortunately, while most private forest landowners express a love for their land and a commitment to stewardship, the resulting effect is smaller parcels, loss of forestland, and reduced forest ecosystem functionality and access for recreation and timber production,” said James C. Finley, a member of the Conservancy’s board of directors and Ibberson Chair of Forest Resources and Director at the Penn State Center for Private Forests School of Forest Resources. Other significant threats to Pennsylvania forests include:

  • Over-browsing by deer, which threatens forest regeneration (tree seedlings and saplings) and the wildflowers, shrubs and wildlife that depend on the forest understory.
  • Damage by pests such as the emerald ash borer and the hemlock wooly adelgid, and a number of diseases that threaten canopy species.
  • Non-native invasive plants like the mile-a-minute weed, Asiatic bittersweet, bush-honeysuckle, multiflora rose and others that compete with native species in the understory.
  • Air pollution, which can impact the health of soils and certain tree species.
  • Unsustainable forest management practices that negatively impact forest health and growth. Such practices encourage an imbalance of even our native species, such as hay-scented fern and striped maple, which then affect forest regeneration and the abundance of other native species.
  • Climate change, which is predicted to affect forest ecosystems, as rising temperatures and decreasing precipitation result in conditions unsuitable for growth and reproduction of many common forest species, including sugar maple, beech, hemlock and cherry.

WPC’s Forestland Conservation Efforts

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has always held the conservation of forestland as one of its primary endeavors. In fact, the majority of the more than 233,000 acres that WPC has conserved are forestlands. Many of those acres have been transferred to the public to be managed as part of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forests’ third-party certified state forests and as state parks and game lands. The Conservancy also works with private landowners to protect their forestland in perpetuity via perpetual conservation easements.

WPC’s approach to forest conservation is guided by a “forest patch analysis” that has identified a priority list of forested areas based on the size and biological diversity of each contiguous patch. Large undisturbed forests are some of the most important to protect. But in addition to size, WPC looks to protect forests that harbor rare species, unique habitats (such as limestone cliffs), wetlands of several kinds, and forests within the riparian zones of streams that are also conservation targets. WPC also protects many of the larger “forest blocks” that surround and buffer these most important forest patches.

Connecting individual forest patches to others through forested pathways is another aspect of WPC’s conservation planning. The Conservancy undertook a forest analysis in 2007 that looked at the characteristics of all forest patches across the state and took note of where large unfragmented forests could still be preserved and where forests were fragmented into smaller patches by disturbances such as highways, railroads and transmission lines.

There are variations in our forest conservation efforts in WPC’s different conservation regions. The largest “high scoring” patches of forest are in Pennsylvania’s Northern Woods, such as the West Branch Susquehanna River area. Some of the largest parcels of forestland are also found there, so big conservation impacts can be achieved at times with a single acquisition project of perhaps several thousand acres.

In the Laurel Highlands, where WPC has a long history of protection along Laurel Ridge and at Ohiopyle, the approach is often to add to past forest protection by extending those accomplishments, or by filling in gaps that remained from past projects. At French Creek in the northwestern counties, our primary forest focus is on the floodplains along this very significant waterway. Protecting or restoring forested floodplains is one of the key strategies for also protecting the creek, its water quality and the aquatic life therein.

As much of WPC’s forest conservation work has been similar over time, our efforts are also looking forward with the realization of increased landscape fragmentation due to development and also with a concern about climate change. To support our next forest conservation projects, WPC staff is now undertaking refined planning around the concept of forest resiliency. A large consideration is the complexity of the forested terrain, with the ecological idea that if there is varied topography with large variations in elevation, soils and slopes, species will have greater opportunities to find future habitats within forests as the climate warms and with associated changes in drought severity and increased pressure from invasive species.

With all these priorities in mind, and with the help of GIS mapping data, WPC is able to identify particular important properties within each priority area. This allows WPC’s land conservation staff members to reach out strategically to private landowners to determine their interest in permanent land protection for their properties.

Recent Forest Conservation Outcomes

Since the last forest-themed issue of Conserve was published in 2005, the Conservancy has protected more than 24,000 additional acres of forestland across 18 counties, including important additions to state parks like Ohiopyle and Erie Bluffs, state forests like Forbes and Gallitzin, and state game lands.

WPC retained other forested properties protected since that time, some of which were used to create new natural areas to be enjoyed by the public. Others were added to existing WPC holdings, including Bear Run Nature Reserve and Wolf Creek Narrows. Additional properties were protected through conservation easements—permanent deed restrictions placed on a property that limit future development while keeping the land in private ownership.

While WPC has built a strong legacy of forest conservation and stewardship, there is an urgent need to protect the most important of the remaining forests before they disappear. With the continuing support of members, foundations and state and other conservation partners, the Conservancy is striving to conserve an additional 50,000 acres of important land over a ten-year period.

Fall Members’ Outing

Join us for an autumn afternoon at the West Branch French Creek Conservation Area...
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