Friday, June 9, 2017

Op-Ed: Small Landowners Are The Key To Saving Pennsylvania’s Big Woods

By Josh Parrish, Director Of The Working Woodlands Program, The Nature Conservancy-PA

The following op-ed entitled, “Small Landowners Are The Key To Saving PA’s Big Woods” appeared on on June 8--
We call them the Big Woods.
They are our 17 million acres of forested woodlands in Pennsylvania. In addition to providing us opportunities to hike, hunt and fish, we rely on these lands to clean our air and purify our water. It's a proud part of what makes our state great.
Unfortunately, these woodlands are facing their own version of a mid-life crisis, and need innovative solutions, and the entire Pennsylvania conservation community's help if we are to prevent this situation from getting worse.
As many of us know, the majority of the woodlands in our state are largely the same size and structure.
In short, they are out of balance. That means we are missing both young forests and older, more mature forests. We are also missing variety in tree species.
What's more, when we dig a little deeper, these same-looking woodlands are less resistant to changing conditions, pests and disease.
Moreover, they provide inadequate habitat for important species of wildlife. This had led to more species being listed as endangered or threatened by the federal government.
We as the caretakers of our woodlands need to find ways to not just conserve these forests, but to improve them so they can provide for our wildlife and bird species into the future.
Fortunately, there is a solution that often gets overlooked.
Unlike other regions of the country where the federal government controls large swaths of forestland, more than 70 percent of Pennsylvania's woodlands are owned by individual and family land owners.
What many may not realize is that many of these small landowners are willing to take the steps necessary to bring our forests back into balance, particularly if done for the sake of native wildlife.
Recently, the American Forest Foundation (AFF) surveyed woodland landowners from Maine to West Virginia.
It found that when questions about caring for woodlands were framed in terms of protecting wildlife, landowners were ready to act.
The AFF survey found that 86 percent of landowners said protecting and improving wildlife habitats were an important reason why they owned their property. Moreover, 77 percent said they were concerned about the loss of wildlife habitat.
Yet fewer than half were managing for wildlife on an ongoing basis. Nine out of ten admitted they could be doing more on their land. Many list lack of technical knowledge and cost as barriers.
We have an opportunity to help these landowners overcome these hurdles and harness their stewardship.
One example, where this is already being done is the 1,305-acre Hiawatha Hunting and Fishing Club in the Poconos.
The club has been around for more than a century. Its founding members were connected to the City of Bethlehem and the mills of Bethlehem Steel.
To conserve their land, members of the Club worked with The Nature Conservancy to implement strategies to protect the land long-term and to help steward it to protect the wildlife and the environment from invasive species and other threats.
As part of the plan, unhealthy and undesirable trees on the land are harvested focusing growth on the healthiest trees and stimulating new saplings. As a result, the land will forever stay forested, and it will be maintained to improve wildlife habitat, overall health, and the larger forest ecosystem balance.
This type of program can be replicated on other lands in central Pennsylvania.
For example, the AFF report identified an opportunity in the 500,000 Bald Eagle Watershed in Central Pennsylvania.
With more than 150,000 acres in private hands, this watershed is part of the Susquehanna River Watershed. Its waters flow into the Chesapeake Bay. And, like other parts of the state, data shows the Watershed is drastically unbalanced and provides inadequate habitat for wildlife.
If we are able to turn around the Bald Eagle Watershed, we will take great steps toward restoring forest health in Pennsylvania. That will take great commitment from conservation groups, family woodland owners, and federal and state conservation partners.
Working together we can go a long way in solving our forests' "mid-life crisis" and ensure people and wildlife will enjoy these lands well into the future.
For more information, visit The Nature Conservancy-PA’s Working Woodlands Program webpage.
Josh Parrish is the director of the Working Woodlands Program at The Nature Conservancy-PA. He is also a small woodland owner in central Pennsylvania. He can be contacted by sending email to:

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