Dispelling Myths About Pennsylvania’s Forests

Dispelling Myths About Pennsylvania’s Forests

Waterloo Mills trees and stream

There are commonly held myths about forests and forestry in Pennsylvania and it is important to dispel these myths so we can promote sound and sustainable management of those forests. Dave Jackson and Sanford (Sandy) Smith from Penn State Extension wrote the following article about some of the most common and damaging of these myths and misperceptions. 

Before reading the article below, there are some differences between Pennsylvania as a whole and southeastern Pennsylvania that are important to point out. When talking about southeastern Pennsylvania, we are referring to the William Penn Forest District, which includes Northampton, Lehigh, Berks, Bucks, Montgomery, Lancaster, Chester, Delaware and Philadelphia Counties. Pennsylvania’s dominant land use is forest, which covers 59 percent of the state. However, in southeastern Pennsylvania forest land covers only 22 percent with only five percent in public forest land. Coupled with the fact that Southeastern Pennsylvania is the most populated region of the state means that the forest products industry is smaller than that of other areas of the Commonwealth. 

In southeastern Pennsylvania, 77 percent of forest land is privately owned. Education and outreach to these private forest owners is essential to ensure the continuing health of Pennsylvania’s forests. Many of these myths need to be dispelled so people can understand that simply loving their forests and leaving them alone is not enough. Historic land use, invasive pests and plants, and an overabundance of white-tailed deer are significant barriers to healthy sustainable forests. Hands-on management is needed to provide healthy forests for the future.

Penn State Extension is an educational network that provides access to the University's resources and expertise to help individuals, families, businesses and communities through educational programing. Penn State Education delivers practical forest management education you can trust.

Dispelling Myths About Pennsylvania’s Forests

There are many myths and misperceptions about forests and forestry in Pennsylvania. Before we examine them, we need to define what a “forest” is. Simply put, a forest is an area of land characterized by extensive tree cover and other associated resources such as meadows, streams, and wildlife. We often use other names to describe forested land including woods, woodland, and woodlot. We also have “urban” or “community” forests located within our cities. Pennsylvania‘s very name means “Penn’s Woods” after Quaker William Penn’s father, and “Sylvania” meaning woodland.

Next, let’s define “forestry.” Forestry is a profession that applies science to the practice of creating, managing, using, and conserving forests for human benefit in a sustainable manner to meet our desired goals, needs, and values. Foresters are professionals that engage the science and practice of forestry. It requires a formal education to be a “professional” forester. Foresters use forestry to manage forests!

With those definitions in mind, let us look at some of the more common myths and misperceptions.

Most of the forest land in Pennsylvania is owned by the government. Pennsylvania's dominant land use is forest, covering nearly 16.5 million acres, or 59%, of the state. Private non-industrial landowners own 70% of the forestland in the state, the government only 22%. Nearly 12 million acres are held by private owners, estimated to be a population of over 740,000 individuals, if we include those with 1 acre or more of woodland.

Our trees are used to make lumber for building homes. As is often the case, there is usually some truth in everything people misunderstand. It is true that Pennsylvania’s hardwood lumber is sought after for “making homes,” but it’s not used in constructing the building itself, as many believe. Rather, it is used for the moldings, flooring, cabinets, and fine furniture people put in their homes. Softwood lumber (pine and spruce) is what gets used to construct the building, and this is often from the southern and western states or Canada.

Timber harvesting destroys forests. This is not an uncommon statement. Even the best managed timber harvest can look quite dramatic right after the trees have been cut. The good news is that forests are “renewable”—that means they can grow back in a person’s lifetime. If proper safeguards are taken before, during and after the harvest (such as assuring there is deer protection for the seedlings or that invasive plants are not competing for light and space) a new forest of seedlings will quickly begin growing on the site. Virtually all the forests you see growing in Pennsylvania today are the result of “natural” regeneration—the growth of a new forest from seedlings and sprouts. No planting was involved. Pennsylvania’s hardwood trees grow back naturally.

Cutting timber destroys wildlife homes and places where wildlife find food. It is true that some animal habitats are affected by timber harvesting, and some wildlife species will need to shift their home location to meet their needs. Conversely, other wildlife species will move in to the newly created “early successional habitat” or “young forest” that has been created. Many wildlife species use or need young forests. More than 60 kinds of wildlife, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects, need young forests to survive. Early successional habitat is needed and lacking across much of Pennsylvania. Over the last 50 years wildlife species that depend on young forest habitats have steadily declined in numbers. 

Select cutting is the “best” way to harvest our forests. Though this sounds like a gentler approach to harvesting, select cutting often result in what is known as “high grading,” removing only the largest, fastest growing, and highest value trees. High grading can have long-term detrimental impacts by removing important seed sources, shifting species composition, reducing the quality of remaining trees, removing desirable species, and reducing future income potential. All timber harvesting must be done in a sustainable fashion. That is, in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Unfortunately, select cutting seldom meets this criteria.

All clearcutting is bad and should never be practiced. Clearcutting is often viewed as total forest clearing and something that is permanent. However, in Pennsylvania clearcutting is a management practice used to regenerate, or regrow, a new forest of sun loving trees including aspen, black cherry, yellow poplar, and most pines. Most older forests you see in Pennsylvania today are the result of clearcutting in the past. In some places clearcutting is used to clear lands and convert them for other uses such as agriculture or urban developments. Clearcutting in these instances is not a forest management practice; it is more accurately called “deforestation.”

A hands-off approach to forest management is best. Let “mother nature” take its course. Unfortunately, “Mother Nature” does not exist and the natural ecology of our forests has been so greatly altered by human activity and other disturbances that an active management approach is often much better for the forest and the landowner. Most of our forests have been cut-over several times, burned, impacted by deer over-browsing, overrun by invasive plants, and infested by non-native insects and diseases. Leaving them alone will often make these problems only get worse. There are many wise management practices that can help bring a forest into a healthy, more natural, and productive state. Forest conservation needs effective “hands-on” management.

We hope this article has been useful to clear up some common myths and misperceptions about Pennsylvania’s forests and forestry. For additional information about forestry visit the Penn State Extension web site at: https://extension.psu.edu/forests-and-wildlife

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2020 edition of Forest Leaves, a publication published by the Center for Private Forests and Forestry and Wildlife Extension, Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, at Pennsylvania State University.