Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Dispelling Myths About Pennsylvania’s Forests

Written by Sandford Smith, Teaching Professor of Forest Resources and Extension Specialist, Pen State University and Dave Jackson, Forestry Educator, Penn State Extension

BELLEFONTE, PA – This article will try to dispel some of the more common myths and misperceptions about forests and forestry in Pennsylvania. Let us begin by defining what a “forest” is. 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. In fact, Pennsylvania means “Penn’s Woods” after Quaker William Penn and “Sylvania” meaning woodland.

Next, let us define “forestry.” Forestry is a profession that applies a 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 essential definitions in mind let us dispel some of the more common myths and misperceptions about Penn’s Woods.

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 over 740,000 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’s usually some truth in everything people misunderstand. It’s 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 they get food. While some animal habitats are affected through timber harvesting and some will have to shift their location to meet their needs. New 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 cuts 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 quality, 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 into other uses such as agriculture or urban developments. Clearcutting in these instances is not a forest management practice; it is more appropriately 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 approach is often much better.  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.

I 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:

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