Pennsylvania State Foresters Aim for Young Forest, Diverse Wildlife

The Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, in the state's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, manages 2.2 million acres of woodland, 13 percent of all forested lands in the Keystone State. The Bureau brings in around $25 million each year from harvesting timber on approximately 14,000 acres. That income helps fund the Bureau’s operating costs, with 10 percent of those dollars channeled into forest-regeneration projects.

Log skidder at work

Log skidder at work. Ongoing timber harvests on Pennsylvania State Forest lands return revenue while yielding important young forest habitat for wildlife. Trees grow back after both commercial and non-commercial timber harvests, often improving forest health and tree-species diversity.

A key management objective is to provide habitats for diverse, healthy populations of wildlife. As the Bureau’s 2015 State Forest Resource Management Plan notes, one way to boost a diversity of wildlife species is to promote a mosaic of forest stands having trees of different species and ages.

The Bureau works cooperatively with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on habitat projects helping wildlife, especially animals whose numbers have been dwindling. The Ruffed Grouse Society has also contributed to some projects. Foresters and biologists develop site-specific management plans to create or enhance certain kinds of habitat, including young forest and shrubland needed by golden-winged warblers, American woodcock, ruffed grouse (the state bird of Pennsylvania), timber rattlesnakes, white-tailed deer, black bears, and many more.

The following representative projects directly help wildlife. These good works by the Bureau of Forestry also benefit people, as hunting, birdwatching, and wildlife viewing are extremely popular pastimes among visitors to Pennsylvania’s extensive state-owned forests.

Michaux State Forest (Southcentral Pennsylvania): Restoring Native Shrubs

The Glatfelter Tract in the Michaux State Forest has some great woodcock habitat, especially along streams where native shrubs like haws, hawthorns, dogwood, and alders grow. Woodcock still use the surrounding forest, but trees and shrubs that could provide additional quality woodcock habitat are getting past their prime in many of those areas; there’s also a problem with mile-a-minute weed and barberry, non-native invasive plants, taking over some sites. Michaux State Forest staff members use funding from the Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society to remove invasive plants through chemical spraying. Workers also hand-fell older shrubs so they’ll grow back more thickly. They also plant more shrubs to provide additional nesting cover for woodcock – habitat that offers food and cover to a wide range of songbirds from alder flycatchers to ruffed grouse.

Susquehannock State Forest (Northern Pennsylvania): Jones Run Woodcock Management Area

Established in 2012, the 2,000-acre Jones Run Woodcock Management Area includes mixed oak and northern hardwood trees as well as aspens, a favorite tree species for woodcock and ruffed grouse. Ongoing timber harvests create the dense young forest that those popular game birds need – thick habitat that also becomes home to Appalachian cottontails, golden-winged warblers, whip-poor-wills, snowshoe hares, and other wildlife.

Whip-poor-will on branch

Young forest being created statewide by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry will provide important feeding and nesting habitat for whip-poor-wills, birds that are more often heard than seen./J. Larkin

Foresters plan to maintain 15 to 20 percent of the management area as young, even-aged forest. An additional goal is to expand aspen and birch stands. Areas with moist soil (where woodcock like to probe for earthworms), old fields (where male woodcock sing and launch courtship display flights in springtime), and shrublands (where woodcock hens nest, and where young and adults feed) will also see habitat improvement efforts.

District foresters have set up woodcock survey routes to gauge the anticipated population increase in that species; they’ll conduct ruffed grouse surveys as well. As of 2016, conservationists had completed 220 acres of commercial regeneration/shelterwood timber harvests, conducted 30 acres of aspen regeneration cuts, and treated competing vegetation with herbicide on 40 acres. All of these management activities will benefit a broad range of forest birds, including both resident and migratory species.

Gallitzin State Forest (Southwestern Pennsylvania): Setting Back Forest Succession

There’s an area off Pennsylvania Route 56 in Gallitzin State Forest that motorists might not notice if they weren’t looking closely, but it’s an oasis for young forest wildlife. A few years ago it was an old failing aspen and serviceberry stand. Then foresters started mowing the understory shrubs in strips and hand-felling the older aspen. Strips are 100 to 200 feet long and 70 to 90 feet wide, with naturally shaped, wavy edges; some will be mowed every year, and all will be treated every five years. The strips will grow back as thick cover for wildlife. The district recently finished cutting the first cycle of strips, creating 10 acres of new habitat. In spring 2016, the area resounded with male woodcock singing and doing their dawn-and-dusk mating flights to attract females.

Forbes State Forest (Southwestern Pennsylvania): Mountain Streams Woodcock Project

This 240-acre area is the only large tract of old-field habitat on the 60,000-acre Forbes State Forest. Historically used by both migrating and resident American woodcock, the cover in this area has gradually been getting too old and thin for those young-forest birds. In 2013, conservationists completed a management plan that will bring the area back to a younger, more woodcock-friendly state through non-commercial timber harvests, hand-felling of poor-quality trees, mowing shrubs, and using herbicides to remove unwanted competing vegetation. Those actions will be carried out with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California University of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Woodcock Limited, and the Wildlife Management Institute.

Weiser State Forest (Eastern Pennsylvania): Taylorsville Grouse Habitat Project

The Taylorsville Tract lies next to State Game Lands 210, which is managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The Taylorsville Grouse Project will take in approximately 715 acres on Weiser State Forest. The goal? Create young forest for ruffed grouse with an eye toward improving nesting success. Over the next three years, managers will make around 200 acres of new habitat in 10- to 15-acre blocks.

Ruffed grouse on nest

New young forest on the Taylorsville Grouse Project will boost nesting success for grouse./C. Fergus

Whole-tree chipping harvests will take place on some of the blocks, while other blocks will be hand-harvested, which will leave ample coarse woody debris lying on the ground. That sort of debris, mainly limbs and branches, provides habitat for insects, reptiles, and amphibians as it slowly decomposes. After this first phase, around 90 acres will be treated every 12 years. The project will create young, regrowing forest in a poor-quality stand of pole-stage and small saw-timber trees. The site is close to several hundred acres of state forest where commercial timber harvests have already made good dense habitat that should provide a ready source population of grouse.

The Greenland Tract, also on Weiser Forest, includes almost 3,000 acres of mostly poor-quality timber. To shift this site more toward a young stage, the district plans to remove all pine plantations, larch, Norway spruce, and other undesirable species through commercial harvesting, with the first harvest in 2016. They will also control invasive shrubs through the use of herbicides.

Foresters plan to encourage the growth of pitch pine and scrub oak, as well as oak savannahs, to benefit overall forest health and wildlife that thrive in young forest. After this forest type is established, managers will use prescribed burning to maintain thick low growth for wildlife. The Bureau of Forestry is working with the Pennsylvania Game Commission to seamlessly blend management activities on both Weiser State Forest and State Game Lands 210, yielding a landscape-scale area of early successional woodlands.

Moshannon State Forest (Central Pennsylvania): Rock Run Scrub Oak Prescribed Burn

In May 2015, a trained fire crew did a 275-acre prescribed burn in the Rock Run drainage to knock back old, thinning scrub oak, mountain laurel, and huckleberry shrubs. Those native shrubs evolved with fire, and they thrive when periodic small fires burn away older dead wood and suppress competing vegetation. Fire crew members allowed the carefully controlled fire to spread onto a neighboring State Game Lands, making for a total burned area of 345 acres. The site serves as a source of scrub oak acorns, which are collected and then planted and nurtured at the State Tree Nursery; later, they’re used to replant other stands. Scrub-oak is a short, wiry, shrublike oak whose multiple stems provide great cover and whose acorns help feed wildlife. Foresters report that the burned-over scrub oaks on Rock Run sent sprouts shooting up 3 to 5 feet in just one growing season. The foresters will monitor the site over the next four to seven years to see whether the shrubs produce bumper acorn crops as expected.

Pennsylvania State Forests

2.2 million acres of state forest exist across Pennsylvania.

Rothrock State Forest (Central Pennsylvania): Ruffed Grouse Project

Foresters identified two 100-acre sites with poor-quality timber having low value for wildlife. The trees, mostly pole-sized black birch, will be cut in 10-acre blocks or removed through the use of herbicides. Workers will treat around 60 acres over the next two years, with more improvements planned for the future. Not far away, several hundred additional acres of forestland, where mature trees harvested by the Bureau are now sending up abundant new shoots, offer habitat that should provide a likely source of grouse for repopulating the treated areas. The Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society contributed funding.