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A Forest Without Trees

Summer 2010
Allegheny National Forest Welcome Sign
The Allegheny National Forest covers parts of four different counties and contains the last virgin timber in the state.
Did you know that every page of every Harry Potter book ever printed in America was printed in a papermill on the eastern border of the Allegheny National Forest? It’s true. It is also home to more oil and gas wells than any other national forest and is one of the few that turns a profit because of the exceptional black cherry that grows in the forest.

The Allegheny National Forest was established in 1923 after over-harvesting of the original forest almost caused the complete removal of all the trees on the Allegheny Plateau. It is located in four counties of northwestern Pennsylvania: Forest, Warren, Elk, and McKean. It is the only National Forest in the state of Pennsylvania and is 513,325 acres in size. This puts it at the smaller end of the national forest scale, according to Rob Fallon, the Marienville district manager.  “The smallest forests,” says Fallon, “are 21,000 acres and the largest is 17 million acres.” The original forest was mostly softwood tree types of American beech and Eastern hemlock. Pockets of the original forest remain in certain areas of the forest such as Heart’s Content in Warren County and the Tionesta Scenic Research Area in Forest County. Today’s forest is mostly hardwoods such as oaks, maples, cherry, and ash. Black cherry is dominant in the region and is the main wood the forest produces.

The old growth forest consisted of mostly softwoods and was a predominantly beech and hemlock forest. When people began to settle the area in the 1700s, the forest was not looked on as a source of income. Very few people settled in the area because of the poor soil conditions and the need to clear cut the forests to make fields to grow crops.

Vintage photo of clearcut area in the Allegheny National Forest
Allegheny National Forest
This 1928 picture at Little Arnot shows the widespread clearcutting that decimated the forests of northern Pennsylvania by the 1920s.

At this time, the eastern part of the state was also producing wood in sufficient quantities to meet demand and using the Susquehanna River to transport the wood to the lower, growing part of the state. When settlers did move more into the northwestern part of the state in the 1800s, some harvesting began as the leather industry began to boom, peaking in the 1850s. The hemlock trees were stripped of their bark for the tannins needed by the leather industry and the logs themselves were left to rot. Another deterrent that caused the delay of the full harvesting of the forest was in 1859 when Edwin Drake successfully drilled for oil in Titusville, Crawford County. This caused an oil boom during which the forest was mostly used for oil drilling and shortly thereafter natural gas drilling.

Once the forests were cleared on the eastern side of the state, the focus of settlement and industry was turned to the area of the Allegheny. Hemlock trees were more difficult to float down river but their wood was still in demand. As more and more areas were completely cleared, sending the wood to mills in the lower part of the state, all that was left behind was barren brush land. The wildlife population was almost completely gone and whitetail deer actually had to be reintroduced from other states to repopulate the area when the forest was established.

Most of the area was clear cut, regardless of the value or maturity of the trees taken. This caused the soil to be left bare, without a root system, and vulnerable to erosion from water and wind. The practice also allowed for more brush growth that would choke out tree seedlings trying to grow and be more likely to catch fire.

The clear cut area rapidly grew up with brush and shrubs but nothing that would hold the soil together. This allowed most of the rain water to soak down through the soil or run off taking the top soil with it causing the area to be left dryer than it started. This caused many brush fires to begin in the area and were the most seen in the history of the forest.

Little Arnot in 1948
Allegheny National Forest
By 1948, the forest at Little Arnot had begun to recover with saplings and larger trees.

As soil erosion and watershed problems became apparent, along with the loss of wildlife, the government noticed it needed to do something to restore value to the land and to sustain it for future generations. The government bought up land that was available for sale but not the private property areas that families already had ownership to. This created a vast connection of land with small areas of privately owned land dotted throughout the area.

The whitetail reintroduction took place starting in 1895. When the forest was officially established in 1923 the land was left to regenerate itself for the most part. The dominantly black cherry forest is not a result of people planting that type of tree. The black cherry tree is a shade intolerant tree, which means it does not grow well without abundant sunshine. Huge towering old hemlock trees covered the seeds of the cherry trees until the area was clear cut allowing all the sun the trees needed. The reintroduction of the deer population also helped the forest become dominantly black cherry as the deer would eat the seedlings growing in the area. They favored all other species except black cherry which they don’t particularly like to eat.

The black cherry trees continued their rapid growth and dominance over the landscape as they can grow more quickly than softwoods. The life span of a hardwood is shorter than that of softwood so the growth rate quickens to make up for lost time. The softwoods, such as hemlocks, are shade tolerant trees, which means they are able to grow but with less sunshine and much more slowly. They take advantage of the shorter life span of the hardwoods because when they die the softwoods then have access to abundant sunshine to grow more rapidly.

Ferns can grow quickly once light reaches the forest floor and spread like wildfire. They prevent light from reaching the smallest seedlings trying to sprout and they are not favored by the deer as a food source. This has also prevented the reforestation of the area as a softwood forest and continues to be an issue faced by the US Forest Service today.

Little Arnot in 1998
Allegheny National Forest
By 1998, large stands of trees had returned to the Little Arnot area.

This new growth of black cherry trees are a perfect match for this area’s soil and climate, so much so, that they are given the special name of  “Allegheny hardwoods”. As a result of the harvesting of the forest beginning in the 1880s, the forest was established as a National Forest, as it was almost completely destroyed. The harvested wood was used to make many different products, such as charcoal, wood alcohol, and acetic acid. Almost all of the current growth is second-growth, as is the case in most National Forests on the Eastern United States. The forest is a mixture of both hardwood and softwood that is trying to create a sustainable ecosystem for different wildlife species that live in it.

The forest of today is used in many different ways. The focus of the USDA Forest Service for the forest is on the new seedlings and new growth for tomorrow’s generation of recreational activists and to provide an agricultural product to the public in a sustainable way. The motto “Land of Many Uses” is used to describe the goals of the forest management. Trying to create an area that is sustainable for the wildlife, recreational use, wood products, and watershed management is the primary goal of the USDA Forest Service.

One of the main ways to keep the forest in a sustainable and healthy condition, according to Fallon, is by select harvesting of the trees to open up the overstory and allow younger trees to grow. The overstory is the older tree canopy that is highest in growth and covers over all the seedlings and younger trees. Select harvesting removes certain trees of value, or damaged older trees, from the forest to allow other trees to take over the space. Each year the Allegheny National Forest harvests about 5,000 acres worth of trees, which translates into about 54 million board feet. “The final goal of 54 million board feet is often not completely achieved,” states Fallon, “but amounts close to that are harvested.” There are 140,000 acres unable to be harvested because of topography, recreational designation, wilderness areas, research areas, and remote recreational areas that do not have access roads. Allegheny’s definition, according to US Forest Service, of a sustainable forest is one that supports the harvest of 54 million board feet a year of wood and while sustaining the wildlife and recreational activities it normally provides.

River Valley in Autumn
Commonwealth Media Services -
Brightly colored trees span the river valleys of the Allegheny National Forest every autumn.

These sustainability goals are achieved through differing methods of forest management. Reforestation fencing is used to help build up an area where the forest has been harvested or damaged. This is done by fencing off the area, with an 8 foot fence, so that the deer are not able to eat the young trees and seedlings as they are becoming established so that problems, such as those discussed earlier concerning seedlings and deer, are not an issue with new growth. The area is select cut for trees that are not desired to grow there, such as older trees that are ready to be harvested or trees that are in dense population, and then the overstory is opened up to allow more light in for the young trees to grow. An herbicide is also sprayed to kill the ferns that will rapidly take over an open area and choke the seedlings of light they need to grow.

Another part of this process is seed cutting, which leaves the desired trees in the area to seed it for the next generation. After about 5 years, the younger trees are established to a point where the fence can be removed and the older trees can be cut down and harvested. This is how the Allegheny National Forest can be a sustainable yet profitable forest that can provide wood products to the public while still having areas for recreation. When this type of reforestation is done using an age rotation, it’s called uneven age management. In this case, there will be different age groups of trees within the same stand of trees to keep a rotating harvest schedule. The younger trees, also called understory, are 0-20 years old. The middle age trees, also called midstory, are 20-80 years old, and the overstory, or oldest trees, are 80-130 years old. This allows for the older trees to be cut down and others that are close to the same age to grow and replace them in a reasonable time frame.

Another practice to improve the forest is timber stand management. This is a type of select cutting where a specific stand of trees are evaluated and then the undesirable trees are removed leaving the desired ones to flourish and create the habitat desired. This can also be called gap selection or single tree harvesting where a gap is created in the overstory by harvesting a small group or single large tree to give more light to the forest floor.

Logans Falls
Allegheny National Forest
Amid the trees of the ANF, beautiful sights such as Logans Falls abound.

The well organized and scheduled management of the forest has lead to many recreational activities to develop in the forest. The public can boat on the rivers, camp in designated camping areas or in the rugged country, fishing is abundant, and in the fall more hunting licenses are issued in the state of Pennsylvania than any other state with over one million licenses issued. Many of these tags are filled with game from the Allegheny National Forest. Hiking, mountain biking, ATVs, snowmobiles, and horseback riding are also parts of the Forest’s recreation facilities.

There are privately owned land plots in the Forest for oil wells, gas wells, and homes or cabins that people own. One interesting area is owned by the Flying W Ranch. This is a dude ranch that is located within the Forest that leads guided trail rides on their own property as well as in and out of the National Forest. The scenery is breath taking in some areas of the trails and wildlife is easily seen as horses cause much less disturbance than the loud engine of an ATV.

The Flying W Ranch is a 600 acre privately owned dude ranch and the largest one on the East coast of the United States. There are many areas where the trail guides take guests with majestic views of the mountains and Tionesta Creek that runs just down the road from the ranch. Wildlife can be seen easily on most of the rides, including endangered species like the bald eagle. Black bears, coyotes, and timber rattle snakes are some of the more rarely seen wildlife that inhabits the Forest that surrounds the ranch.

In another area of the Forest is the Kane Research Station that was established in 1923 along with the Forest. It was implemented to conduct studies particularly for Pennsylvania and the Allegheny National Forest. Researchers there investigate the complex relationships among vegetation, animals, soils, nutrients, weather, and diseases that affect the Forest and cause significant damage. An example of when some of the research conducted at this center would have been vital would be when an F5 tornado ripped through the area. They research station was also responsible for helping the reforestation when the land was clear cut in 1923.

Driving Through the Forest
Commonwealth Media Services -
Leasurely drives through the hills are but one way to enjoy the regrown Allegheny National Forest.

On May 31, 1985 a tornado ripped across all of Northwestern Pennsylvania killing many and injuring hundreds. Its path took it through a large area of the Forest where it cut a path ¾ of a mile wide in some areas. The damage created by the tornado was 13,000 acres worth and around $10 million in timber destruction. “This is called a natural disturbance, in this case a wind disturbance,” states Rob Fallon. These occur about every 8-10 years in varying shapes and sizes and are included in the management and reforestation plans of the Forest Service.

 When the reforestation process was begun after the tornado went through, there were two types of reforestation allowed by the Forest Service, manmade and natural. The manmade reforestation was taking out the downed and damaged trees and replanting in that area as described above. The natural reforestation was to allow the downed trees to remain and create a different habitat for the wildlife that lived there. The trees seeded themselves and grew to a natural state.

The Allegheny National Forest has gone through radical changes from being a softwood forest, mostly beech and hemlock, to a brush filled barren landscape, to a profitable hardwood forest with numerous areas for recreation while still sustaining an active, natural forest. The numerous places allowed for recreation give almost any outdoors person the chance to enjoy time at the Forest. Reforestation and management techniques discovered by the Research Station and used by the Forest Service, have created the most sustainable and wildlife savvy habitat possible while entertaining thousands of people each year. Not to mention…it’s the home to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.