Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A History of Penn's Woods

Every forest is different, and you’ll need to learn your own forest. However, as an example, I’ll tell you the story of my woods, Penn’s Sylvania, whose history roughly parallels, in perhaps exaggerated form, the fate of much of the Eastern Woodland.

The Forest Primeval
As the Land measures time, woodlands are new to Pennsylvania.  Eighteen thousand years ago, the northern portion of the state was covered with ice, and the rest was a mix of tundra and boreal forest. As the ice receded, species from the south moved in found a home here.

Native Forests

When Europeans arrived, what we now call Pennsylvanian was heavily forested, the woods broken by rivers, scattered wetlands, and small cleared areas housing villages. Popular telling would have it that Native Americans lived with the land in its primeval state, but that is not the case. Native American agriculture was complex, sophisticated, and involved carefully tending and cultivating the forest to their own ends. Fossil pollen and charcoal preserved in bogs and lakes all across the eastern woodlands tell us of the widespread use of forest fire by the Native Americans. With it, they managed vast acres of forest, creating open galleries of forest along river banks and cleared grasslands and fields for the cultivation of domesticated crops, such as beans, corn, and squash. What we think of as the “natural” landscape of Pennsylvania, oak and maple dominated forests are a product of that tradition of large-scale burning, which encouraged prized species, like oak and maple, and discouraged others.

Cutting Down the Trees
As European settlement moved west, they cut down the trees, and killed off much of the forest wildlife, especially large predators like wolves, in order to make room for farms, towns, and villages. Wood that wasn’t used as building material was often burned cavalierly, just to get it out of the way. The first trees to fall were those that made for the best lumber. Eastern white pines, with their tall, straight trunks were an early target. In the mid 1700s, white pine logs 120 feet long and 4 feet in diameter were routinely cut in the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania, lashed into huge rafts, and floated down the Delaware river to make masts for British ships. Next fell the Hemlocks, whose bark was used to tan leather. Oak and chestnut were felled to be burned into charcoal. An iron furnace required about 30,000 acres of forest to sustain it. Finally, there came the final phase, the so-called “Great Clearcut”. The railroad allowed loggers access to the interior of the state, far from the rivers that used to be needed to transport timber. Small railways criss-crossed the entire state; today those old rail beds for the basis of our network of hiking trails. By 1900, less than 32% of Pennsylvania was old-growth forest, down from 90-95% before colonization.

Clearcutting often led to fire, set by sparks from the railroad, flames spread quickly through the brush and slash left after logging. This devastation began the spark of conservatism that saved our remaining woods, and cares for them today. In 1895, Dr Joseph Rothrock became the Commissioner of the newly formed State Division of Forestry, and began to develop the system of forest reserves (now called state forests). Begun in 1897, by 1904, the system held about half a million acres. But forest recovery is slow work. Trees had to be planted by hand, and take decades to mature. And then came new threats.

In the early 1900s, the American Chestnut comprised almost 30% of Pennsylvania hardwoods. In addition to the tastiness of it’s nuts, American Chestnut is an important medicine plant, and spirit ally. In 1904, Philadelphia land owners noticed their chestnuts growing ill. In less than 20 years, the illness spread across the Eastern Woodlands, leaving American Chestnut almost extinct. Today, there are still very few large chestnuts; they’ve been nearly wiped out by a fungal infection called Chestnut Blight. The American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation, who works to breed blight-resistant trees, can provide more details on how you can help restore this beloved tree to our Eastern Woodlands. Gypsy moths, an invasive predator from Eurasia, reached our shores in the 1920s, and began eating our woodlands bare. Ironically, it was the Great Depression that did the most to conserve our woods. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration paid thousands of men to replant our forests, and to build trails, shelters, and other conservation work.

Our Modern Penn’s Sylvania

Only a few fragments of old growth forest remain, the largest is a Tionesta Scenic and Natural Area in Allegheny National Forest. And yet, the forest has returned, albeit in a new form. New-growth forest today covers about 59% of Pennsylvania, about 30% of it on public land. The people of our Commonwealth own more than four million acres of woods; 2.1 million acres of state forest, 270,000 acres in our state parks, and 1.4 million acres of State game lands. Additionally, the Allegheny National Forest, at about 500,000 acres, is the largest federal forest in the eastern woodlands. But, our woods are still under attack. In the 1990s, Pennsylvania had the most acidic rain in the country, causing widespread forest damage.

Invasive plants dispace our native ones, particularly Norway maple, Japanese knotweed, and autumn olive. Foreign pests and diseases, particularly wooly adelgid, which kills hemlocks, and Asian long-horned beetles, damage a wide variety of our native trees. Sadly, however, it is a native species which causes the most damage. White-tail deer, themselves a valued and beloved native of our woodlands, are one of the gravest threats to our woods. The clear-cutting of the late 1800s left our forests a deer’s paradise of brush and seedlings. Populations exploded. With their natural predators eliminated and hunting severely restricted, Pennsylvania’s forests now host historically unprecedented populations of up to sixty deer per square mile, more than 6 times as densely populated as when Europeans arrived in Pennsylvania.  Deer are now the “lynchpin” species of our forests, dictating the composition of the ecosystem. They eat many species of shrubs, wildflowers, and other low-lying plants, after which the denuded forest floor is invaded by non-native species deer don’t like to eat.  It is for this reason that I advocate a dramatic increase in deer hunting in PA.  It would return the forest to a more natural state; with natural predators nearly gone, it falls to humans to pick up that task.  It would bring more people into our beloved woods where they too will doubtless fall in love, bringing a large number of traditionally Republican voters into the environmentalist cause.  Finally, it would decrease consumption of factory farmed meat; venison is delicious and healthy.  

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