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Living in the Appalachian Forest

If you have aliens on your property, March is the month to take inventory. That’s because many of the most damaging ones leaf out way ahead of native plants. Scientists call the worst of these plants “invasives.” And invade they do, especially over on the former property of our logger-neighbor.

Back in 1991, before we owned this 120-acre piece, the logger went in and got most of the valuable trees. The only reason he didn’t get all of them was because his logging operation finally began polluting the waters of the commonwealth, i.e. our hollow stream that flows directly into the Little Juniata River. Because this logger had filed a Soil Erosion Control Plan and had not followed it, he was forced to close up his operation a little sooner than he had planned. By then, though, the damage was done. He had opened up most of a south-facing slope in what had been primarily a 100-year-old oak forest.

Since then, I have been monitoring the return of the forest. Not much has returned. Certainly not the oak trees. Despite leaving stumps that would theoretically sprout, as well as a few oaks as seed trees, the logger forgot to factor in the deer. The last time that forest was cut, in the late 1890s, the deer herd was gone in Pennsylvania. Oak trees easily sprouted from stumps. This time they were browsed off by deer. Only where the logger left piles of slash have some oak seedlings survived.

Otherwise, the native pioneering species–striped maples, black birch, and black locust–form a dense, low canopy in many places. The blackberries that sprang up are now mostly gone, grazed to death by the deer long before they were shaded out. The shrub layer, though, consists almost entirely of alien invasives. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Japanese barberry bushes dot the understory and already they have leafed out. So too have the multiflora rose bushes and common privet. Since we did not previously own this land, I didn’t walk on it until after the logging job so I’m not certain how many of these invasives were there before the logger did his work. I only know that in our uncut forest, there are only a few Japanese barberry shrubs and no multiflora rose or common privet.

The groves of ailanthus trees, which dominate some of the hardest logged areas, have not yet greened up. This “tree of heaven”–or “tree from hell,” depending on your perspective–is an Asian import that germinates quickly and crowds out native trees. It also thrives in disturbed landscapes. Once they are established, they are difficult to remove.

What should we do about all these invasives? Should we spray them with herbicides or should we hope that someday the natives will crowd them out? But one native–hay-scented fern–has also gotten out of control, blanketing many open areas in smothering fronds. Many landowners use herbicides on them too.

We have neither the money nor manpower to destroy all the invasives and long ago, when gypsy-moth spraying was advised, we decided never to use herbicides on our land. Instead, as we are doing with the rest of our forest, we are watching and monitoring the changes taking place and the plants that come and go.

As so-called nonindustrial, private forest owners (called NIPS by foresters), our management decisions and those of 500,000 other NIPS are important for the overall health of Pennsylvania’s forests. So I was pleased when I received a new book–Living in the Appalachian forest: True Tales of Sustainable Forestry –by Chris Bolgiano, which discusses NIPS as well as industrial land owners from Pennsylvania to Kentucky in an entertaining and informative way.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say right up front that Bolgiano attended the annual Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship picnic that we hosted back in 1999 and discussed our land management ideas, the Forest Stewardship Program, and the picnic in her book. I had chided her for not including Pennsylvania in her previous book–The Appalachian Forest: A Search for Roots and Renewal.

“Come see our part of the Appalachian forest and meet the people who live and work here,” I wrote to her. So she came.

It was a hot, humid day in mid-July. The tents were up, the porta-potties were in place, and the food van had arrived just ahead of the 140 people who were directed up our mile-and-a-half road up the hollow by a platoon of hunter friends. Other hunters helped them park on our mowed fields. They also led walks over our property and mingled with the forest stewards throughout the morning and afternoon programs, which were devoted to managing forest land for biodiversity. Since the hunters are an integral part of this, it was their job to convince the NIPS that allowing hunters on their land to keep the deer population in check would improve the health of their forests.

People were interested and many went home to find their own group of responsible hunters. As Bolgiano writes, “A disharmonic convergence of time and circumstances, involving the extirpation of predators, the protection of deer after nineteenth-century market-hunting extravaganzas, and the browse produced by extensive timbering, caused chronic deer irruptions throughout much of the twentieth century. Many other states had similar conditions and experienced similar results, but Pennsylvania was one of the worst examples.”

Another theme of our meeting was the virtue of managing through messiness. Nature does not like neatness. The more fallen trees and debris on a forest floor, the healthier the forest. Our management is, in essence, no management. “They wanted the natural processes that Marcia monitored with patient, loving, and scientifically informed observations to continue indefinitely without human disturbance,” Bolgiano correctly states.

What we do is just a small part of Bolgiano’s book. Most of the other NIPS she talks with are interested in active, but reasonable management. Many of them are incredibly innovative. Yet it is urgent that more NIPS educate themselves about how best to manage their forests. The eastern United States now supplies almost half the world’s demand for temperate hardwoods, but experts agree that such a rate of harvesting is not sustainable. Often, very little is left from logging operations to ensure that a new, healthy forest will regenerate. “It is,” Bolgiano says, “the greatest experiment in private forest ownership in the history of the world.”

To lose the diverse forest of the Appalachian Mountains, especially the southern half, would be to destroy “two hundred million years of steady plant evolution. Here began the development of trees from club mosses and horsetails into palm-like cycads, then magnolias and ginkgoes, then conifers, and finally the flowering hardwoods…These are the forests that time has chosen for its own,” Bolgiano writes.

The folks she portrays in her book are not representative of most Appalachian forest owners. They are pioneers stumbling toward sustainability in a wide variety of ways, having success as well as failure but willing to explore a new path between preservation and exploitation. She talks about how important it is to have consulting foresters plan and supervise timber sales for private forest owners and profiles Britt Boucher in Virginia, “a forester on the cutting edge of sustainability.” He is “committed to working toward certification from Smartwood…The Smartwood brand name designates wood products guaranteed to come from ecologically harvested forests, giving consumers the option of supporting sustainable forestry by buying certified wood.” He believes in ecosystem management and getting adjacent landowners to cooperate in the way they manage their forests.

“I try to pool knowledge and let everyone know what everyone else is doing” [on Doe Mountain in Virginia], he tells Bolgiano.

Presbyterian minister and internationally known theologian Richard Cartwright Austin farms on 160 acres in southwest Virginia. Austin was one of the first theologians to question the Christian religion’s relationship with the natural world.

“We need to develop a new moral relationship with nature,” he says. “The changes required of human society to give nature its due are so far-reaching and challenging, only love can induce them. If we come to protect the earth, it will only be because we have discovered a new delight in God through love of the beauty of nature…”

After first taking the advice of an extension agent to clear a hillside of brush and then watching his pond fill up with sediment from the eroded naked hillside, Austin found a skilled, low-impact logger who removed 50 trees from 50 acres which, to Austin, “feels sustainable.” Even though the logger had used a mechanical skidder, there was no bare ground, Bolgiano reports, “but a lush understory punctuated by an occasional stump.”

Austin has finally settled on a thirty-thirty forestry rule for his land–to take no more than 30% of his standing timber so that in thirty years the same species and ages of trees will be growing in his woods.

Organic chicken farmer, Harry Groot, is also interested in practicing sustainable forestry on his land. He thins his woods, taking out the less valuable trees so the better ones can flourish.

“My goal is to have a continuous canopy,” he says.

Using his portable Woodmizer, he cuts his trees into boards and then dries them in his solar kiln. He sells his boards locally. The scraps left over he uses for firewood and the sawdust becomes mulch.

For those landowners who don’t want to do their own cutting, horse loggers are a viable alternative. One of the best is Jason Rutledge of Floyd County, Virginia. But he doesn’t like to be called a logger.

“I’m a biological woodsman,” he insists.

He cuts the lowest instead of the highest value trees in an attempt not only to restore the forest but to improve it. This “low-grading” method creates better trees for later cutting cycles. Many of his ideas for growing a better forest are contrary to current forestry thinking, for instance, he never takes more than 30% of the forest canopy and always leaves a diverse habitat for wildlife. To get his logs out without leaving ruts in the forest floor, he uses an arch that lifts them high enough that they won’t gouge the ground.

Forests produce more than wood for humanity’s needs. These so-called “nontimber forest products” can be even more lucrative than logs. One of the best crops is ginseng and Sylvester Yunker grows it in an eastern Kentucky forest. He tries to imitate nature’s conditions so he can command the higher price dealers pay for wild ginseng. He is also trying to eliminate the middlemen by selling directly on the Internet. But Yunker, like many of the folks Bolgiano met, is interested in teaching his Appalachian neighbors his growing techniques not only to take the pressure off wild ginseng but to help them make a steady income.

Not all the innovative NIPS have happy endings to their stories and few make much of a profit, but Bolgiano has discovered many people trying to conserve forest biodiversity while providing valuable forest products for the market. Bolgiano also explains such foresty terms as high grading, Best Management Practices (BMPs), shelterwood system, streamside management zones, and value-added chains.

She ends with a chapter on industrial private forest owners–the timber and coal barons who have had and continue to have a lot of influence on the health of the Appalachian forests. The coal barons have created barrens of some of our most productive forests. Mountaintop removal is their latest degradation of the land. They remove whole mountaintops and dump them into the valleys, polluting streams and devastating the lives of many rural inhabitants of southwestern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. In Kentucky they’ve tried to make the best of a bad deal by reintroducing elk on the resulting “grasslands.” But Bolgiano finds it difficult to say anything good about that experiment.

She returned to Pennsylvania with her portrayal of northwestern Pennsylvania’s timber baron T.D. Collins whose grandson started Kane Hardwoods, the first commercial timber company in the United States to be certified by the prestigious Forest Stewardship Council. Although their harvesting methods take many more trees than selection cutting, they cut on long cycles–between 90 and 120 years, depending on the species–and cut less than 2% of their land every year.

Bolgiano herself owns 100 acres and makes it clear that she and her husband struggle with the same questions of sustainability as the subjects in her book. “Wood keeps us warm in the winter. Deer help feed us. I loop together wreaths from grapevines on Cross Mountain and decorate them with pieces of lichen and moss kicked up by the deer. Something sacred emanates from everything I see and smell and touch. A sense of the sacred is what I want to sustain in myself, and in my woods,” Bolgiano concludes.

None of us have all the answers, but it is worthwhile for us to ask questions–of ourselves, of the experts, and of our neighbors. Do we want future generations to enjoy forests as fine or finer than what we have now? Or do we want to take our profits and run, hoping that those who come after us will be clever enough to regenerate what little we left to them?

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For further reading, Bolgiano has one of the most comprehensive bibliographies on forestry issues that I’ve seen in any book written for a popular audience. Her extensive notes and index are also useful.

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