Some readers found it hard to believe when I wrote in my last book, A Sanctuary of Trees, that at least in the eastern half of the United States there is more woodland now than there was a hundred years ago. Just recently, a report out of Penn State’s Department of Agricultural Sciences corroborates that claim at least for the state of Pennsylvania. The details of the study, from James Finley, a professor in Forest Resources Management, are most interesting and reflect why the good news about trees is sometimes hard to believe. While woodland is losing ground in southern Pennsylvania where there is more “development”, it is gaining in the northern part of the state, where land previously in farms is going back to forest. Your view can be influenced by where you live. I think the news is even better for tree lovers than the study reveals because it doesn’t seem to take into account the trees on developed land, like in subdivisions. Such trees are not considered part of the potentially commercial woodland, which, as I harp in the book, is a mistake. In fact some surprisingly nice “old growth forest” can actually be found in older suburbs and city villages. A good place to see that is in Cleveland, Ohio which I happen to be familiar with. In fact, if you fly low over most of our cities and villages you will get the impression that parts of them from the air look like forest cover. If they were managed properly, those trees could become part of our supply of wood.
Pennsylvania, according to the study, is 59% forested, about what it has been for the last several decades. This is the case for other states east of the Mississippi, and some in the west too. We are so accustomed to reading about our “shrinking” forests that figures like this sometimes come as a surprise. As I wrote here recently, where I live, in a woodlot in Ohio, trees are far from shrinking violets— and in fact the violets too are full speed ahead under the trees.
Interestingly, some 71% of the forests in Pennsylvania are “privately owned by individuals, families, partnerships and other entities not in the business of harvesting and using trees.” There are some 738,000 such ownerships. Some 420,000 of them are smaller than ten acres. Also interesting is that while the number of trees has dropped slightly in the last five years, the established trees could produce 27 cords per acre where five years ago they were at the 22 cords per acre level. Obviously this wood is mostly not being utilized. And dead trees are rotting away on land that already has plenty of organic matter. In fact studies show that Pennsylvania’s forests are growing twice as fast as they are being harvested.
This is good news, I think, but since good management knows how to harvest wood in a way that does not diminish the forest, it can also be seen as a terrible waste of energy that comes to us cheaply by the power of the sun and the rain. As gas and oil become more expensive, not to mention that multi-billion dollar subsidized fiasco, ethanol from grain, this wood could become part of our energy program without diminishing the forests. It already is for many of us who heat at least partially with wood. The matter is all the more important because so much land once in cultivation or pasture is now being abandoned not only in Pennsylvania, but all over. I own some of that kind of land myself. It could be pasture AND forest but that’s another subject.
The negative news about our stable forest acreage is that some of it— lots of it— is not growing back yet to more desirable species like oak, maple, ash, walnut, hickory and wild cherry. On all those forest acreages under ten acres in size, as well as in all the yards around our homes, owners could, with only a little effort, be making sure that good hardwoods are growing there. All you have to do is give them a start and maybe a little protection from the deer and stand back. In the struggle for survival, wherever the rainfall is sufficient, the trees will win.
P.S. This being Thanksgiving, I want to thank all of you for your witty, wise, good-natured, and evocative responses to my writing. You are a precious bunch of people and I am extremely fortunate to have your attention.