How Wild Are State Forest Wild Areas?

Hikers in PA Wilds

Courtesy Dave Coleman

Wild Enough for Old Growth Forest Restoration

By Dave Coleman

State Forest Wild Areas are vitally important in the effort to bring back old growth forests in Pennsylvania. 

The state lands closest to the classification of wilderness are State Forest Natural Areas, and there can be no doubt that these areas are important in the effort to bring back old growth forests to Pennsylvania. However, it is our second growth forests, best represented in State Forest Wild Areas, which have a better chance of returning the forest to its original condition. 

Natural Areas in our state forest system contain most of the state’s old growth forests, which were spared the clear-cutting of Pennsylvania 100 years ago and include a diversity of plant life, a wide age-range among the trees, and a large amount of decaying wood that supports many species of mosses and fungi. These natural areas are the healthiest and diverse forest ecology in the state, and most resemble the ancient forests of Pennsylvania. But natural areas are too small to provide enough undisturbed habitat for many important species of plants and animals, and at just a few hundred acres each, they are highly susceptible to loss from a single natural catastrophic event.

On the other hand, State Forest Wild Areas, which are mostly comprised of second growth forests—areas that have been clear-cut just once—are each comprised of thousands of acres. Many wild areas contain valuable watersheds, while others encompass entire mountains and/or unique forest ecosystems. Preserving state forest wild areas allow ecosystems to emerge and recover, protect high-quality water systems, make possible the reintroduction and recovery of many wildlife species, including large predators, and offer recreational wilderness experiences.

Third and fourth growth forests that have been clear-cut two and three times, respectively, have much lower levels of bio-diversity than second growth lands and are difficult for the foresters to regenerate, which is why it is vital that we do not convert our valuable second growth forests to third growth.

Although our present state forest management is quite different than the un-bridled clear- cutting of 100 years ago, even the seemingly enlightened “harvesting” of trees from a second-growth forest deeply disturbs the forest ecology. Cutting trees eliminates a forest’s closed canopy and results in less downed-wood, which in turn impacts wildlife by altering, and in some cases, destroying their habitat. Timber extraction is hard enough for a forest-ecology to survive once, let alone repeatedly every 80 to 100 years.

So, can our second growth forest tracts return to something resembling old-growth conditions? A look at the Charles E. Lewis Natural Area would suggest so. A hundred years after it was clear-cut, this forest now closely resembles the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area: the former a second growth forest, the latter an old-growth area.

Unfortunately, our second growth forests are particularly attractive to foresters when their trees are around 100 years old. But it is at just this age that forests start regaining a healthy bio-diversity and take on old-growth traits. And each successive cut of the trees means there is less chance of a return to the old-growth forest conditions that support so much of the diverse plant and animal life in our state.

Dave Coleman has served as chair of the Moshannon Group and co-chair of the Chapter's public lands committee.

Published August 2005