DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Threatened by a Thousand Cuts
Pennsylvania’s vast forestlands are imperiled as their aging private owners divide and sell.
 
 

Many trees in Gary Hague's Wyoming County forest sprouted before he was born. Others were planted with his own rough hands. A memory seeded in the summer twilight a half-century ago grows there, too.

The deed says 99 acres "more or less," but it felt even bigger when Hague was 14 and his Uncle George said they needed to walk it. They left the clapboard farmhouse at dusk, mostly silent aside from waking insects, and followed the boundary lines in the long shadows.

When George Hague died in 1973, an attorney told his nephew the land was his.

JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Gary Hague at his Christmas tree farm and forest, inherited from his uncle, in Tunkhannock, Pa. Hague said his uncle tried to teach him about the land’s stewardship.

"I think he drew up his will that night after our walk," Gary Hague, 65, said from his kitchen table in the rancher that replaced the farmhouse. "I think he was trying to show me what stewardship was, that this is family, part of who we are."

He looked out the window at his inheritance.

"Sorry if I get a little emotional about it," he said. "When I was younger, I didn't get emotional, but the older I get, the more I feel."

With about 58 percent of its 28.6 million acres covered in forest, Pennsylvania still honors its namesake, "Penn's Woods," as one of the more heavily-wooded states in the country. The largest forests are several hours' drive from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in north-central Pennsylvania, in counties like Elk, Cameron and Clinton, but unbroken canopies roll across the horizon from all of the state's big highways.

It's often assumed that most Pennsylvania forestland is owned and protected by the state, the federal government, or nonprofit conservancies. But clues on country roads, the thousands of "No Hunting" signs tacked to trees and gated gravel roads, reveal what makes Penn's Woods unique: Nearly three-quarters of it is privately owned. And in a myriad of ways, endangered.

 

No single bogeyman threatens those vast private stands, totaling 11.5 million to 12.5 million acres. One report estimates that 300 to 600 acres of forest and farmland are lost each day, particularly in urban and suburban areas, though other reports suggest forests have grown more dense.

“The more green space we have, the healthier we’ll all be.”
Gary Hague

Some large tracts are owned by logging companies, which have made Pennsylvania the nation's largest producer of hardwoods. Its forests generate revenues of $5.5 billion, according to the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association.

Logging, if done selectively and accompanied by replanting, doesn't have to be a death knell. For serial tree killers, look to lethal pests like the emerald ash borer and the gypsy moth, choking invasive plants, and common whitetail deer that mow through the forest floor.

Gary Hague
"Owning this farm has really changed my life."
JESSICA GRIFFIN & DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographers
 

But those who try to divine the future of Pennsylvania's privately held woodlands are focused on one especially worrisome word: parcelization — the divvying up of properties into smaller and smaller bits.

Penn State's Center for Private Forests puts the current number of "woodland owners" at a startlingly high 740,000 — more than eight times as many as in New Jersey. Their average age is high, too: 57. Researchers would like to have a conversation about death and stewardship with every one of them.

Jim Finley, a retired Penn State forestry professor who founded the center in 2011, said the ranks of private owners have been growing by 10,000 annually, while the size of the tracts has shrunk.

JASON NARK / Staff
Jim Finley owns 270 acres in Elk County. He scoffs at the suggestion that his land is pristine, noting that the state’s woodlands have been razed, replanted, and managed since William Penn’s charter was drafted to require one acre of forest to be left standing for every five cleared.

"There are a lot of large parcels sold every day in Pennsylvania," Finley said. "What you're seeing is these parcels being broken up."

Here's just one way that parcelization can complicate conservation: If a 60-acre property is divided into 10-acre parcels, five like-minded owners could fight, united, against pests and invasive flora. But if the sixth owner planted fast-growing bamboo for decoration or cut down trees that blocked creek views, problems would creep across all 60 acres and the sediment would run downstream.

"This is not pie-in-the-sky theory. It's not hype. It's clean water, clean air, and wildlife habitat," Finley said. "It's absolutely vital that what we have stays as a functioning forest."

There's little time to dawdle. Given the aging population of owners, Penn State expects an "unprecedented transfer of forest ownership" in the next decade. Of those who responded to a poll, 80 percent said they intended to leave their land to heirs. But only 40 percent had had a conversation about it. And even fewer had a plan in place.

Gary Hague is the ideal — one of 3,081 owners who have had detailed "forest stewardship plans" written for their properties by consulting foresters. According to the state Bureau of Forestry, those plans cover only 52,417 acres, a fraction of what the Center for Private Forests would like to reach.

JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Gary Hague is trimming and preparing his crop of Christmas trees for the upcoming holiday season.

A consulting forester surveys the property, determines the percent of each species growing there and which invasives have moved in, and writes a management plan based on the owner's goals. If the owner needs to get money out of the land to pay taxes or upkeep, the forester will detail what can be logged and what should be planted to make a better habitat for wildlife and other trees.

"Forest stewards are the master gardeners of Pennsylvania's forests," Allyson Muth, the Center for Private Forest's associate director, said of owners with strategies for their land's well-being. "Ideally, they will also be the choir that reaches other forest owners."

Hague grows Christmas trees on his property to sell in Montgomery County.

"I can't just strip the land here. I don't just do whatever I want," Hague, a retired teacher, said. "The more green space we have, the healthier we'll all be."

JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Next door in New Jersey, almost 40 percent of the land is forested — surprising, since the state is the most densely populated in the country. But neither it nor Pennsylvania can approach the leafy marvel of Maine, at the top of the most-wooded list with 83 percent cover. Even there, though, the number of private owners is only 250,000 and the parcels are much bigger; in 2011, a billionaire from Colorado purchased a million acres.

Most Heavily Forested States

Pennsylvania is one of the most heavily forested states in the nation, and the proportion of New Jersey that is forested is close to the national average of 35 percent.

 
Note: Data does not include Alaksa or Hawaii
SOURCE: U.S. Forest Service

In Pennsylvania, the 20,000-acre Blooming Grove Hunting and Fishing Club in Hawley, Wayne County, is the largest privately owned forest, but right now in Elk County alone, properties of 7,150 acres and 9,894 acres are for sale. The latter, on the market for $31.5 million, is larger than Philadelphia's Fairmount Park. The smaller one, known as the North Fork Lodge, is owned by Kip Fulks, CEO of the Under Armour clothing line, and includes a historic hunting lodge. It's priced at $13.5 million.

In Luzerne County, an organization founded by former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Tim Tebow purchased a 3,000-acre property in Bear Creek Township. Tim Tebow Foundation representatives said he was unavailable to discuss the property.

Pennsylvania's Bureau of Forestry was once interested in purchasing the North Fork Lodge, Finley said, but the cost was prohibitive. Both it and the larger Elk County property have valuable timber, according to the listings, and any potential owners could draw money from them for a lifetime by logging out trees and planting new ones, one of the tenets of being a steward.

“We can’t preserve it, but we can conserve it.”
Jim Finley, retired Penn State forestry professor

The Center for Private Forests will likely reach out to the new owners, to offer a path for forest stewardship if they want it.

"We know that when land changes hands, quite often that's when things happened to it," Muth said. "Land can be subdivided and sold individually. There's a lot of transition that can happen."

The properties come with a bundle of rights — layers of ownership that can be sold off to make money but also, increasingly, to conserve the forest without losing access to it. For instance, an owner could sell the rights to the natural gas beneath him to a company in Oklahoma, and sell development rights to a land trust that would bar future owners from building on it or breaking it up.

"We can't preserve it," Finley said, "but we can conserve it."

If forest stewards are Pennsylvania's master gardeners, one would expect Finley's 270 acres in Elk County to be pristine. He scoffs at the word, noting that the state's woodlands have been razed, replanted, and managed since William Penn drew up his charter requiring that one acre of forest be left standing for every five cleared. Still, by 1907, the state's forest cover had gone from 90 percent to its nadir, 32 percent; it rebounded to more-or-less current levels by the mid-1960s.

Finley happens to have a bad neighbor — a PennDOT property where invasive plants run riot.

During a soggy tour of Finley's property last month, rain pooled between the trees and flowed down through the dark hemlocks toward his favorite place, the confluence of two creeks. The normally clear, babbling trout stream raged like a torrent of chocolate milk, fed by surface water from nearby roads and a PennDOT culvert. "I've never seen it with that much water in it," he said, nearly yelling.

JASON NARK / Staff
Jim Finley, a retired forestry professor and founder of Penn State's Center for Private Forests, walks his entire property every spring looking for invasive plants.

Finley also saw what most people would miss: the faint rise of old rail lines that hauled out the mighty white pines that once grew there.

"These trees were probably approaching 200 feet in height," he said, pointing to a stump twice as wide as any tree around it. "That stump was cut 100 years ago."

People don't like to think about death, let alone iron out succession plans, but for many forest stewards, a walk in the woods is a meditation on mortality. Moss-covered stumps left by long-gone loggers feel like tombstones, but in every square centimeter, beetles and wormholes and woodpeckers churn detritus into earth, and saplings burst out each spring to fight for the sun.

Some heirs see that circle in action and want to protect it. Some just see trees and want to cash out.

"There are children who don't want to break the connection to the forest, and we have to tools to address that now," said Karen Hackman, an estate planning lawyer from Snyder County.

Hackman works with the Center for Private Forests training professional foresters on how to talk with owners about succession planning. She also hashes out the plans with the owners and heirs themselves, "an increasingly bigger part of what I do," she said. "I get it. I spent a lot of time outdoors."

Sue Benedict doesn't need to stare at rotting trees to find transcendence at Beartown, the 2,000-acre forest she inherited from her father near State College in Centre County. She's too busy repairing circle-of-life damage.

"Porcupines chew off the wood, the bees get in, and then the bears try to eat the bees," she said, pointing to deep gouges in the siding of the spartan hunting camp there.

Her grandfather, William Carey Shoemaker, bought Beartown in 1943, mostly for timber, turkey, and deer. He once flipped a truck on the Rattlesnake Pike, the road in and out of the property, but left it toppled like a turtle so he could go hunt gobblers.

JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Sue Benedict at Beartown, the 2,000-acre forest she inherited near State College in Centre County. Along with a camp, she inherited generations of hunters and said she had to lay down rules to conserve the game.

When Shoemaker died, Benedict's father, Lewis Shoemaker, entered into a court battle against his siblings to exercise his pre-existing option to purchase the land. He won, but his relationship with his family, including his mother, never recovered.

"When my grandfather died, my father basically lost his whole family," Benedict said. "They were determined to sell it."

Benedict, 59, and her brothers vowed to not let that happen when they became the caretakers of Beartown in 2006. Their father's second marriage complicated things, and when he flirted with signing a conservation easement that would have preserved the land but heavily restrict its use, Benedict told him she'd probably move out West.

Susan Benedict
"I really think that this is worth keeping."
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
 

"We would have had the land, but we wouldn't have been able to make money off it," she said. "We wouldn't have been able to live there, and if they decided they didn't want hunting on it, we wouldn't have been there at all."

Today, Benedict lives in a small house deep in Beartown with husband Leroy and son Zach, and although she works full-time as an accountant in State College, generating revenue for upkeep and taxes takes up nearly as much time. She has a trusted logger, whom she calls one of the "last, real mountain men," and a 3-D map constantly in motion in her head of what's growing, what's floundering, and what's being eaten by deer.

Along with the camp, Benedict inherited generations of hunters, and laid down a rule about what she wanted them to shoot and what they should let live. She promised them bigger antlers if they were patient. Benedict hunts, too, and hosts biologists, botanists, foresters, and an alphabet soup of agencies that offer advice, and funding, if she plants flora that attracts pollinators and creates habitat for migratory birds and wildlife.

JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Sue Benedict’s grandfather bought Beartown in 1943. Her father went to court to keep the property in the family – and in the process became alienated from his mother and siblings who wanted to sell. Benedict and her siblings vowed to not let that happen when they became the caretakers of Beartown in 2006.

Sometimes, she plants stuff she likes to look at. "Girly stuff like flowering crabapple and dogwood and white birch," she said.

Soon, wind turbines will pass through a ridge on Beartown, bringing in another revenue stream. Benedict won't love looking at them, like 300-foot white daisies with broken petals, but saying yes means neighboring forest owners up and down the line could have them, too.

Benedict will pass Beartown and its upkeep to her three sons. She rooted the boys there the same way William Carey Shoemaker did with his son, who did the same with her. She'll sow the same seeds in her grandchildren as long as she can, pushing saplings into the earth while the warblers sing, hoping all roots will someday intertwine.

"All of us are tied in, physically, emotionally, to Beartown," she said. "There's a blood-spilled investment in this land."

Reporter: Jason Nark Editor: Kathy Hacker Visuals editor: Frank Wiese Graphics and Design: Jared Whalen Photography: Jessica Griffin Video: Jessica Griffin & David Swanson Project Managers: Ellen Dunkel & Emily Babay

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