Tending Change On the Michaux: Can Nature Be Improved On?

The South Mountain Partnership is proud to feature a communications partnership with the Michaux State Forest, the core of our region and heart of the South Mountain, by bringing you a new perspective straight from the forest in this column written in conjunction with the Bureau of Forestry staff and the Friends of Michaux.


Tending Change On the Michaux:  Can Nature Be Improved On?

June 1, 2022

We like forests because they are natural. Whether we trust to their resilience and natural ability to “grow back;”  or we feel any human impact is inherently a disruption of a forests natural state:   “Naturalness” as an idea drives public perception about how well we’re doing our job as public forest managers.

But what does “natural” mean?

Obviously, it has something to do with nature; of being a part of or in a “state” of nature. So, what’s “nature”?  Is it something we as humans can be a part of?  Or does that make it unnatural?  Forests, butterflies, oceans, a starry night, or even a thunderstorm or hurricane are all part of nature.  We often associate such things with beauty.  Peace.  Tranquility.  Grandeur.  Or, yes, scary destructive powers beyond our control.

Ironically, we also use the word “nature” to refer to the human state of being: individually and collectively.  It’s human nature for siblings to squabble.   Human nature, which motivates individuals and groups to advance their own self-interests, forms the backbone of our economic theories and policies.  Human nature cares for the same siblings squabbled with.  It motivates concern, generosity, and even self-sacrifice for the stranger on the street — or on the other side of the world.   Human nature adheres to social norms that bridle avarice, corruption, aggression, and exploitation even when doing so may not advance self-interest in the short term.  And human nature consistently throws off such bridles to engage in individual and collective behaviors that stretch and rend the fabric of social and ecological systems.

The idea that nature can be improved upon – both human nature and the natural world – has fueled much of humanity’s cultural development over the past 10,000 years as humans in every area of the globe developed new tools, organizational systems, and approaches to land use to advance the human enterprise.

But can it?

Can we make the world better than it “naturally” is?  Can we become better humans than we are–based on our nature?   These are questions we grapple with on the Michaux.  If we can improve the forest we tend and the people we are, what does that look like?  What vision of the future forest, our future humanity, our future world will appeal powerfully and long enough to our collective aspirations that we work together to make it a reality?  if not for ourselves – then for our children and their children and their children?  Where do we go for inspiration for and investment in this kind of tending work?

We can’t recreate the conditions in forests on this mountain or the fertile valleys that surround it that were tended and used by indigenous people.  Or replicate the conditions caused when early Europeans  cleared and used.  Those using this forest today have different needs, different cultural values, and different understandings of how the world works. We manage the forest for both the natural and human elements currently interacting within and around it.  Hopefully, we can make something out of that interaction that is as sustaining and restorative of both “forest nature” and “human nature” as it can possibly be.   While we gain insights and ideas from the past, trying to preserve or recreate past forest or cultural conditions is like trying to make a copy of the Mona Lisa.  It’s an interesting exercise, but ultimately doomed to fail the needs and expectations of our time.

History looks back, but ecology, culture, and ecosystems always move towards yet to be determined future conditions.  Our decisions and actions today set the frame of the possible for the future.

It takes at least three generations to tend a new forest stand from seedling to high quality sawlog or large diameter cavity tree!  It takes at least seven generations to tend new forest systems – where successional stages and habitat niches begin to carve the landscape into heterogeneous patchwork of “natural” communities — into being.  So whatever this improved “nature” looks like, it will not happen without both a short and long term vision coupled with the intentionality, investment, and hard work to leverage us towards improbably desirable future conditions one year, one decade, one century at a time.

Tending forests is physically, intellectually, socially, and emotionally challenging.   The rewards are often payed forward while the costs and effort need to be fronted now.   It requires extreme effort, stubborn resilience, and the patience of rock.  Those characteristics do not couple easily in our human nature; either as individuals or as groups.  So, tending always feels extremely tenuous too.

But it is also joyful work.  Especially when, like on the Michaux, it is energized, directed, and supported by a continuous community of care that shares the burden of moving it forward into the future.

Here’s some things others in the district have to say about their efforts in this work on the Michaux.


Forest Tending on Private Lands  By John Schwartzer

As the Michaux State Forest service forester, or private lands forestry educator, for Cumberland and Franklin counties, I have seen the best and worst that people attempting forest management on private lands can do to a forest. It is in our nature to try to conquer, harness, or meddle with our forests. We as a population would not exist without the use of forests as a direct food source, building material supply house, water purification plant, soil building factory, and mental health institution. We are in the debt of the 29 odd million acres that we call Pennsylvania. And after untold generations of humans utilizing the forest for all the previously mentioned life sustaining uses, we still have roughly 17 million acres of forest. And today, the bulk of that forest acreage in Pennsylvania is privately owned.


Some of those privately owned forest tracts are as pristine as we could wish for; untouched and “natural” as far as our definition can go. Exponentially more of our forests have been cut over, converted to agricultural or other uses, allowed to convert back to forests, cut over again, invaded by alien insects, diseases, plants, and animals; then cut over again. Forests persist. The nature of forests is to resist, adapt, and overcome our best efforts to destroy them.  But in the process, forests often drastically change the makeup of the vegetative communities they are comprised of.  Frequently, what’s there is not so much a result of “natural” forces as it is the result of the human enterprise utilizing land largely without regard to tending native forest plants and animals as a living biological system at either the ownership, community, or landscape scale.


For seven years, I have worked with landowners to manage their forests. Some attempt to tend their piece of forest into, a productive sustainable system. Some landowners are interested in protecting their forests from threats just over the horizon, some would like to figure out how to foster the stewardship of their forested acres in perpetuity.   I attempt to bring the cultural and evidence-based knowledge the forestry community has accumulated to help inform their decision making.  Ultimately, private land forestry reflects human values and concerns.  And it needs to turn these values and concerns into some sort of measurable objectives that can be used to set and monitor forest conditions and guide tending decisions and actions.  Whether forest farming, timber, birdwatching, hunting, climate change resilience, aesthetic beauty, or wildlife habitat, or timber income is the goal; the short- and long-term tending challenges faced by private forest owners are often similar: native and introduced diseases, insects, and invasive plants; over browsing by deer; legacy land use impacts such as compaction, poorly laid out access roads, and abandoned junk piles; and of course, timber harvesting and utilization practices or other decisions made in the distant or recent past, or on adjacent properties, that increase the degree and impact of any one or combinations of the above.


But none of that is unique to the private forest context.  We deal with those realities on public lands as well.  So what are some of the key differences between tending practices on private and public lands that impact how much “naturalness” can be sustained within the forest component held in private lands here in the South Mountain?  And how do those differences impact the nature of private lands forestry or the naturalness of forests on private lands?


Consider this a starting point for our future discussions about the private forest context within the South Mountain region:

Length of tenure:  The average length of ownership of private lands in Pennsylvania is around thirteen years.  Most landowners are older, and few have a succession plan for their forests that will enable any investments made in forest tending or stewardship to continue beyond their tenure.  It often takes about fifteen to twenty years to successfully establish a diverse layer of advanced tree and shrub seedlings in a forest understory.  Unfortunately, many landowners spend the better part of their tenure trying to figure out when to cut any remaining trees of value rather than establishing a healthy, diverse forest on the ground for the next generations to tend.

Size:  The average private forest property is somewhere around 20 acres.  Parcel lines on these acres are almost never ecologically defined; so many of the most “natural” aspects of forest as biological systems (matching forest community type to edaphic features such as soils, topography, elevation) are even more severely fragmented by ownership boundaries and decision making.

Economic value:  Ownership size directly impacts the economic costs and benefits of forest land.   Whether contracting forestry services or selling timber, as with any other economic enterprise; scale matters.   The small scale and short ownership of private forests generates significant ownership costs which can act as a disincentive to long-term decision making and tending investments. Those with a greater degree of discretionary wealth or income are frequently more economically enabled to practice sustainable forestry by absorbing tending costs while delaying or re-investing income opportunities from their forestlands.  Those with less discretionary wealth will often liquidate standing timber inventory to relieve other ownership costs.  Sweat equity and practitioner knowledge can help level the playing field in some cases; that’s where programs from USDA/NRCS and the work of DCNR service foresters can come into play.

Access:  Most private landowners these days post their lands against public use.  In contrast, public lands – from township and county parks to state game lands and forests, to national park and forest lands provide public access for a wide range of outdoor recreational benefits that support community wellbeing beyond that of the individual owners.  Sometimes private landowners decide to post their property based on a faulty understanding of their personal liability if someone is hurt on their property.  Under Pennsylvania law, private landowners who provide public access for outdoor recreation such as hunting, fishing, and hiking are afforded better protection from liability than if they post their lands.  The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s and the Fish and Boat Commissions both have public access programs that help enhance the recreational benefit private forests provide the local community.  Some conservancies and trail clubs are also looking for opportunities to link private lands together with trail use easements to increase the amount of access and recreational value private forests provide in the region.

Decision making process:  Private land decision making is often guided by the thoughts and inclinations of a single individual.  Even in the case of a property owned jointly by spouses, it is usually the case that the “woods” is of greater concern and interest to one or the other.

Practitioner knowledge and self-identity as a forest tender or steward:  Perhaps the biggest difference between public and private forests is that as public land managers; we know our job is to tend the forest.  It’s why we have jobs, and people expect us to take care of them for current and future generations.  Private landowners are under no such obligation, though many of them demonstrate tremendous care, self-sacrifice, and ingenuity as forest tenders.  We call these our rock-star forest stewards, and we hope to feature some of these forest tending role models from our region in upcoming editions of this newsletter.


In sum, owning private forest land allows an opportunity for individuals to efficiently apply their rights of landownership to decisions that will impact not just their own forest parcel, but the landscape ecology, recreational opportunity, and sense of place of their local community.   While many go about pursuing such rights without feeling overly burdened with consideration about what cultural, ethical, or moral responsibilities they owe to the forest or their surrounding community as part of a biological system or human neighborhood; many also intrinsically feel such responsibilities towards their forests, their land, and their neighbors.   Nor do individual landowners have to ask questions about how the tending of their forests will affect the viability of a local mom and pop logging company or sawmill in their neighborhood, or the sustainability of migratory songbirds along a critical ridgetop, or the safety of wildland firefighters who may need to protect their land from forest fire.   No individual landowners should feel solely accountable for such considerations.   But collectively, private forest landowners and other local stakeholders of the local benefits of forests should have interest in thinking about and discussing such questions at the level of their local township or municipality.  They should have an interest in seeing such questions talked about and thoughtfully addressed in all the levels of local government that they are a part of, and where the fabric of our local land resources and our local human communities are knitted together  through the authority of Pennsylvania’s Municipal Planning Code.


The mission of the Bureau of Forestry is to demonstrate and promote sustainable forestry within the Commonwealth.  The best way for us to advance that mission is to cast the broadest possible net into our local communities and encourage everyone to recognize that all forests are critical to our quality of life as both individuals and communities; that tending forests on both large and small scales is both challenging, yet joyful work.  And that it’s work that can’t be done in a vacuum, whether on private or public forest ownerships.  Forest tending, no matter where it happens, requires us to think aspirationally and in the long-term; while motivating us to get busy and invest in our land, our family, our neighbor, our forest, and our future together starting here and starting now.  It’s work that needs to be sustained together and across generations, because one person’s passion and commitment to sustaining “natural” forests on any part of the landscape isn’t going to serve either the best part of human or forest nature for as long as it is needed.


There is so much that everyone can do to help us advance this mission, whether they are a private forest landowner (or a landowner, period!), township supervisor, public school educator, member of the forest industry, or someone interested in advancing the carrying capacity of local landscapes for wildlife and outdoor recreational opportunities.


My starting list of “you can do it” ideas might surprise you:

Buy, eat, and make friends locally:   When we do business in our local neighborhoods, support our local farmers and farmers markets (or eat venison from our local woodlots!), buy our wood and wood products from local firms or wood artisans, and learn to know and care for the well-being of our closest neighbors on the landscape, we often find ways to build a network of human care and synergy that transcends the artificial lines of property ownership which have fragmented our landscape ecologies and biological systems.

Get involved in county and township government:   Pennsylvania has a strong tradition of Commonwealth government.  Going back to the William Penn Charter of 1680, the civic structure of our state government has always placed a premium on individual liberty (particularly freedom of religion) and “self-rule” at the local level of government.  Township meetings and zoning board hearings are opportunities to figure out how to most optimally share both the individual rights and responsibilities that will most express your values and concerns as an individual.  They provide you opportunities to invest in the community life of your neighborhood in ways that can help solve short and long term problems for yourself, your neighbors, and future generations.  If you really care (and are really gutsy!) run for township supervisor!

Grow native plants (especially trees and shrubs!):  Natural Forestry is really just wild/native plant gardening.  The more we learn about pollinator and bird species decline, the more we need to expand our definition of “forests” and “naturalness” to include all native plant species that help sustain a viable food web everywhere on the landscape.   Native woody trees and shrubs have some added advantages in improving the quality of life for both humans and wildlife in that they provide persistent vertical “structure” that increases the amount of habitat benefit on a per acre basis and year around.  They also cast more shade during hot summer months,  reduce wind speeds and wind chill in the winter; mitigate flooding risk, and sequester more carbon than other plants.  Converting turf to native woody cover brings out the best in both the naturalness of our landscape, and the naturalness of our human nature!  Filling in the spaces between your long lived native woody perennials with native wildflowers and grasses will sustain both color, beauty, and biology around you through all seasons, no matter what size acreage you tend.  And spending less time on the lawn mower and more time walking through your own little corner of nature will make you a better human.


In future articles, we’ll get far more into the challenges and opportunities of tending for the best possible expression of “nature” in our regions forests and communities, including a riff on this theme from the perspective of our Michaux Forest Ranger staff, given the unique perspective their role as law enforcement officers on the Michaux provides on both human and forest “nature.”


Until then, give us your feedback on this and other themes or topics you’d like to see in future editions of this newsletter column.


Here’s the update on the Michaux as spring heats up into summer:

  • The Friends of Michaux hosted an educational tour of the stream habitat improvement work Michaux foresters have been working on for the past several years on Mountain creek. There is a short video of the event starring Bureau of Forestry Stream Ecologist Nate Reagle and Michaux Assistant District Forester Michael Wright.  Of course, the Friends group is also always open to good ideas for future events that would be valuable to SMP newsletter readers.  Of course, they are also always looking for new members, business partners, and donor investors as well!  So get in touch and join the team on the Michaux no matter your level of interest in the forest!
  • Michaux District Forest is partnering with Shippensburg University and the Bureau of Forestry’s Forest Fire Protection division to host our annual Wildland Fire Academy this week. This is a major training effort the Bureau puts on to ensure Pennsylvania maintains capacity and professional standards in our wildland and prescribed fire suppression and management efforts.   If you see a lot of yellow shirts and extra equipment on the forest this week and weekend, don’t be alarmed.  Lots of fire exercises; but no actual fire.  Please feel free to recreate as usual!
  • Long Pine Reservoir is a popular destination when the weather heats up. We apologize for the lack of aesthetic appeal around the parking area.  We thought we were being cost effective in having the site cleared for a parking area and latrine installation upgrade that we thought would be bid out and built within a couple months.  And then the pandemic happened.  We will get there. . . it will get done.  Thanks for your patience.
  • Summer is event season on the Michaux. And road work season. And bridge replacement season.  For a review of some of the major events and projects planned for this summer and approximate timeframes, please see our annual activity plan here.


That’s all for now.  Till fall, stay as natural as possible!