Tending Change on the Michaux: Who’s the Habitat For?

Tending Change on the Michaux:  Who’s the Habitat For?

April 1, 2022

The South Mountain Partnership is proud to announce a new 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 monthly column written in conjunction with the Bureau of Forestry staff and the Friends of Michaux.

Most people equate forestry with timber management and logging operations.  Indeed, that is the most obvious work we do on the Michaux.  Because it yields economically valuable timber products and is frequently done through commercial harvesting contracts; many assume this part of our tending work is being driven strictly by economic demands.

It isn’t.  Sometimes what’s most obvious disguises what’s most important.  Commercial timber management is one tool we use to tend Michaux habitats for forest dependent wildlife species.

Michaux is an anomaly within the state forest system because it represents over 90% of remaining forest habitat within the South Mountain eco-region.  Eco-regions are delineated based on their underlying geology, which in turn shapes landscape and watershed ecology.  So the Michaux is uniquely responsible for species such as the ruffed grouse and eastern brook trout who have been part of the South Mountain story for millennia.  We don’t want their populations to decline or disappear under our watch.  Since our eco-regional habitat conditions at the tip of the Blue Ridge mountain range are unique, the genetic diversity represented in our grouse and brook trout populations are also unique; and a critical biological asset to ensuring the future adaptability of the species.  Early successional species like grouse need dense young forest growth on the landscape.  Healthy streams require diverse an abundant insect diversity on the landscape, also better supported with a mosaic of young and old forest types at the watershed level.  Some biologists call Ruffed grouse feathered brook trout, given how both species are best sustained by diverse forest types and age classes at the watershed level.

Grouse and brook trout are just the tip of the iceberg of our habitat management tending objectives.  A lot of other species need to be “drug along” into Michaux’s future too.  So, a lot of questions confront us: Which species matter most, and why?  What do we do when habitat conditions that benefit one species pose risks for others?  If we could identify “optimal” habitat conditions for all the species the Michaux currently supports; what resources and time would we need to achieve and sustain those conditions?

We don’t have complete answers to such questions.  But we do have some goals we’re working on to help shift the probability of long-term survival of species like grouse, brook trout, and other wildlife species critically dependent on Michaux habitats as far as possible in the positive direction.   You can read a little bit more about these goals in our District management plan online at PDFProvider.ashx (pa.gov).  Most relevant pages are pp. 20-30, 46-47, and 50-51.

Think about your own answers to the questions above.  They’re important questions for everyone to grapple with and participate in.  Besides, habitat related topics create lots of interesting wormholes for us to explore in greater detail in future Tending articles. And goals are only as good as our willingness and ability to work on them together.

The Michaux is habitat for people, too.  Human demand for habitat on the Michaux is another way that it is an anomaly as a state forest.  If you look at the Pennsylvania landscape from the arc of large cities and suburbs running from Philly to DC, the Michaux jumps out as the first green landing pad of public lands large enough to spend a week exploring close to home.  It has greater population density around its landmass than any other contiguous state forest acreage of comparable size.  While the average parcel size adjoining the Michaux is somewhere in the ball-park of 20+ acres, there are a lot of much smaller residential parcels sharing the forest’s boundary.

Why does all this matter?

Because if it’s logical to ask the question, “Which species matter most?” extending that logic to the forest’s use as human habitat is unavoidable!  Demographic variables such as these largely dictate who uses the Michaux and how it gets used as human habitat.

They certainly dictate how Michaux staff use their time.  Whether it is responding to a boundary line hazard tree concern, transferring lease paperwork on a leased campsite, completing a special activity agreement for a girl scout camping expedition or mountain bike race, or responding to ingress and egress issues raised by inholding landowners — these public interactions take precedence for us on a daily basis given their legally explicit demands.

Though our organizational mandate supports expectations for well-designed and sustainable trail systems for spontaneous users and welcoming and educational signage at campsites and trailhead areas, meeting such public expectations frequently gets forced to the margins of our “day jobs.”   Or, even more likely, relegated to our Friends Group for assistance.

This should not register as a complaint, because it isn’t.  But it is our reality.

If the point of this column is to get better at Tending Change on the Michaux with its surrounding community of care, directing our collective energy towards who and what matters most on it both now and in the future with care, creativity, and efficiency is critical work we need to do together.

We’ve mentioned several times in this article that the Michaux is an anomaly within the state forest system.  It’s an anomaly like a canary in a coal mine is an anomaly.  It deserves paying close attention to.  It deserves tending.  Because when we do, we learn to care better for ourselves — as citizens, communities, and forest dependent creatures.

To close, as winter transitions to spring on the Michaux in 2022, here’s some specific updates on the ongoing narrative of this forest:

  • ADF Mike Wright reports he saw half a dozen woodcock doing their mating flights up at the Bunker Hill site the other evening. We’ve been working the past five years to remove invasive species and restore a savanna-like woodland environment to this highly valued historical footprint near Pine Grove Furnace State Park.  No reward like little brown birds enjoying new habitat their community of care worked hard to create.  And it has been a community-based effort!
  • Maintenance Foreman Dale Appleby and his crew are starting a trail head parking area along White Rocks Road to provide improved hiking trail access to both the White Rocks Climbing area and the Meeting of the Pines Natural area. ADF Michelle Blevins hopes it will encourage better site stewardship and use behaviors at both sites; ultimately reducing conflicts with road-side parking, dumping, and trespass on adjoining private and township lands.  She’s usually right; people care for forests that look cared for.
  • We had a great meeting with Back Country Hunters and Anglers, Pennsylvania Game Commission South Central personnel, and local hunters up at Big Flat heliport last weekend. Topic of discussion was how to better sustain informed conversation and participatory decision making with those whose primary interest is in using the Michaux for recreational hunting and fishing.  Much appreciation to Chris Hennessey from BHA for making the trip down from State College to participate, and to our PGC partners for showing up in force to be a part of the conversation.  And to Friends Group members Don Horn, Don Lehigh, and Ranger Scott Greevy for putting the event together.
  • We are moving forward with plans for a stacked loop trail system for hiking and biking that we hope to begin working on later this season just north of Pine Grove Furnace State park. Tentatively calling it the Hearth Tender trail system.  Also will be initiating public input processes for redesigning the informal trail system that has developed over the years in the Mountain creek watershed in coming months.  Stay tuned.
  • Fire season is upon us. Fire Division Maintenance Supervisor Marc Kaiser will remind you that the number one cause of forest fires in Pennsylvania today is not kids with matches, but adults with burn barrels.  And that Smokey is still watching you, even though you’re all grown up now!
  • Chief Ranger Jim Sleighter says Rangers are monitoring camera traps on state forest roads and pull offs vigorously this spring to curtail littering and dumping. ‘Nough said.
  • We will be spraying Lymantria dispar dispar again this spring under its new name; “Spongy” moth. We will be using Bt, which is a biological pesticide, and will be notifying adjoining landowners and other stakeholders closer to the time.
  • Finally, if you haven’t already; join the Friends of Michaux. We always need more Friends!  Friends of Michaux State Forest – A chapter of the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation

Till the seasons change again,

Michaux State Forest