By Jeff Mulhollem and Chuck Gill, Penn State
UNIVERSITY PARK — Nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvania is covered by forests, with more than 70 percent of those woodlands privately owned. Recent estimates indicate Pennsylvania has more than 600,000 private forest landowners, representing about one out of every nine households.
To better serve these landowners and advise them about forest conservation, Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences has created the Center for Private Forests. The focus of the center will be applied research, education and outreach to students, forest landowners, the forest-products industry, loggers, conservation districts, agencies, land trusts, nongovernmental organizations and the public.
Housed in the college’s School of Forest Resources, the center will foster the retention, stewardship and management of private forests, according to center director James Finley, Ibberson Professor of Forest Resources. “We intend to focus outreach and research on the stewardship of private forests and, through this process, to create collaborative learning opportunities for students and stakeholders.”
Faculty and staff involved in the center will cut across several Penn State departments and will include agricultural and natural-resource economists, forest scientists, rural sociologists, environmental scientists, biologists and others.
Forests dominate the land cover in Pennsylvania, Finley explained, covering 17 million of the state’s 28 million acres. Private forests — those owned by individuals, families, nonforestry corporations and organizations — account for 12 million of these forested acres, or 71 percent.
These owners represent an important constituency, Finley noted. Small parcels of 1 to 10 acres account for 25 percent, or 3 million acres, of private forestland. Only 3.5 percent of the state’s private forest landowners control parcels of more than 100 acres.
“Both the many small tracts and bigger parcels are extremely important to conservation efforts, to the forest industry and for providing many social and ecological values,” he said.
“Addressing the needs of all forest landowners, both small and large, requires continued development of applied research and outreach programs tailored to the unique challenges of managing forests in the complex ownership matrix.”
The benefits derived from these private forests are diverse and widely enjoyed by all Pennsylvanians, Finley pointed out. Individuals own forests for privacy, wildlife, recreation, heritage and income-production values.
“But we all benefit from the critical ecological services such as clean air and water and wildlife habitat provided by these private forests,” he said. “The flow of goods from private forests is an important economic driver in many rural and urban communities, providing nearly 100,000 jobs and adding an estimated $14 billion to the state’s gross product.”
“Private forests also contribute significantly to our economy through recreational pursuits such as birding, hunting, fishing and other activities. The contribution of Pennsylvania’s private forests to our overall quality of life is inestimable.”
Finley cited critical challenges that the center will help address: forest parcelization, estate planning, sustainable forest management and regeneration, cross-boundary cooperation, taxation, ecosystem services and community support for retaining working forest landscapes.
“Failure to build a commitment for addressing these and other issues will certainly reduce the flow of benefits and values from private forests,” he said.