Forests in Pennsylvania stable, but plenty of risks abound
STATE COLLEGE — More than half of Pennsylvania remains covered by forest in spite of invasive critters and plants, urban sprawl and development, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But those threats are growing, and the state's forest is changing, the USDA warns in a recent report.
“We keep modifying this place where we live to things that don't fit. Then what's the future of that forest?” said James Finley, professor of forest resources management at Penn State University. “What's the future of the value we tie to it?”
About 59 percent of the state, or 16.7 million acres, is forest that has remained stable for several decades, Finley said.
But continuing development, particularly in southern parts of the state, threatens forest growth and is causing some areas to lose forest cover.
Other areas, especially in northern parts of the state, are gaining forest, largely because some agricultural areas are being returned to forest land. Greene, Bedford, Washington and Somerset counties are among those increasing in forest cover, Finley said.
Urban sprawl and development in parts of the state are deforesting about 150 acres of forest land a day. Finley said conversion of agricultural lands eventually will occur more slowly than the deforestation, so within the next decade, Pennsylvania's forest cover likely will decline.
Finley said Pennsylvanians should be concerned about the effects of shrinking forests.
“I hope a lot of people make the connection between forest and water,” he said. “Pennsylvania has more miles of streams than any other state in the union, and we have a lot of relatively high-quality water in this state, and that water originated in forested watersheds.”
In addition to the effect on water, a decline in forests could affect wildlife and threaten species that depend on healthy forests.
Forest tracts are decreasing in size, too.
William McWilliams, a forest researcher with the USDA Forest Service, said forest lands outside cities tend to become fragmented, leading to smaller tracts. With increasing urbanization, the amount of fragmentation is growing.
Finley is troubled by evidence that shows forests are not regenerating trees as well as they could. The USDA report indicates that four of every 10 acres show adequate tree regeneration after development.
Amanda Witman, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Environmental Protection, said Pennsylvania doesn't have overarching laws that regulate development on or near forest land and watersheds. That regulation is left up to municipalities.
Anna Orso is a freelance reporter based in State College.