Today the Allegheny Plateau is known for black cherry, maple and other hardwoods, but two hundred years ago these species were less numerous. Today's forest is largely the result of two things: the exploitation of timber at the turn of the century and years of scientific and sustainable management by the Forest Service. Disturbances such as windthrow, fire, insects, disease, deer and human intervention worked together to create the unique conditions for black cherry and other hardwoods to become established and flourish.
Two hundred years ago, the forest in northwest Pennsylvania was mostly Eastern hemlock and American beech, with white pine along river bottoms and oak on the slopes of river valleys. Black cherry accounted for less than one percent of all trees on the Plateau. This old-growth forest was characterized by large trees and fallen logs. Deer populations were at naturally-regulated low levels, estimated at 10 deer per square mile, so the understory vegetation was dense and richly diverse.
Even then the hemlock/beech forest was not totally primeval in character. Disturbances such as tornadoes and blowdown were a common natural event that created openings in the forest. Native Americans burned the forest to improve berry and oak mast production, hunting, and ease of travel.
European settlers reached this area in the early 1800s. At first, trees were cut to clear land for agriculture and to provide timber for cabins and barns. Soon, the first commercial water-powered mills cut small amounts of lumber from selected pine, hemlock and large hardwoods. By 1840, portable steam engines made circular sawmills practical, and mills that could process 10,000 board feet of lumber per day were common.
Tanneries that used hemlock bark as their source of tannin for curing leather began to appear in the late 1850s. This infant industry received a great boost during the Civil War because of the demand for harnesses, military equipment and industrial belting. By the end of the century, the tanning industry was a major forest industry in Pennsylvania and used huge quantities of hemlock bark. The logs were removed later and sawn into lumber products.
Between 1850 and 1900, American society and technology changed in dramatic ways. People, moving West and in the growing cities in the East, demanded lumber to build homes, stores and furniture. Demand for paper and other wood pulp products increased. An eighty-fold increase in coal production led to the need for more lumber for mine props, timbers, and planks. Band saws came into use after 1880, making possible the construction of huge mills capable of sawing 100,000 feet or more of lumber per day. Railroads provided convenient transportation to consumers and markets. They also opened up extensive and previously inaccessible areas of timber with specialized locomotives such as the Shay which could traverse steep hillsides, uneven tracks and sharp curves. All of these factors supported large sawmill and tannery industries.
By 1900, deer and their predators were almost eliminated due to overhunting. The Pennsylvania Game Commission began to restore the deer herd by importing deer from other states.
A new enterprise, the wood chemical industry, changed the course of forest development. Between 1890 and 1930, wood chemical plants produced charcoal, wood alcohol, acetic acid, acetate of lime and similar products, and provided a market for virtually every size, species and quality of tree growing on the Allegheny Plateau. Harvests during this era were cleared nearly every accessible tree of every size. The once vast forest of the Allegheny Plateau was almost completely removed, leaving barren hillsides as far as the eye could see.
The American chestnut is present across the Allegheny plateau region of Pennsylvania. At the turn of the 20th century, American chestnut composed between 4 to 15 percent, on average, of the canopy trees across the Allegheny National Forest (ANF) region (Braun 1950). In the early 1900’s, a blight-fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, appeared in North America and led to the demise of the American chestnut across its entire range, from Maine to Georgia. By 1950, the disease had spread throughout the range of American chestnut, and by 1960 had killed an estimated 4 billion trees and essentially extirpating the species as a canopy tree from its range (Hepting, 1974; McCormick and Platt, 1980; Anagnostakis, 1987).
American chestnut is still a common component of eastern North American forests, but nearly all individuals currently present are sprouts that originated from blight-killed trees (Russell, 1987; Stephenson et al., 1987). Sprouts generally are not exceeding small tree size and rarely growing to reproductive maturity. The same is true here on the ANF. The numbers of chestnut trees that reach the canopy across the ANF has dramatically dropped to less than 1 percent and most of the surviving American chestnut are seedlings (less than 1 inch) or saplings (less than 5 inches).
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiated efforts to control chestnut blight and breed or discover blight-resistant chestnut trees, but control efforts failed and no tree-like cultivar was discovered. The USDA program was abandoned in the 1960’s. In the early 1980’s a non-profit group, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), was formed with the goal of breeding a hybrid chestnut tree for reintroduction to the native range that is phenotypically indistinguishable from the American chestnut (Hebard, 2006).
In 2013, the TACF and ANF joined in a partnership to test the performance of the hybrid chestnut seedlings. Foresters on the ANF are currently testing the hybrids cold hardiness and ability to compete with natural regeneration. In 2014, the USFS Northern Research Station and in 2015, Penn State University joined the partnership in evaluating the hybrid chestnut and its silvicultural characteristics. Research scientist and foresters are currently designing and implementing studies to learn more about the silvics of the American and hybrid chestnut tree. Many large corporate forest landowners in Pennsylvania and other northeastern states simply abandoned the land and moved West in search of new forests. The land left behind often ended up on delinquent tax rolls, prompting a financial crisis for rural counties. The bare soil and logging slash made floods and wildfires a constant danger.
In 1911, Congress passed the Weeks Act, allowing the federal government to buy land in eastern states for the establishment of National Forests. The Allegheny National Forest was established in 1923. The land was so depleted that many residents jokingly called it the "Allegheny Brush-patch." Some worried the forest would never recover.
But with low deer populations, a new forest did quickly grow. It was a different forest than the previous one, because shade-tolerant, long-lived trees like hemlock and beech gave way to sun-loving, shorter-lived species like black cherry, which readily germinated on the bare sunny ground. Cherry, red maple, black birch, and sugar maple became common species in the understory. The changing and varied vegetation created habitat for increasingly diverse wildlife.
Today many of the Eastern National Forests are primarily second-growth forests and different in character than National Forests in the West created from huge forest reserves of largely virgin forest. On the Allegheny National Forest, the trees are roughly the same age because they started growing about the same time.
Forests are dynamic -- always growing, renewing, changing. An old-growth forest of hemlock and beech once stretched along northern Pennsylvania, but heavy logging between 1890 and 1930 left only pockets of that early forest in places like Hearts Content. Since the Forest Service began to manage the Allegheny National Forest (ANF) in 1923, a vibrant new forest of light-loving hardwoods like black cherry flourished, and today the ANF boasts some of the world's finest hardwood forests.
A new kind of forest management...
The Forest Service brought new concepts in forest management to the Allegheny Plateau -- multiple benefits and sustainability. The Organic Act of 1897 introduced the National Forest mission: "To improve the forest, provide favorable conditions for water flows, and furnish a continuous supply of timber to meet people's needs." On these lands, seedlings for tomorrow's forest are the focus of forest management activities. Watersheds are managed to ensure clear water for fisheries and to provide clean drinking water.
Over time, various laws added other benefits such as creating wilderness, protecting heritage resources and allowing grazing in addition to watershed protection and providing continuous timber. The Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960 recognized outdoor recreation and habitat for wildlife and fisheries.
The motto "Land of Many Uses," captures the National Forest's goal of a healthy, vigorous forest that provides wood products, protects watersheds, a variety of wildlife habitats and recreational opportunities -- not only for today, but in a sustainable way so future generations can enjoy these benefits, too.
Forests grow, change, evolve....
When the Allegheny National Forest was established in 1923, the immediate challenge was nurturing the young trees growing among logging slash on the recently cleared hillsides. Until that happened, wildfires, floods and erosion were a threat. With care, the forests grew. Since they started growing at roughly the same time, most of the trees in today's second-growth forest on the Allegheny Plateau are the same age (70-100 years old).
Between 1900 and 1940, the young forest grew and evolved from openings to young forest to maturing forest. Each stage in forest development brought different benefits for people, wildlife and plants.
Young forests offer diverse vegetation like seedlings, saplings, wildflowers and berries. Deer, grouse, songbirds and other wildlife thrive with the abundant food and cover. Rapidly-growing trees soak up carbon, add lots of oxygen to the atmosphere, and protect soil. Taller trees shade streams, helping to regulate water temperature for acquatic life.
By the 1940s, the forest began to take on an appearance familiar to us today. The older trees provide acorns, cherries, and beech nuts for bear and turkey. Birds find sites for nests in the leafy tree crowns and plants like trillium prefer the filtered light of the maturing forest. In the 1940s, the Forest Service gradually resumed timber harvesting under strict research-based guidelines to ensure sustainability for future generations.
Abundant browse led to a dramatic increase in the deer population, which peaked in the 1940s and again in the late 1970s. Since the mid-1980s, the deer population has remained fairly constant -- although at a level higher in many places than the forest can support.
Today the trees are mature and able to provide quality hardwood for furniture and other needs. Forest Service employees deal with challenges like deer, insects, disease, drought and competing vegetation such as fern through research and careful management.
The Forest Service also established a research station for the Northeast in 1923. Research scientists began studying the complex relationships among vegetation, animals, soil, nutrients, weather and disease. For decades, scientists have shared both research results and management guidelines based on these results with the ANF, other public and private landowners, and other scientists.
Recreation on the ANF....
During the 1920s, recreation on the ANF focused mostly on dispersed activities such as hunting and fishing. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps changed the face of National Forests by building hundreds of recreation facilities, including Twin Lakes and Loleta Recreation Areas on the ANF. These facilities became popular after World War II when newly-mobile families discovered the joys of outdoor recreation.
The creation of the Allegheny Reservoir when the Kinzua Dam was completed in 1965 brought the most dramatic change to developed recreation on the ANF. Within ten years, a tremendous development program resulted in campgrounds, boat launches, beaches, picnic areas, hiking trails and overlooks around the reservoir shoreline and elsewhere throughout the forest.
Over time, the public's changing expectations led to campground improvements like electricity, hot showers and baby-changing stations. Areas to watch wildlife (Buzzard Swamp, Little Drummer), trails for cross-country skiing and motorized recreation (all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles) and fully accessible fishing piers, trails and restrooms were added.
The ANF fulfills many ecological and social functions and continues to evolve as an important component of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. From the high points and ridgelines of the Allegheny Plateau, to the river bottoms and stream valleys below, the ANF provides unique opportunities for watershed protection, plant and animal habitats, cultural history, recreation, wood products and research, not only today but for generations to come.
A Vital Watershed
As a result of industrialization and widespread unregulated logging of the Allegheny Plateau, many rivers and streams were threatened with intense pollution and channel instability. President Calvin Coolidge recognized the importance of watershed health and established the ANF with the aim of restoring and protecting the Allegheny River watershed. Since that time, conservation efforts to protect and restore the Allegheny River watershed led to a remarkable recovery of the Allegheny and Clarion rivers. This recovery resulted in their designation as wild and scenic rivers for their outstanding scenic, natural, recreational, scientific, historic, ecological and fisheries resource values.