When most people talk about forests, they mention hunting, or the timber market, or environmental conservation. But when Susan Benedict discusses her forest – a 200,000 acre property in Centre County, Pennsylvania – she talks about family.
“We all work together. This is a family operation,” she says as we drive to her property along a Pennsylvania State Game Lands road that winds through the Allegany Mountains from Black Moshannon to Pennsylvania-504.
(Image courtesy Susan Benedict)
A desire to keep the mountaintop property in the hands of her children and grandchildren motivated Benedict to implement sustainable forestry practices, participate in Pennsylvania’s Forest Stewardship Program and certify the property under the American Tree Farm System. By managing her forest in an environmentally conscious way, Benedict ensures that stands of ash, red oak and beech will be around in a hundred years for her great-grandchildren to enjoy.
But Benedict’s involvement in forest conservation doesn’t mean that she’s rejecting the land’s economic and recreation potential. The property’s plethora of hardwoods allows the family to participate in the timber market. As a large and secluded mountaintop property, it has attracted wind farms seeking to turn wind into energy. Its location along the Marcellus Shale makes it a desirable location for natural gas developers. This multitude of interested parties, each with its own vision, can be overwhelming for any property owner.
Since different stakeholders preach different benefits and drawbacks of extracting these natural resources, Benedict took charge and carefully investigated the issues herself, knowing her family’s land was at stake. Her decisions balance the property’s economic potential with her desire to keep her family forest as pristine as it was when she explored it as a child.
We talk so much about the environmental benefits of trees that it’s easy to forget that they’re also a business.
(Image courtesy Susan Benedict)
“My forester assures me that your woods are like your stock portfolio,” Benedict explains. “You don’t want to cut out more annual growth than what you’re generating, and in fact, you want to shoot for (cutting) less than what you’re generating. Right now, we are good; what we are taking out, we are generating.”
Before any logging is done, a county forester walks the property and designates which trees can be removed. Then it’s time to cut. Benedict has one logger, an ex-Vietnam veteran whose wife occasionally accompanies him. “He cuts whatever the mills are wanting,” says Benedict.
The challenge occurs when mills want something that shouldn’t be cut. “It’s a little more problematic because we have to market what we want to get rid of, instead of the lumber mills telling us what they want,” Benedict explains.
But Benedict won’t let natural resource markets sway her forest management decisions. She’s taking charge by telling lumber mills that she’ll give them what she wants to give them – no more, no less. Of course, the economic incentives of sustainable forest management make saying “no” easier.
One of these economic rewards is the Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP), which provides financial and technical assistance to landowners seeking to “promote agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible national goals.”
Benedict’s EQUIP project will enhance growth on mass-producing trees such as hickory, oak, cherry, hazelnut, beech nut and others that produce animal feed. “Basically, we want to get the trees to grow quicker, and re-generate better.”
Family health problems put Bendict's EQUIP project on hold. Since it needed to be completed by the end of summer, Benedict’s brothers and her three sons (age 15, 24 and 27) held mandatory family work days each weekend from the Fourth of July to the end of September.
“It’s a 200,000-acre property, which translates to a lot of work. But I think that’s good,” Benedict assures me, even though she also sweat through the word during the height of summer’s humidity. “When you have concentrated time like that, you actually talk to each other. If you meet for an hour meeting, no one ever gets around to saying what they want. You get down to what’s real.”
Using the forest as a mechanism to unite her family has been Benedict’s goal since she and her brothers inherited the property after her father’s death.
Benedict tells me that her three boys “have to help out, whether they want to or not.” Their involvement – even if it is forced sometimes – allows the family to connect to the property. Benedict hopes the hard work will inspire them to adopt sustainable forestry management practices when they inherit the land.
We’ve all experienced times when nature takes over and there’s nothing we can do about it – whether we’re a farmer that’s experienced a devastating drought or a commuter who’s had to pull over in a heavy rainstorm because we couldn’t see the road in front of us.
This happened to Benedict and her team six years ago, when a three-year gypsy moth infestation destroyed 80 percent of a red oak stand. The damage cost her more than one million dollars in timber profits on a 2,000-acre lot.
“Al (Benedict's logger) had worked so hard on the stand. And it’s not a fun place to work – rocky and snake-infested. We were all so proud of how it came out. And then three years worth of caterpillars, and it was destroyed.”
Biological sprays of fungi can sometimes prevent gypsy moth infestations. The caterpillars die after ingesting the fungi for a few days.
Benedict could have sprayed the fungi, but it may not have worked. It’s a big risk to take when you’re paying $25 per acre (that’s $50,000 in total). Not only do you need the money, but you must have three consecutive rain-free days in May, the only time of year you can spray.
So when the emerald ash borer – the invasive green insect that has destroyed between 50 and 100 million ash trees in the United States – made its first appearance in Pennsylvania, Benedict began cutting down her ash trees. “We got them to market before they got killed.”
By paying attention to both environmental and market pressures, Benedict’s forest is both sustainable and profitable.
Benedict’s property is isolated. For wind-power developers, that means fewer people will complain about the loud noise and shadows that make living near wind turbines burdensome. The land is also atop a mountain, which, of course, means it experiences high winds.
“It’s very hard to decide to have that much development on your property, but honestly, it will provide a nice retirement for my brothers and me,” Benedict says. “Everyone I talk to assures me that once the construction phase is over, it doesn’t hurt the trees, it doesn’t hurt the wildlife. The wildlife could care less, which has been my observation on most things that we do. After it gets back to normal, they don’t care and they adjust.”
Environmental surveys, which are required by law before construction, affirm Benedict’s insights. A group hired to do a migratory bird study constructed a high tower atop the mountain. “They stayed up there every evening and morning in March,” Benedict says with a shiver.
Another contractor is delineating wetlands on the property: identifying and marking wetland habitat and making sure construction does not affect these areas.
Benedict and her family even had the opportunity to learn what kinds of endangered and threatened animals live on their property. “They found seven timber rattlesnake dens, and had to relocate one of the turbines because it was too close to the den,” Benedict explains. The teams also surveyed Allegany wood rats and northern bulrushes, a critical upland wetland plant.
“I decided to [lease property to the wind farm] because the only way we are ever going to know if wind is a viable technology is if we get some turbines up, see what works, see what doesn’t work, and allow that process of invention to move. And we have to have someone to host it.”
And according to the surveys, Benedict’s property is the perfect host.
As Benedict drives her pickup around the property, she points out the site of her father's former saw mill, where she once worked, and shows me to the cabin that the family built after her grandfather died in 1976. Nearby, there's a section of forest that the family is converting to grouse habitat, which will support her brother's love of grouse hunting.
(Image courtesy Susan Benedict)
The uses of the property fluctuate as family members' interests change. Benedict affirms that managing the property sustainably will give her grandchildren the freedom to pursue their interests in the years to come.
"A lot of people go the route of having a conservation easement, but who knows what the best use of that property is going to be in 100 years. If my dad did that, we would have very little use of the property now, and certainly very little flexibility with these things, especially the wind and natural gas."
Benedict is a member of the Centre County Natural Gas Task Force. "You hear all sorts of things about natural gas development and water resources, and in order to make sure it wasn’t going to be horrible, I joined the task force," she explains.
Benedict also allows 15 or so individuals to hunt and fish on her property for a small annual fee. Control of the deer population in particular is essential for her timber operations.
But no matter what happens, Benedict insists, the forest will stay in the family.
"We made a pact that everyone will have to sell all of their belongings before we sold this," she says. "There's some things, you know, you got to make work out."
Benedict’s forest management practices and involvement in the sustainable forestry community has earned her recognition as a 2011 Forest Steward Champion by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
The story of upstate New York's Cayuta Creek begins as all good stories do: once upon a time, when – according to local folklore – a young and talented princess named Kayutah was born into a local Seneca tribe. Kayutah was so extraordinary that one of the neighboring tribes kidnapped her. Her devastated mother cried so many tears that they filled the entire valley, creating what is now known as Cayuta Lake.
(Image courtesy Chris Waits/Flickr)
Cayuta Lake, known locally as Little Lake, drains north to south instead of south to north, just like the nearby Finger Lakes. It empties into the 40-mile-long Cayuta Creek, which meanders south before emptying into the Susquehanna River. Cayuta Lake’s waters, or “Kayuta's tears," travel some 300 miles south before reaching the Chesapeake Bay!
Although the aforementioned legend affirms that the lake was born out of sadness, the surrounding region is now a favorite of outdoor enthusiasts and vacationers alike. Like most of the region’s small lakes, Cayuta Lake completely freezes during the winter, offering opportunities for ice skating, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. There have even been reports of people racing their cars on the lake – although we don’t endorse that idea!
Cayuta Lake and the surrounding areas provide a pristine habitat for rare plants and animals. The best example is a freshwater sponge (Spongilla) that is so sensitive to pollution and human disturbances that the only other place in the world it can be found is Siberia! The sponge lives in the Cayuta Inlet, an area known as the James W. and Helene D. Allen Preserve that’s a favorite study spot of Cornell University students. These sponges are the only food source for the Spongilla fly, a rare insect.
And where there are insects, there are also...fly fishermen! Freshwater trout are abundant in Cayuta Lake and Cayuta Creek. But if you don't want to get in the water, the Finger Lakes Trail provides the perfect opportunity to view this scenic stream. The trail runs from Watkins Glen State Park over State Route 228, and follows Cayuta Creek for miles south. Rumor has it that spring is the best time for hikers, as Watkins Glen is home to rare native flowers and ferns. Not to mention the park's magnificent gorge, rapids and waterfalls, formed by glaciers during the last Ice Age.
(Image courtesy She Who Shall Not Be Named/Flickr)
There are plenty of other natural areas surrounding Cayuta Lake and Cayuta Creek. Here are some of my favorites:
Owl handler, goat walker, Monarch butterfly tagger…these are just a few of the roles volunteers take on with the Howard County Conservancy. The conservancy is headquartered in a 300-year-old farm house on a 232-acre property near Woodstock, Maryland, making it an ideal location for Howard County residents to escape from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives.
Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Trust
The Howard County Conservancy’s mission is two-fold. Like most conservancies, it is dedicated to preserving natural areas. But the Howard County Conservancy is also committed to educating and engaging the public. The property’s historic buildings, four miles of trails and 140 species of birds make it a must-see for any Marylander. Who knows – you may enjoy it so much that you decide to become a volunteer!
For more information about the Howard County Conservancy, visit the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s blog to read how one man became an “accidental” conservancy volunteer.
The sky is gray, the wind blows cold, and all the earth seems devoid of life. It’s winter in the Chesapeake Bay region. But if you venture outside, you’ll likely catch a glimpse of many critters that are most common during the coldest months. Some of these animals only visit our region this time of year. (That’s right – they actually like our winters!)
Get your winter critter-fix by learning about these six beautiful Bay animals. Then leave us a comment letting us know about your favorite wintering Chesapeake Bay critter!
Chesapeake Bay locals experience their fair share of sea nettle stings during summer swims. But very few of us have been stung by a lion's mane jellyfish: the largest known jellyfish species in the world! Thank goodness that these jellyfish only visit the Bay from January to April. But if you're doing a Polar Bear Plunge, be careful!
Lion’s mane jellyfish prefer to hang out in the northern latitudes, and travel to the Bay in the winter because the water is cold. The further north you travel, the larger the lion’s mane jellyfish becomes! The largest recorded specimen washed up along a beach in Massachusetts in 1870, had a bell (body) with a diameter of 7.5 feet and tentacles 120 feet long.
(Image courtesy Vermin Inc/Flickr)
Sure it gets cold here in the winter, but it’s even colder in the Arctic! That’s why these beautiful white waterfowl take refuge in the Chesapeake Bay from late October to March. Tundra swans, also known as whistling swans, breed in the Arctic and subarctic tundra's pools, lakes and rivers. They fly in a V formation at altitudes as high as 27,000 feet before arriving at their wintering habitat, which is usually coastal marshland and grassland.
Looking for a place to view tundra swans? The coast is best (I've seen them near Salisbury as well as Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge in Rock Hall, Maryland), but if you're inland, you may be in luck, too! Last winter, I was lucky enough to see a flock at Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland.
(Image courtesy oakwood/Flickr)
The bald eagle is not only the national emblem of the United States, but also the face of an environmental movement born out of its near extinction. Pesticides (particularly DDT) and increased development left this beautiful raptor on the brink in the mid-20th century. But bald eagles have since made a remarkable comeback, enough so that the federal government removed them from the "threatened" species list in 2007.
Winter provides an excellent opportunity to view bald eagles. They are often found perched on the highest branch in loblolly pine forests, scouting for prey in nearby fields and wetlands. Although these birds prefer areas that are not human-heavy, one bald eagle family moved into Harlem in New York City last February. Closer to the Chesapeake, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Maryland, and the Conowingo Dam near Port Deposit, Maryland, are excellent places to view bald eagles in big numbers.
(Image courtesy InspiredinDesMoines/Flickr)
If you see large, reddish-brown heads out on the Bay this winter, they may be canvasbacks! These diving ducks spend winter in the Chesapeake Bay before returning to the Prairie Pothole region to breed. Why do they fly across the Mississippi River Valley to splash around in the Chesapeake all winter? One reason may be food: the canvasback (Aythya valisineria) was named for its fondness of wild celery (Vallisneria americana).
However, diminished populations of wild celery and other bay grasses has meant decline in "can" populations, too. In the 1950s, the Chesapeake Bay was home to 250,000 wintering canvasbacks – about half of the entire North American population. Today, only about 50,000 winter in the Bay. But these numbers seem to be increasing.
(Image courtesy Dominic Sherony/Flickr)
Unlike most mammals, bobcats don't hibernate during the winter. In fact, female bobcats increase their home range during the coldest time of year, meaning there's a greater chance one will end up near you! These cats start breeding between January and March, when males begin travelling to visit females. These winter warriors also have padded paws, which act like snow boots to protect them from the cold weather. They are excellent hunters and are most active during dusk (before sunset) and dawn (before the sunrises), often travelling between 2 and 7 miles in one night!
Bobcats may be found in Spruce Knob and Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, and other natural areas in the northern and western portions of the watershed.
(Image courtesy dbarronoss/Flickr)
A brilliant flash of red can brighten up any dreary winter scene. The northern cardinal is a permanent resident of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and its plumage never dulls like some birds. The female cardinal is one of the only female birds that sings, although it is usually during spring, when she tells the male what to bring back to the nest for their young. In the winter, cardinals can be seen foraging for seeds in dense shrubs near the ground, usually in pairs.
(Image courtesy Bill Lynch/Flickr)