by Caitlin Finnerty
December 15, 2011
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.
When hard work reaps zero benefits
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.
Wind farm: someone has to host it
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.
Keep it in the family
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.