CLEARVILLE, Pa. — A new concept of conserving those forests that remain in the eastern United States is current being tested in a small Allegheny community in south-central Pennsylvania.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has a project under way in the Sideling Hills Creek watershed based on the idea that sustaining the countryside as it is may be the best way to preserve an endangered ecological system.
The conservancy owns 300 acres of forest land in the watershed. But rather than turning it over to the state to create a state park or forest, the conservancy is trying to manage the land as part of the community.
Centered in the town of Clearville, the watershed is located southwest of Breezewood, in Bedford County, right on the Maryland border. It is now 70 percent forest and 25 percent agriculture. Only 5 percent of the land has been developed or is used for other purposes.
But the watershed is also located less than 100 miles from Washington, D.C., and urban sprawl is steadily marching toward it along the Interstate 70 corridor.
It is considered a prime target for suburban development in a not too distant future.
“That is my greatest fear for this area,” said Kara Unger, a project manager for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy who has moved into Clearville and is managing the project as a member of the Clearville community.
A big portion of the project is working toward involving local landowners in a sustainable forestry approach to managing the resources of the entire watershed. But what the conservancy is really emphasizing, Unger said, is a total program of “sustainable countryside.”
That means maintaining the agricultural economy on which the area has survived until now, along with conserving the ecology of the forest and protecting Sideling Hills Creek.
“We’re not going to worry anymore about whether a cow is in the stream,” Unger said.
She explained that while that is still not good for the stream, the community has been based on agriculture, and that agriculture is more compatible with the idea of sustainable forest than suburban development.
The idea of protecting the landscape by protecting the community would not have been possible, Unger said, if the conservancy had approached this watershed in the same way it has previously approached the preservation of forested lands.
The Pittsburgh-based conservancy has been in business of protecting natural areas for more than 60 years. But after purchasing endangered acres, the conservancy typically turned forested lands over to the state to manage.
The Sideling Hills Creek watershed was of interest to the conservancy because of its relatively pristine character, because it is home to a large number of rare species, and because it is located in the path of suburban development.
And, according to Unger, because it is a really beautiful place.
But protecting 300 acres out of the 66,000 acres in the 100-square mile watershed area did not seem a logical answer to the problem of how to protect the area.
By buying a house in Clearville and moving Unger into the community to manage the project through community involvement, education, and outreach, the conservancy has created a first of its kind, “place-based” approach.
The hope is that Unger, who has been in Clearville for two years, will be able to help the community establish a conservation and preservation ethic.
Since the talk of suburban development has begun, Unger has found her job somewhat easier. Clearville has not had to deal with the issue of zoning, she said, but the Maryland portion of the watershed is already zoned for residential and commercial development.
If the Sideling Hill Watershed is to be maintained as a functioning community, timber sales will have to remain an important part of the economy.
The conservancy has created a relationship with the Sustainable Forestry Partnership at Penn State University to provide local woodlot owners with the technical advice they will need to harvest their timber stands and maintain them ecologically.
The watershed is divided into 2,000 small to medium private woodlot holdings.
The Sustainable Forestry Partnership is a consortium of four university forestry programs that concentrates on sustainable forestry education, training, and research.
According to Michael Washington, former associate director for the partnership at Penn State and now national coordinator, there is a lot a trained forester can do to assist landowners in managing and maintaining the value of their holdings.
While some loggers will come through and take out the most valuable trees, Washburn said, a forester considers a whole range of scientific approaches available to manage forest resources.
For instance, he said, the trees in Sideling Hill Creek area are all 70 to 80 years old, and yet when you walk through the forest, there is range of large and small trees.
“The big trees are rarely older,” he said, “it’s just that they grow better.”
A logger, he said, might come through and cut the big trees and tell the landowner that the small ones would now have room to grow — to become big trees.
But that won’t happen, Washburn said, and the woodlot would have lost much of its commercial value.
“It might have been better to cut out the slow growth trees in the first place, so that when you did cut in 15 years you would have a more valuable crop, and you would have made room for the more valuable trees to regenerate themselves.
“Unfortunately, many of these landowners make deals with loggers, and day after day they get ripped off.
“In a few years, the oaks and maples aren’t going to be there, and the economic base is ripped out from under the community.”
At the same time, the conservancy project is working to develop a marketing cooperative from contiguous landholdings that will allow landowners to achieve some of the economies of scale while they are practicing responsible management, Unger said.
Eventually, the conservancy hopes to acquire forest easements along the stream that it would hold in perpetuity, she said.
“Then we could have an impact on how the lands are managed in a permanent way,” she said.
Washburn said the Sustainable Forest Partnership has applied for an Environmental Protection Agency grant to use the Sideling Hills Creek project as a model project for a community-based approach to protecting forest lands.And a Penn State University graduate student Seth Cassell is already working on a book that will tell the project’s story.
The book, Unger said, will be a forest history going back 500 years that will “create a sense of place and history.”
And it will document, she said, that “the actions we take today will have an effect on tomorrow’s history.”