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News > Context Winter 2023 > Pennsylvania Forests and the Forest Products Industry

Pennsylvania Forests and the Forest Products Industry

Rider Park in Trout Run | Photo: courtesy of Keystone Wood Products Association
Rider Park in Trout Run | Photo: courtesy of Keystone Wood Products Association

By Jonathan Geyer 

Pennsylvania is the only state named for its forest. William Penn founded his colony in 1681 and its name paid homage to his father, Admiral Sir William Penn, and the vast forests that characterized the area — Sylvania is Latin for “forest land.” The forest and forest products industry have a strong connection not only to the state, but to Philadelphia, where Pennsylvania’s first sawmill was located. One of Penn’s early ordinances for the colony required that settlers leave one acre of trees intact for every five acres cleared,1 which would result in the state being at least one-sixth, or 16.7% forested.  

Throughout Pennsylvania’s history, our forest was a primary resource used to build and expand the nation. When Penn arrived, the forests were dominated by two species — white pine and eastern hemlock — which were heavily used by the colonists. White pines, due to being extremely tall and straight, were used for ship masts, and Eastern hemlocks for their bark, which contains tannic acid used for tanning leather. Forests were also cleared for crops and livestock, and to provide wood for homes, fences, rail ties, heat, and charcoal production for smelting iron. By 1900, the pace of industrial production and clear cutting of the forests had left most of Pennsylvania barren, leading to what many have referred to as an ecological disaster.  

Thanks to a handful of key figures, Pennsylvania was placed back on track to once again be the Sylvania for which it was named. These figures include Dr. Joseph Rothrock, the father of Pennsylvania forestry; Mira Lloyd Dock, a leader in city beautification and first woman named to the Forestry Commission; Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the US Forest service and twice governor of Pennsylvania; and Maurice Goddard, a pioneering forestry educator and leader in creating many of Pennsylvania’s state parks, as well as others with less recognized names. If William Penn were to visit today, he would find a Penn’s Woods that exceeds his original goal by three and a half times, with hardwood forest covering nearly 60% of the state — the nation’s largest hardwood forest — restored and flourishing due to the visionary, progressive action of these leaders.  

Hardwood and Softwood  

There are over one hundred species of tree that grow in Pennsylvania’s forests that are tracked by the US Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis program. However, just 16 species or species groups make up 93% of the forest. Some of the most valuable lumber species include oaks, maples, cherry, poplar, ash, and black walnut. Because white oak and chestnut oak are both sold as white oak, they are grouped together in Figure 1. Various species of red oaks and hickories are also grouped together.  

The quality of Pennsylvania’s hardwood lumber is sought throughout the world, especially by furniture manufacturers. Our northern climate and shorter growing season, tighter growth rings, soil composition, and mountainous elevations mean Pennsylvania lumber tends to be more stable and less likely to warp and twist after being properly dried. Pennsylvania is widely known as the “Black Cherry Capital of the World.” Black cherry has historically been one of the more valuable hardwood species and nearly 30% of the nation’s black cherry volume is in Pennsylvania.  

About 90% of Pennsylvania’s forest is hardwood and 10% is softwood. Hardwood is another term for deciduous trees, Figure 2. These trees have broad, flat leaves and their seeds come from flowers. Examples include white & red oak, sugar & red maple, and hickory. The durability, strength, color, and grain of hardwood lumber make it preferred for flooring, furniture, and cabinetry. Softwood is another term for coniferous trees, which have needles that generally stay green year-round, and their seeds come from cones. Coniferous trees are used in North America for construction grade timber (Spruce Pine Fir, or SPF Framing Lumber). Houses are built with softwood lumber, then furnished with hardwood lumber.  

Forest Products Industry  

Many Pennsylvanians do not realize that we have much more forest today than we had a hundred years ago. Each year our forests grow on average between three and four billion board feet. We lose about one billion board feet per year to natural mortality (old age, invasive insects, disease, etc.) and the industry harvests about one billion board feet. Harvesting occurs throughout the state, and our forest volume is increasing by roughly two billion board feet every year, demonstrating the sustainability of the industry’s management methods.  

Today, there are 16.6 million acres of forested land in Pennsylvania. This equates to 121.6 billion board feet of sawtimber. Sawtimber is defined as trees with a diameter at breast height (DBH) of greater than eleven inches. Since 1955, the sawtimber volume in Pennsylvania has increased by more than five times, Figure 3. Pennsylvania not only leads the nation in the volume of hardwood forest, but also in the volume of hardwood lumber created and exported. The forest products industry has over 2,100 companies that employ more than 60,000 Pennsylvanians, and the industry has an annual direct impact of $21.8 billion on the state’s economy.2 

Sustainable forest management is a top priority of the forest products industry. Forests are similar to crops; however, unlike corn or soybeans that have short rotations, forests grow and require management over a longer time period. Like farming, forest management involves weeding and thinning to increase yield. Trees compete for water, nutrients, light, and space. Proper forest management is designed to weed and thin the forest to establish the next crop.  

In Pennsylvania, it is seldom necessary to plant following a timber harvest, as most forests naturally regenerate. In a mature forest, which much of Pennsylvania is, the forest’s leafy canopy is so thick that the sunlight does not reach the forest floor and seedlings cannot grow, so by harvesting we are allowing new growth. The industry takes pride in knowing that when a tree is cut, all parts are used: veneer logs for valuable veneers; saw logs to grade lumber for furniture, cabinets, and flooring; low grade lumber for pallets; small logs to pulp for paper products; sawdust for pellets; and bark for mulch. There is zero waste. 

Pennsylvania’s forest products industry harvests between one billion and 1.3 billion board feet of forest volume annually. To put that into perspective, one board foot is a piece of lumber 12 inches wide by 12 inches long and one-inch thick. One billion board feet equates a stack of lumber 2.5-feet high by 5-feet wide, spanning from Harrisburg to Houston, Texas — 1,228 miles! 

Forest Ownership 

Compared to states that have large tracts of National Parks or National Forests, Pennsylvania has a balance of ownership between government and private forest landowners. The federal government owns 3.94% of the forest land in Pennsylvania, mainly in the Allegheny National Forest. Additional acres of forest are owned by the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife and the US Department of Defense. Pennsylvania state government has three major land-owning agencies that together own 23.3% of the forest. While the acres are not all forested land, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, or DCNR, Bureau of Forestry manages 2.2 million acres, DCNR Bureau of State Parks manages 300,000 acres, and another 1.5 million acres make up Pennsylvania Game Commission public game lands. Local governments own an additional 3.5% of the forest for local parks and watershed protection.  

This balance of ownership between government (30.8%) and private (69.2%) is critical for the state’s forest products industry. Government-owned forest land typically needs to reach annual harvesting goals to meet important objectives such as forest health and age-class distribution. This means that forest management practices continue to occur even when markets are unfavorable, that is when prices are low, so private forest landowners are not selling timber. This sustained supply of raw material into the forest products industry is crucial. 

The 69.2% of privately owned Pennsylvania’s forest includes 2.3 million acres owned by corporations, including timber investment management organizations (TIMOs), 559,793 acres owned by clubs, and 136,335 acres owned by conservation groups Figure 4. Roughly 740,000 Pennsylvanians own the remaining 8,428,507 acres of private forest. Of concern here is the parcelization of the forest — when more and more people own smaller parcels of forest. In 1980, the average forest landowner in Pennsylvania owned just under twenty-five acres, and today the average ownership is 11.4 acres.3 

A private forest landowner may manage their land for a combination of reasons, including wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, firewood, recreation, hunting, and sometimes just for its aesthetic value. It is important though, to realize that these goals can be achieved, and often amplified, while also managing the forest for its timber resource. The decisions a forest landowner makes or doesn’t make have an impact on the quality and value of the forest and its resource, now and in the future. 

Pennsylvania hardwoods are known throughout the world for their quality, beauty, and sustainability. Our forests are the source of high-quality logs and lumber and diverse secondary wood products. With 16.6 million acres of forestland, Pennsylvania has the most abundant hardwood forest in the nation. The quality of our lives as Pennsylvanians and the quality of the forest within the commonwealth are enriched and multiplied by the forest products industry, which ensures sustainability through well-managed working forests.  

Jonathan Geyer is the Executive Director of the Hardwoods Development Council, a Bureau within the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture responsible for the promotion, development, and expansion of the state’s forest products industry.  

Citations 

1. Concessions to the Provence of Pennsylvania — July 11, 1681, The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/pa02.asp 

2. “The Economic Impact of Agriculture in Pennsylvania — Team PA Foundation.” The Economic Impact of Agriculture in Pennsylvania: 2021 Update, Econsult Solutions Inc., 2021, https://teampa.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/TeamPA_Agriculture2020EISUpdate_FINAL-1.pdf.  

3. James C. Finley Center for Private Forests8. Project description by Huiyi An, Yuhan Wang, Zhong (Clara) Xin 

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