Pennsylvanians hold the health of the state's woodlands in their hands, literally.
Allyson Muth believes in educating people about the Commonwealth's precious resource. Of the 60 percent of Pennsylvania woods that remain forested, 70% of them are privately owned.
"That is a tremendous number," said Muth, director of Penn State University's Center for Private Forests. "Our goal is to engage and educate people about their woodland."
A key part of that education is learning how to be good stewards of the land. To ensure the continuing health of Pennsylvania's forests, the Center focuses on outreach and education to agencies, landowners and the public.
A forest is defined as at least 1 acre of land that's not maintained as lawn, with the primary vegetation being trees.
Privately owned forested land is owned by 738,000 landowners, according to the last survey, taken in 2010, Muth said. Interestingly, more than 60 percent of those landowners own less than 10 acres.
About one-fourth of the Commonwealth's forests are owned by the state, including state parks and forests, state game lands and the Ft. Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania National Guard training facility.
Less than 5% is federally owned, including the Allegheny National Forest.
A recent survey conducted by the Center that asked folks what they liked about having their own forest brought some surprising answers, Muth said.
Using firewood or cutting timber was way down on the survey.
"We asked the owners what was important to them," Muth said. " The top two answers were 'solitude' and 'enjoyment.' We also had comments like, 'it's my little piece of paradise,' and 'it's something I own that I can care for.' "
Loving your forest and adequately caring for it don't always coincide, however.
"We know that our forests are vulnerable to threats and most of those are human-caused," Muth said.
Primarily due to people's movements, invasive plants have been introduced to the forests, and those non-native species have overtaken many of the native trees, thereby changing the food web for wildlife, since insects and grazers prefer the native plants.
Even the southern green menace kudzu is moving into southern Pennsylvania, due to the changing climate, Muth said.
Another problem for the chestnut, hemock and white pine trees filling southeastern Pennsylvania's forests is encroaching development.
"We've broken up the forests into smaller parcels and that fragmentation also changes the land," Muth said.
"When practicing forestry, the goal is to mimic natural disturbance, the way a forest grows," she said. "Trees are always competing against each other, competing for resources."
There's more to a forest than just trees, said Rick Hartlieb, assistant district forester for Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Every forest is brimming with birds and wildlife, as well as insects and streams, and all sorts of plants, including scrub brush and weeds.
"Managing your forest is like managing your garden; it just takes 80 years or longer," Hartlieb said. "You take care of the weeds and promote new seedlings. Once the trees grow high enough, they can make it."
Older trees that eventually die out create spaces for more light to enter the forest, and the cycle begins again.
Forests go through several stages of development, Muth said; young forests are rich in food for wildlife, with leaves and twigs close to the ground.
Dense forests make it more difficult for predators to get in, helping the bird population.
Many private landowners contact foresters for help taking care of their forests. Top concerns are improving the forest habitat for wildlife, or ways to repair the forest after weather damage or bad cutting practices in the past.
Forest owners have a soft spot for their land, Hartlieb said.
"Cutting trees and making money from them is pretty far down on the list," Hartlieb said.
Under the DCNR's Bureau of Forestry, every county in Pennsylvania has its own service forester, a resource person who will even make house calls, of sorts.
Harris Nowotarski is the service forester for Lehigh and Bucks counties and covers the southeastern portion of the state. He's also responsible for the state forests in the same region.
"As a service forester, we field all questions from landowners and from municipalities," Nowotarski said. "It could be about a tree that looks sick or has a fungus, and we will come out and look at it as a free service."
The forestry bureau is being inundated with questions about the spotted lanternfly, an invasive pest threatening primarily hardwoods and vineyards.
"Property owners want to know the best ways to keep a healthy forest," Nowotarski said.
Answering their questions usually involves a "walk and talk," Nowotarski said, checking out the forest and looking for invasive species.
"Unfortunately, it's a tough battle against invasive species," he said.
Species like the ailanthus, or tree of heaven, often overwhelm native species by growing faster and being more prolific seeders.
"If a landowner wants to cut trees, we make sure they do it in a sustainable way," Nowotarski said. "Trees age, too, and to keep the forest going, you may need to decide which ones to cull."
Julianne Schieffer, an urban forester for the Penn State Ecosystem Service and Management team for the Southeast Pennsylvania Region, gives talks called "Woods in Your Backyard." Last past summer, the "Woods" program went online, reaching the whole country, Schieffer said.
"Whether you have a remnant woods or an actual forest, the program is designed to reduce the fragmentation that has happened to a lot of our landscapes here," she said. "We want them to think about their treasured woodlands differently. I tell people my job is to create habitat for humans, as we explore the benefits these woodlands can bring to you."
Schieffer explains options for reducing the "edge" effect. As forests become more fragmented, the edges are more easily invaded by invasive species, due to more sunlight.
"The underbrush is being eaten by wildlife," she said. "When you can look straight through a forest, it's not healthy."
Some bird species will only nest in heavily forested areas, she said.
Schieffer has concerns about the Commonwealth's forests, saying, "I can see some problems with zoning and not looking at your community as a whole system, but just as a tax parcel.
"Trees and people are linked intrinsically; we require the gases they release," said Schieffer, noting how a walk in the woods lowers blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, and boosts the immune system.
Research has found that coming in contact with soft white pine needles activates T-cells, which activate the immune system, she said.
"Some of our goals are that people don't look at trees the same," Schieffer said. "We also work with the public for conservation zoning."
In Pennsylvania, landowners can get conservation easements to protect their forests. The easement is attached to the deed, which land trusts and conservancies enforce by inspecting the land every year.
"That way, they, and all future landowners cannot subdivide, cannot develop, because that land is protected," Muth said. "The goal is — we hope — toward a preserved forest that will be a forest for time to come. The expectation is forever."