Forests, multi-purpose rooms on the mountain

Color change at the top of the ridge.I walked in a portion of Michaux State Forest a few days ago. Splashes of white paint brushed onto trees along the trail were spaced out so one could stand at one and very nearly see the next one. The path was littered in alternating sections of oak leaves and pine needles. Here and there a few birds flittered through the branches, difficult to identify in the breaking darkness. A solitary squirrel scrambled through a long-needle pine.

I was raised in logging country. I’ve cut trees and twitched them out to staging areas where they were loaded on trucks to be hauled to the paper mill.

When I was young, those trees were two feet or more feet across, some more than three feet. They were the last relatives of trees that had served, first for masts for an English king’s sailing ships, then for ships to float the budding nation of the tree’s birth, and (fast forward a couple hundred years) to feed the nation’s need for paper, winter firewood and, later, to be processed into pellets for more efficient wood-burning furnaces.

Along the way, they were cut for lumber to build homes for the growing nation’s growing families.

Here in Pennsylvania, and other forested places, it was thought the forests would never run out. A young Gifford Pinchot (later to become first head of the federal Bureau of Forestry and then twice governor of the Commonwealth) was told by experts the forest grew much too quickly to ever run out of trees. We have since learned otherwise.

Several years back, Emanon (names, except Gifford Pinchot’s, are fictitious) was a town (not fictitious) that derived much of its cumulative income from cutting wood. There came to the town some new residents who thought it time to put some controls on the cutting, to slow down clear-cutting the mountains.

“My great-grandfather logged these mountains,” said Eli Strasbaugh, a resident logger in the town, continuing, “my grandfather logged these mountains, my father logged these mountains, and you’re not going to stop me earning a living.” His recital of pedigree bolstered his selection as spokesman for the “we don’t need job-killing regulations” group.

“The mountains were here before we got here and they’ll be here after we leave,” he said.

“But your ancestors cut with hand saws and pulled the trees out with horses and oxen. By the time you’d cut the second side of the mountain, the first side was nearly harvestable,” responded Mrs. McAllister, in her role as representative of those who saw a need for some rules in the forest removal game. “Now you have air-conditioned cutters that can cut the whole mountain in a couple days.”

Strasbaugh clearcut the mountain and heavy winter rains and spring runoff washed the fertile soil into town. Several months later, there was a logging ordinance in place.

Trees do many things for us. They hold the ground together and slow the flow of rain and snow melt as it washes toward nearby towns and rivers. Trees help filter water they draw through their trunks and branches to be evaporated by spring and summer leaves that, as they fall and compost into the soil, cushion footfalls of humans and other mammals. In the fall, as they shut down and lose their green-making chlorophyll, they draw crowds to country roads and mountain ridges to absorb the blaze of colors.

And they provide wonderful opportunities for mere humans to wander along mountain trails, listening and watching birds and other critters go about their daily lives. They are the original multi-purpose community room.

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