Good Forest Management Yields Wildlife Oasis

By Justin Fritscher, for #Fridaysonthefarm, an online publication of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

Note: Any landowner or conservation professional will appreciate this story of excellent wildlife habitat work being done by a husband and wife in rural Pennsylvania. Whether you want to help New England cottontails in Connecticut, or American woodcock in Wisconsin, there are great lessons to be learned from the following story. To enjoy it as a multimedia presentation, including maps and high-quality color photographs, click here.

This Friday, we head to Bedford County, Pennsylania, where avid birders Mike and Laura Jackson are managing their forests to provide high-quality habitat for wildlife.

For Mike and Laura, many mornings begin with hot tea and birds. This particular morning, they spotted a mourning dove, a pileated woodpecker and many others. And the retired science teachers jot down the types and numbers of birds they see each day.

Landowners Mike and Laura Jackson

Mike and Laura Jackson own 114 acres in southcentral Pennsylvania, where they are managing their forests to yield top-notch wildlife habitat./NRCS

Their morning drink even reminds them of a bird -- the Eastern towhee, whose song sounds like, “Drink your tea.”

While they bird in some exotic places, much of their time is spent at home on their property, Mountain Meadows, which is home to 114 acres of forestland that they’re actively managing to provide high-quality habitat for a variety of species.

“I have a passion for wildlife and consider myself a nature lover,” Laura says.

One day, they hope to spot a golden-winged warbler on their land. This at-risk songbird spends its spring and summers in the Appalachians, where it seeks patches of young forest for breeding and nesting.

Young Forests

Mike and Laura live in a sea of green in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains near Everett, Pennsylvania.

Across the East, forests are all about the same age. At the turn of the 20th Century, widespread logging set the stage for a landscape of even-aged forests. Nowadays, development, fire suppression, pests and either a lack of management or poor management have impacted the health of forests across the region.

young forest habitat on Jackson woodlands

Fencing keeps deer out of regrowing trees, allowing young forest to come in thick./NRCS

Different species need different ages of forest for survival. In the case of the golden-winged warbler, they nest amid young trees and thick shrubs, but when the next generation is ready to leave the nest, they head for older forests. The golden-winged warbler is often regarded as a flagship species for diverse forests, as it needs different ages of forests at different times of its life.

Landowners like the Jacksons are bringing active management back to the forest. They are using a variety of sustainable forestry practices to manage for those patches of young forest that the golden-winged warbler needs for nesting, all while putting their land on track to be a healthier, higher quality forest.

The Jacksons worked with foresters, scientists, government agencies and loggers to control non-native and invasive plants, exclude deer in certain areas and remove less desirable trees. The healthiest trees were retained for the long-term. These residual trees provide food like hickory nuts and acorns for turkeys and other wildlife and song perches and places to forage for birds like the golden-winged warbler.

“We have an area of about 30 acres that we logged to improve the habitat for golden-winged warblers and attract species that rely on young forest habitat,” Mike says.

With the majority of the trees removed, more sunlight reaches the ground, spurring lots of new growth. It’s not just the golden-winged warbler that prospers. Many game and non-game species flourish in young forest habitat, including American woodcock, white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse and wild turkey.

golden-winged warbler

Mike and Laura Jackson manage their land by using sustainable timber harvests to create habitat for golden-winged warblers. The same approach can help other young forest wildlife, including American woodcock, New England cottontail, box and wood turtles, and many more./NRCS

“Families, hunting clubs and other private forest landowners managing for wildlife habitat and timber production can benefit from sustainably managed forests,” said Emily Heggenstaller, a golden-winged warbler partner biologist with NRCS who helped the Jacksons plan and carry out their forestry practices.

The Jacksons received ample help along the way. They worked with NRCS and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, as well as several other conservation partners to plan and implement sustainable forestry practices.

They are part of a regional conservation effort to manage habitat for the golden-winged warbler, called Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), which has led to the creation of 13,000-plus acres of habitat throughout Appalachia. As part of the effort, NRCS covers part of the cost for implementing practices, such as early successional habitat development and management, forest stand improvement and brush management.

“The focus of this effort is to create habitat for these at-risk songbirds while also encouraging sustainable forestry and diversity, which in turn also benefits other wildlife species,” said Brad Michael, NRCS district conservationist in Bedford. “It’s a win-win and a great opportunity for all those involved.”

It’s Not Just for the Birds

The Jacksons are more than birders. Mountain Meadows is home to many other wildlife species.
“We wake up excited every morning with this long list of things we want to do outside,” Laura says.

They plant milkweed to provide a food source for monarch butterflies, which also seek out this plant to lay its eggs. Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed. They planted native wildflowers and grasses for other insects.

They also have vernal pools, which are isolated pockets of water in the springtime that are free of fish, where frogs and salamanders can reproduce and thrive.

“We have to speak for the wildlife. They don’t have a voice,” Laura says. “I feel that we have an obligation as humans to protect the wildlife that actually sustains us, so this whole concept of wilderness and nature should be a part of us. I consider this my little piece of paradise and I want to protect it as much as I can.”

Mike and Laura believe in sharing their passion for nature with others. They are active in their local Audubon chapter and Woodland Owners group, and they gladly open up their property gates for others. “We’re both retired science teachers, and everything around us, we have a fascination for and want to learn more about,” Mike says.


Check out this related story, Tracking Songbird Success in Pennsylvania Forests.