New York to Create Young Forest on 10 Percent of WMA Woodlands

New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has announced plans to manage at least 10 percent of forested stands on 90 of the agency’s 125 Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) as young forest.

Over the next ten years, DEC will use timber harvests and other management techniques to create young forest on approximately 12,000 of the 120,000 wooded acres on WMAs statewide. Those acres do not include areas of shrubland, which will be managed separately. DEC plans to maintain 10 percent of all WMA woodlands as young forest in perpetuity.

Ruffed grouse on nest

Young forest produced through carefully located timber harvests will boost ruffed grouse numbers on New York State Wildlife Management Areas./C. Fergus

Biologists, foresters, forestry technicians, and wildlife technicians will cooperate in developing Habitat Management Plans (HMPs) for siting young forest in strategic places on different WMAs.

Recently DEC administrators approved the first such plan, for Ashland Flats WMA in Jefferson County, where a 32-acre timber harvest will lead to replacing poor-quality Scotch pine and white spruce, planted in the 1970s, with native oaks and hickories offering better food and cover for wildlife. Other HMPs are pending approval in five additional DEC regions statewide.

The agency will host a public meeting to provide information on the Ashland Flats plan on Thursday, April 28, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. in room 100 of the Dulles State Office Building in Watertown, NY.

The Habitat Management Plan for Ashland Flats WMA will serve as a template for all other HMPs. While the format of the HMPs will be standardized, the content and management actions will be tailored to each WMA. DEC will post completed plans on the agency’s website and will hold local public information sessions prior to on-the-ground management.

White-tailed deer

White-tailed deer use young forest habitat, as do many other less-common wildlife species./USFWS

DEC explains the pressing need for young forest on a new webpage, noting that in the early 1900s New York State was more farmland than forest, but today 63 percent of the landscape is forested, with the age of the forest stands shifting to predominantly mature trees. While mature forests offer habitat to some kinds of wildlife, other animals need the thicker cover and abundant fruit and insect food afforded by the shoots and saplings of younger regrowing woodland.

Scot Williamson is a vice president with the Wildlife Management Institute, which helps oversee the New England Cottontail Conservation Strategy, the American Woodcock Conservation Plan, and the regionwide Young Forest Project. Says Williamson, "New York DEC’s Young Forest Initiative will help wildlife whose populations have been dwindling for the last half-century. It will bring much-needed age diversity to forest stands on New York's Wildlife Management Areas. It also provides a great example for other states committed to making the young forest habitat that is critically needed by wildlife in the Northeast today."

Historically, young forests were created by natural disturbances like wildfires, floods, insect outbreaks and changes to the landscape brought about by the tree-felling and stream-damming activities of beavers. Human activities such as logging and farmland abandonment also brought a young-forest component to the land.

Fresh clearcut timber harvest

Timber harvests on New York WMAs will mimic natural disturbances that once provided a bounty of food and cover for wildlife./C. Fergus

Today, however, we no longer allow many of those natural disturbances to take place, owing to our fire-suppression efforts, dams to control flooding, and managing beaver populations so their activities don’t harm human interests. Many conservationists agree that we now need to mimic those prior disturbances through active land management. A healthy landscape has a mosaic of habitat types, including both older and young forests, and thus can support a greater diversity of wildlife.

DEC will use a variety of management techniques to create and maintain young forest, with carefully planned timber harvests as the primary method. Timber harvesting is a traditional activity in New York. Logging and associated timber-processing activities support local economies, and timber sales from habitat projects on WMAs will bring financial returns that can be used for additional conservation-related work.

Among the animals that will benefit from an increase in the amount of young forest are ruffed grouse, American woodcock, whip-poor-will, golden-winged warbler, brown thrasher, New England cottontail, snowshoe hare, box turtle, and wood turtle. All are listed as Species of Greatest Conservation Need in New York. More common animals also use young forest, including white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, black bears, and many songbirds.

Biologists will monitor wildlife populations both before and after management. Monitoring may include doing songbird counts. Conservationists may evaluate the population response of American woodcock by following prescribed travel routes in spring and listening for the mating songs of male woodcock, considered by scientists to provide an accurate population assessment.

New England cottontail

Wildlife researchers study New England cottontails in young forest habitat on WMAs east of the Hudson River./A. Cheeseman

On WMAs east of the Hudson River, biologists and technicians will monitor New England cottontails to see how that species responds to additional new habitat. (Recent timber harvests on Cranberry Mountain WMA have already jump-started young forest for an existing population of New England cottontails.) The New England cottontail is considered a High-Priority Species of Greatest Conservation Need in New York, and DEC is a partner in implementing the New England Cottontail Conservation Strategy, a regionwide effort to provide adequate amounts of the young forest habitat that this native woods-dwelling rabbit needs.

Returning a young forest component to the landscape will also benefit humans, as hunters, bird-watchers, hikers, and other outdoors people will get to see more wildlife when they visit WMAs.

Funding to launch and implement the New York Young Forest Initiative came from Pittman-Robertson grants (75 percent) and DEC (25 percent). Pittman-Robertson funding, also known as P-R or wildlife restoration funds, derive from excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, and sporting equipment collected by the federal government and distributed to the states by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.