Beartown Family Limited Partnership’s forest property in State College, Pennsylvania, was acquired from the Lehigh Valley Coal Co. in 1943, when it was determined the property wasn’t profitable enough for coal production. The family business name stems from an outcropping of house-sized limestone rocks called bear rocks.
The 2,087-acre property, known as Beartown, is owned and managed by the Shoemaker-Benedict family, which includes Susan Benedict and her brother, Michael Shoemaker. They’re members of the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and the partnership was named the ATFS 2012 Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year in Pennsylvania. Beartown has been with the state tree farm program since 2007.
“It’s about doing the right thing,” said Benedict, who chairs the ATFS Pennsylvania committee and is also on the Pennsylvania Forestry Association Board, which administers the Pennsylvania ATFS program.
ATFS is a program of the Washington, D.C.-based American Forest Foundation’s Center for Family Forests. Dating to 1941, it remains the oldest private forest landowners organization in the U.S. In Pennsylvania, there are 600 members, but there are 700,000 landowners in Pennsylvania with more than 5 acres. “We have a lot of outreach to do to get people engaged,” she said. “The key is relationship building.”
The ATFS mission is to promote the growth of renewable forest resources on private lands while protecting the environmental benefits and increasing public understanding of the benefits of productive forests. ATFS offers both certification and recognition components, and established standards and guidelines for property owners to meet and maintain as Certified Tree Farm owners. The program’s diamond-shaped signs state the four components of sustainable forestry: wood, water, wildlife and recreation.
Benedict oversees a forest of primarily red oak with white oak, hickory, shagbark hickory, rock oak and some ash. The property also boasts 2 miles of pristine trout stream, and the entire tract is in a sensitive water area. The family planted white pine seedlings to generate future tree cover in case the current hemlock cover gets wiped out. They’ve seen what invasive insects can do; between 2008 and 2011, the gypsy moth devoured the property’s oak trees, and a related subsequent fungus is still killing red oak trees.
The emphasis for any ATFS tree farm is on best management practices (BMPs) for harvesting, maintaining stream quality, etc., according to compliance with the highest standards so that “resources are protected and useful for everybody, not just landowners,” Benedict stated. “There’s a societal benefit to properly managing forests.”
Beartown requires “a lot of work,” Benedict said. And there’s a constant search for commercial avenues to keep the property in the family. Benedict’s three sons will be the fourth generation, and her granddaughter the fifth.
“It takes money to hold onto [it],” stated Benedict. Her husband, Leroy, is a retired carpenter, and she works full time as an accountant.
The family has always managed the forest for timber production, but within a prescribed ATFS management plan they now also manage it to maintain riparian buffer zones, to promote pollinators, and to supply the necessary balance of forest floor woody debris for mammals, amphibians and reptiles.
There’s also a long-maintained gas lease. Shortly after Benedict’s grandfather, Carey Shoemaker, purchased the land, geologists approached him, explaining that minerals could be a crop, too. “It turned out to be prophetic,” Benedict said.
A wind farm lease is tied up due to politics, but the family is dabbling in non-timber forest products, and considering cultivating ginseng, growing mushrooms and sugaring the property’s maple trees.
Another source of income stems from an active deer management plan. The family protects the coyote population, which helps maintain a balance in the ecosystem that’s also populated by black bears and bobcats. “We feel really proud that whatever should be in our habitat is there,” Benedict said.
The ATFS is struggling with the clash between traditional forestry (logging) and more sustainable, long-term forestry.
“They’re very different and involve a very different approach,” said Raul Chiesa. He and his wife, Janet Sredy, are part owners and manage Beckets Run Woodlands in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, which was named the 2014 ATFS Outstanding Tree Farm of the Year in Pennsylvania.
ATFS is in the process of reorganizing, seeking to shake off stagnation and build further capacity and sustainability of the state programs. Part of the problem is the variation of stakeholders. A landowner like Becketts Run Woodlands with 110 acres is seemingly different than one with 10,000 acres, although Chiesa said all landowners, even family farms, should run their operations as businesses.
“Our crop is hunting leases,” Chiesa noted. “Our next one will be carbon trading, and then conservation backing – the concept that when you allow development in one area of the forest that can be damaging, you intentionally take care of another area to negate the side effects. You add a positive side to restore biodiversity,” he explained. “It’s sustainable management that will have value. We’re trading the same as if we were trading crops. In the long term, the commodities will be water and air. It’s a different level of ethics: the understanding that you may own the land, but the management of that land is beyond you. You own the land, but the forest is all of ours.”
That philosophy, an ATFS approach, flies in the face of traditional land ownership, where positive change often resulted from a wealthy landowner putting money into his land. Chiesa and Sredy believe you can affect change with your resources, the available incentives and education. “With each move we’ve made, we see improvements in our property,” Sredy added.
Noting that their timber isn’t of the highest quality, Sredy said they capitalize on a robust deer population and strong Pennsylvania sporting tradition.
“It’s not just an ethical position on balancing the ecosystem, there’s also an economics behind it,” Chiesa said. “We’re trying to use our resources wisely.”
A natural gas pipeline runs through the acreage in compliance with ATFS guidelines and fits the necessity of generating tree farm income. Though the natural gas line is in an area where they are no longer permitted to plant trees, they’ve been able to convert it into a wildlife habitat corridor, planted with native forbes and wildflowers to provide food and shelter for game and pollinators.
The couple is also working to improve the timber crop. There are about 20 acres of 60- to 80-year-old trees in an area that has been treated to remove and control invasive and undesirable vegetation. They’re prepping for a shelter wood cut there, and looking at ATFS-certified timber markets to see where they might fit in.
They’re cutting down trees primarily to help improve the ecosystem, and not necessarily to make quick money. “We’re not taking down the large beautiful trees in that area; they are the mother and father of trees in the future, there’s no way we’re cutting down those,” Chiesa said.
They utilize certified foresters. “We own the land, but that doesn’t qualify us to manage it,” Chiesa explained. “These people have gone to school to do this, and they have a place in society because of it.”
The 110 acres, originally puchased for agricultural use, have been in Sredy’s family since the early 1920s. The property was divided up, with some shares being sold outside the family, and started to decline, hitting a low point in the 1950s and 1960s. By 2007, all the shares were back in family ownership, but the property was a haven for dirt bike riders and other trespassers.
They began carrying a camera to “shoot” poachers, posting their photos online to help identify them. One confrontation led to an arrest, court and a judgment for trespassing and damaging soil and vegetation. The couple took the awarded damages and began a scholarship fund that’s already helped three applicants interested in studying natural resources.
“It’s been a major undertaking between then and now,” Sredy said. “The typical [ATFS state] winner is a big timber company up north, but everything we’ve heard is that what we’ve done in such a short amount of time is so impressive and that there are so many other properties like ours that need improvement that we just have to get our story out.”
Chiesa said, “A lot of what we do is try to get people on the same page and having the same conversation. Teaching people is what will make the changes occur. We have to continue to create the habitat, and then it will be just like the woodcock that came back to our property, they will come to us.”