Pennsylvania remains fond of using the term Penn’s Woods historically to celebrate William Penn’s native forest lands and to show modern-day appreciation for what’s left of them. One day, a massive storm comes along – for instance Hurricane Sandy – and damages these woods, leaving woodlot owners with tremendous cleanup expense and likely a revenue crisis.

The PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (PA-DCNR) and its Bureau of Forestry has been providing technical assistance to help the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Farm Service Agency (FSA) rescue private woodlot owners, helping them to plant new trees, or even just pay with cleanup. The so-called Emergency Forest Restoration Program (EFRP) has been a welcomed friend when nature has been a foe.

Post-Hurricane Sandy destruction

On one Bucks County woodlot, signs of Sandy’s unforgiving path are still everywhere from an immense singular solid-ball uprooted oak that remains on its side in a valley due to massive pine devastation. In all, the owners, who do not wish to be identified, lost in excess of 200 trees, the vast majority of them between 10 and 15 inches in diameter, largely in sections off their long driveway, but also in swaths elsewhere.

In what is a state stewardship forest on which there’s also a conservation easement, the couple consistently used foresters, experimented and devoted countless hours and funds, anything to promote the continued growth and expansion of natives in the 30 years since building a home in Penn’s Woods. But they’re still a bit stymied when thinking back to Sandy.

The woodlot owner called sawmills and asked what value was left in the fallen trees – nothing. “We didn’t want to sell to a sawmill anyway,” the anonymous source insisted. “But we had to figure out a way to reduce our costs.”

EFRP covered about a third of their expenses, which totaled $75,000. All the cleanup and restoration work was completed and paid up-front, then $21,800 of it was reimbursed by the state. A retired actuary, the landowner charted and documented every stitch of the work in an Excel worksheet, and when state agents arrived for verification they were afraid that the couple expected to have everything covered. Quite the contrary. “We said, ‘We know. It’s okay. We just wanted you to know what was done,'” the owner said. “The state bent over backwards to give us what it could.”

Permanent FSA program

Pennsylvania has issued $48,178 in EFRP cost-share payments to date for 18 completed projects in Bucks County, the one Sandy hit the hardest, and the only county to implement the program. These will not be the final numbers. “Participants had two years from the approval of their assistance application to complete the work and request payment, so the work’s ongoing,” Trystan Corliss, an agricultural program specialist for Pennsylvania’s FSA, said.

The program is a permanent FSA program, although the funding and application period is specific to each disaster. Landowners may still apply in other states for disaster relief, but the Hurricane Sandy application period has passed.

Listening to the anonymous woodlot owner assess her woodlot’s history – and Sandy’s damage – it’s the voice of experience. She has an undergraduate degree in botany, a master’s in plant physiology and a Ph.D. in mycology, the study of mushrooms. She sits on the township’s open space committee and the local conservancy.

“We did all the work first, then hoped for help,” the owner said, stooping to pick a few mushrooms called Plums and Custard in England. “We did not expect help because that means you think you’re going to get it. We were going to do this anyway because it’s the right thing to do. We consider ourselves stewards in the truest sense – and this property is already better than it was 30 years ago.”

On their own, and with EFRP’s help, they planted native wildflowers, fifty 2-inch-plus caliper trees (about half their replacement goal), even a dozen almost 100 percent grown-back-through-hybrid-experimentation American chestnut trees, but the program helped mostly with the cleanup work. Though massive, it was less invasive by choice.

Though the loss of pioneer trees is felt, it’s also amazing how the additional sunlight that now hits their forest has promoted regeneration. The sun is making everything that’s younger – spice bushes, hackberry, ash, maple – pop in what’s still a dense understudy.

That’s particularly in the area where they’ve excluded deer. When it was browsed down you could see for a mile to the next farm. Fifteen years ago the first fencing went up in a single man’s labor of love. Though it took her husband three years to finish himself – and since the storm they’ve erected even better fencing that’s come with a 20-year guarantee – he defended against deer with 8-foot fencing in a 10- to 12-acre area.

The couple has also permitted arranged hunting and universally practiced sustainable philosophies. Even the couple’s foresters could not understand the preference for letting the fallen trees lie rather than clearing them after Sandy wreaked havoc. She had them trim the limbs so the trees could get even closer to the forest floor, and cut the logs into sections to promote quicker, natural decay. She even purchased mushroom plugs and hand-drilled holes into the logs to help with decomposition.

Neighbors with equal damage had trees cleared, removed and chipped. They didn’t even leave snags for woodpeckers. “I said, ‘Don’t take anything away,'” the woodlot owner said. “I mean, leave me a few chips (from the limbs for pathways through their woods), but that’s all. They kept asking, ‘Do you really want this – all the logs to lie in place?'”

She’s just as happy to have the nutrients that those trees took from the earth for 70 or 80 years returned to it. Regeneration – natural and aided with replanting (and EFRP’s help) – will take a while – “not in our lifetimes (she’s 77; he’s 82), but just think how rich that soil will be,” the owner said.

Ockanickon Scout Reservation

Not far away in Pipersville, Pennsylvania, Hurricane Sandy caused significant blowdown in approximately 50 acres of east-facing slopes of predominantly upland mixed hardwoods and in a southern quadrant of planted pine at Camp Ockanickon, a 250-acre Boy Scouts of America property along the banks of the Tohickon Creek.

In September 2013, the Washington Crossing Council was approved for an EFRP cost-share grant of up to $231,000. When the work is completed, it will help cover 11 authorized cost and forest management components for site cleanup and forest restoration. Key components of the EFRP project include debris removal, invasive plant treatments, planting temporary cover then hardwood seedlings as well as tree shelters, tree stakes, shrubs and even planting labor.

“I don’t think we’ll reach that total, but as I told the Scout Executive, you may never get a chance like this again to build a right proper forest and the scouts should have one,” said Frank Carroll, a forester who focuses on the evaluation of large timberland investments for investors and on operational reviews, and who took the volunteer lead on this project.

The plan calls for the entire 50-acre area to be cleared of debris (a process that began in May and followed with treatments for invasive species in June) prior to planting in the fall for the cleared areas and early spring in the as-yet uncleared areas if the winter weather cooperates. The council is considering black gum, white/red/chestnut oaks, American chestnut seedlings, mockernut hickory and groupings of white and or Virginia pine if the soil is a good match. In the wet southern quadrant of former pine, the plan is to plant pin oak and swamp white oaks.

To augment the seedling planting, foresters and FSA approved the planting of acorns and hickory nuts that the scouts will use volunteer crews to harvest in September. Tree tubes will protect the future seedlings. “This will be a great conservation and service project for the scouts,” Carroll said.

Photo Courtesy of Boy Scouts of America Washington Crossing Council