Forest Service shows legislators Morrison watershed

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey toured the lower end of Morrison Run on Thursday morning as a part of a 28-county, three-week-tour throughout Pennsylvania.

State Sen. Scott Hutchinson and state Rep. Kathy Rapp joined Toomey to meet with representatives from the Allegheny National Forest and discuss forest issues.

Erin Connelly, supervisor of the ANF, guided the tour of Morrison Run and explained the work that has been done to change the nearly ruined stream into an Exceptional Value stream, as defined by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

She also described the goals of the U.S. Forest Service’s multiple use policies, balancing recreation, habitat retention and improvement, logging to support forest health and the local, regional and national economies; and oil and gas development while minimizing its effects on the land and resources.

“The Allegheny is actually one of the few forests that actually turns a profit for the people of the United States. We have a high value black cherry in a very small, 25-mile diameter center that is the highest value black cherry in the world,” she said.

Connelly noted that the recreational aspects of the ANF are often overlooked, but a large number of people come here for snowmobiling, hunting and fishing.

She added, “While we don’t manage the wildlife, we do manage the habitat.”

“This particular project was done with a number of different partners, Trout Unlimited (and) local landowners, to remove a dam and restore the free-flow, not only improving the habitat for the native brook trout, but also reducing erosion and sedimentation,” she said.

Toomey asked about the trout populations, and Connelly said the numbers are improving upstream, based on electro-fishing surveys done in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Nadine Pollock, ecosystems management staff officer, and Lori Elmquist, public affairs specialist with the ANF, pointed out the use of logs partially buried along the streambanks to reduce erosion, and other techniques used to improve the streambed and banks. Connelly added that maintaining roads on the forest also helps with reducing erosion and sedimentation.

Connelly said, “We have so much great water here, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We have, next to Alaska, the most miles of stream in the whole nation.”

Speaking of issues like oil and gas development, she said the Forest Service needs to maintain its mission to preserve the resources in perpetuity, while acknowledging that people have private rights and need access.

Hutchinson said, “Many folks that are involved in the forest industry want to make sure that the optimum amount of timber is taken from the forest both for the health of the forest, as well as for the economics of the region. In the last decade, decade and a half, the amount of board feet coming off the forest is… down.”

Toomey asked, “Does the Forest Service actually regulate the amount of timber that can be taken?”

Connelly replied, “We provide sales that are purchased by private folks that then process it for lumber or veneer.”

Noting that the Land and Resource Management plan, which was revised in 2007 from the 1986 plan, she said, “We’ve got 54.3 million board feet based on what we see in the ecosystem, what we think that the resources can handle, that could and should be removed (to) create the forest that we want, and maintain the forest in perpetuity. That is what you often hear as the allowable sales quantity.”

Toomey asked, “And that’s over what period of time?”

She answered, “That would be an annual value, and the plan is split into two decades. From that, based on the budget and the capacity, we will have a target that is set regionally for us on the Allegheny that comes from Washington.”

Connelly explained that not only has the plan volume dropped, the annual target and has dropped annually. “This year we’ll be producing around 33.7 million board feet; last year it was about 35. It’s been as high as probably 80 (million board feet), but that has been spikes because of wind events or disasters.”

She added that the Forest Service is working with industry to provide what it needs and to shift ecosystem to create younger stands of timber for a healthy forest, with a balance of ages and species diversity.

Rapp said, “When we talk about the harvesting of the timber, remember this is a 500,000-plus acre forest in Warren, Forest, McKean and Elk (counties). That’s land that’s not going to be developed, that (would) add to our economy. So our rural schools, our counties and our townships depend on that funding coming back from the harvest of our timber.”

Hutchinson wondered why the Forest Service says it cannot afford to cut more timber, when it make a profit from the logging.

Connelly replied, “The funds that we receive, most of it goes back to the (U.S.) Treasury, and (our funding) comes down through appropriated dollars to do more work. We also have the stewardship contracting which allows us to retain some of the receipts locally, about 25 percent of the volume we produce locally… so that like a business, we can take those funds and put it back into work that will help to grow trees. It also helps us to do things like stream improvements.”

Toomey said, “I assume there is a lot of input from the community, it’s an open proces. Does everybody feel under the current plan there is a general consensus that we’ve got to the right place, or is it still pretty contentious?”

That drew some laughter from others in the group, and Connelly replied, “There was a lot of involvement (from the community) That’s the trick, the challenge in managing a national forest is finding that balance, that’s going to manage the habitat, that’s going to produce the goods and services that we need to keep the economies running.”

“The Allegheny National Forest is very important to a lot of people, not only in the production of timber, but for recreation, habitat and just finding peace and solitude in the few areas where we don’t have a lot of roads. We have a lot going on,” she added.

Shifting gears to the oil and gas industry, Connelly noted that the ANF has been processing about 300 wells a year, mostly shallow wells, working with private developers on locations of the roads to minimize impacts on resources. She added that there are currently about 3,000 wells on the national forest, and about ten are Marcellus shale wells.

Connelly went over invasive species issues and possible solutions and then returned to the improvements made on Morrison Run

The Morrison Run watershed was the pilot project for the Allegheny Watershed Improvement Needs Coalition, consisting of non-profit organizations, individuals, and local, state and federal government agencies partnering to promote protection, restoration and habitat improvements in watersheds that lie entirely or partially within the ANF. Twenty restoration projects have been completed in the Morrison watershed since 2007.