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.
DEC explains the pressing need for young forest, noting that in the early 1900s New York State was more farmland than forest. However, today 63 percent of the landscape is forested and those woodlands are shifting to predominantly middle-aged and mature trees. While mature forests offer habitat to some kinds of wildlife, other animals need the dense cover and abundant fruit and insect foods offered by younger, thicker re-growing woodland. Among those 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.
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 of beavers. Human activities such as logging and farmland abandonment also brought a young-forest component to the land. Today, however, humans no longer allow many of those natural disturbances to take place, suppressing wildfires, building 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. DEC planners will determine where and which habitat management practices will be most effective at creating and maintaining the projected 10 percent young forest component on state WMAs. Those techniques may include non-commercial timber-cutting, controlled burning, mowing or hydro-axing shrubs, and replacing non-native invasive plants with native ones.
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 of these plans for Ashland Flats WMA in Jefferson County. For this property, a 32-acre timber harvest will replace poor-quality Scotch pine and white spruce, planted in the 1970s, with native oaks and hickories that will offer better food and cover for wildlife. Other HMPs are pending approval in five additional DEC regions statewide. 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 to the agency’s website and will hold local public information sessions prior to on-the-ground management.
Biologists will monitor wildlife populations both before and after management. Monitoring may include doing songbird counts. Biologists may also evaluate the population densities 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. 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.
On WMAs east of the Hudson River, biologists and technicians will monitor numbers of New England cottontails to see how that species responds to additional new habitat. 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 that this native woods-dwelling rabbit needs. The Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) is helping to oversee the New England Cottontail Conservation Strategy, as well as the American Woodcock Conservation Plan and the regionwide Young Forest Project.
“New York DEC’s Young Forest Initiative will help wildlife whose populations have been dwindling for the last half-century,” said Scot Williamson, vice president with WMI. “It will bring much-needed age diversity to forest stands on the state’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.”
Three-quarters of the funding to launch and implement the New York Young Forest Initiative came from Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration (Pittman-Robertson) grants, and DEC provided the remainder. 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.