Tree Farmer Dedicated to Preserving Penn’s Woods

6/8/2013 7:00 AM
By Laura Zoeller Southwestern Pa. Correspondent

OLD CONCORD, Pa. — John Burnham had long had an interest in forestry when he he took over management of 550 acres of family property in southwestern Pennsylvania.

His dedication to managing the more than 450 acres of trees on his property, as well as his enthusiasm for educating and assisting others in their tree farming endeavors, earned him the Pennsylvania Tree Farm Program’s Tree Farmer of the Year award in 2010.

Burnham continues to educate others as often as possible, and a recent Kids Day was held at his Old Concord property to further that mission.

“Pennsylvania forests are at risk of disappearing,” Burnham said. “Most of our state’s forestland is under private ownership, meaning that when individuals sell their lands, the woods become fragmented.

“Often, just before or shortly after a sale, lands are timbered, which when done improperly can cost woods diversity that takes generations to come back,” he said.

“It also allows invasive species to come in and cause further damage to remaining trees,” he said. “I am trying to manage my woodlot in such a way that it will still be around to pass on to my children.”

To that end, Burnham was instrumental in founding the Southwestern Pennsylvania Woodlot Owners Association.

“SWPWO was formed in 1999 after it was discovered that many people in the area had an interest in proper woodlot management, but little know-how of how to go about doing it, or how to locate resources and information,” Burnham said.

“This organization believes in sound woodland management practices which encourage the diverse use of forests for timber production, wildlife habitat, watershed protection and recreation,” he said “Essentially, we do what any other farmer does — we manage our property to meet our needs, but we work with trees instead of animals.”

There are three main things Burnham does to manage his trees.

“I perform crop tree management, which means I look at a stand of trees and assess them for health,” Burnham said. “Instead of letting natural selection choose which trees stay — which could mean the largest stays instead of the healthiest — I select and remove trees which are unhealthy, damaged or in any other way less likely to survive over time.

“I also actively plant stands of trees,” he said. “These plantations are laid out geometrically, which allows me to mow between them and prevents the trees from having to compete so hard for nutrition.

“Even in the areas where I have planted trees, if they start growing in such a way that indicates their health is compromised, I will remove them to give the other trees the best possible chance.

“The third thing tree farmers do is combat invasive species,” Burnham said. “Multifloral roses, ailanthus, honeysuckle, Japanese barberry and oriental bittersweet can all be problematic for trees.

“The oriental bittersweet, for example, can strangle a tree as it climbs,” he said. “I attempt to control these invasives on all 450 acres, though doing a smaller area very well can be much more effective than trying to do a little bit on the whole property.”

To fulfill his mission of providing a venue for outreach and education, and to give the next generation an appreciation for the woods, Burnham and his wife, Maureen, recently held a gathering titled Mysteries of the Forest Tour.

“This event was designed to educate on a child’s level,” he said. “We hiked through the woods, made bluebird houses, watched a wildlife artist paint and talked about what is in the woods.”

Gay Thistle, president of the woodlot owners group, talked about the makeup of the organization.

“Tree farmers are a wide-reaching group,” she said. “Some are interested in lumbering, others in wildlife management or hunting, and still others in wildlife art. SWPWO offers them all a place to get together and share ideas and resources.

“Private landowners need help to maintain these types of properties,” she said, “to keep these woodlots from development and make certain they last.

“Tree farmers are a unique group, for sure. They are planting and cultivating a product that, in many instances, they won’t live to see harvested,” Thistle said. “They must have a long-range vision to succeed.”

For instance, Burnham planted a stand of walnut trees in 1998 that he expects to be able to harvest in about 20 more years.

“They grow about a half an inch a year in diameter,” he said, laughing, “so they should be at about the 18-inch range in a couple more decades. I think they will be veneer-grade then.”

Burnham also has allowed his property to be used as a test-plot for an experimental hybrid of the American chestnut species.

“The American chestnut was one of the most prolific trees before 1910,” Burnham said. “They were great for timber because they grew so straight, and the nuts were ground by settlers for flour.

“A blight all but wiped them out by 1950,” he said. “In recent years, the American Chestnut Foundation has crossed them with a Chinese chestnut to be more blight resistant, and I have a plantation of the hybrids on my farm.

“The plan is, that by choosing the seeds off of the healthiest trees, we will be able to bring back the American chestnut in a blight-resistant strain,” he said.

“It is my hope,” Burnham said, “that through organizations like SWPWO and events like the Mysteries tour, that we can really emphasize the importance of woodlots in this state. We want every generation to understand why woods have value and why woodlots need preserved.”

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