Following a petitioned request by Gov. Tom Corbett, the U.S. Forest Service has designated 98.5 percent of Allegheny National Forest an insect and disease treatment area.
This does not mean that nearly all of the forest is set to receive chemical, biological or other treatments, however. Rather, the landscape scale designation, given through the authority granted by the 2014 Farm Bill, is meant to expedite specific treatment projects when they arise, according to forest officials.
“It just gives us more tools in our tool box when we have an insect infestation or disease in need of treatment,” ecosystems staff officer Nadine Pollock told The Era on Thursday. “It allows us to take the action we need in a fully collaborative fashion so that we can have healthy and resilient forests for future generations.”
Pollock said the designation, which went into effect on May 20, applies to all parts of the forest except for those which are designated wilderness by Congress, such as the Hickory Creek Wilderness Area. The reason likely being that some treatment against invasive pests and diseases involves tree-cutting, especially when many dead trees are left in the wake of an infestation, according to Allegheny National Forest silviculturist Andrea Hille.
“Here on the Allegheny, the idea of widespread harvesting is not in our thought process,” Pollock said, noting forest personnel strive to do all they can to maintain a healthy, functioning ecosystem which requires rich biodiversity.
Each national forest across the country had the opportunity to by nominated as a whole or for specific projects within it to be nominated for the designation. Pollock said many parties discussed the matter at length and decided to do a landscape-scale designation due to the widespread threat of so many insects and diseases and so that any particular area could be treated as needed.
“At this point we don’t have a specific project in mind,” Pollock said. “Projects could involve, for example, spraying for gypsy moth or treat other kinds of treatments for invasive species. If the time comes that we have a project that we could use these tools, it will be a fully transparent, fully collaborative effort.”
She also said the designation will make the Allegheny more competitive for any treatment funding that is made available.
“Oftentimes, there are stipulations that come with that kind of money,” Pollock explained. “You have to have a designated insect and disease area, and now we can say, ‘yes, we have been designated’, and that helps our eligibility right away.”
In the farm bill, the federal government has authorized, but not yet appropriated, $200 million a year for the next 10 years for insect and disease treatment on national forests nationwide. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they will be funding specifically, but that’s an optimistic figure,” Hille said.
Additionally, the farm bill designation enables the Forest Service to use categorical exclusions, meaning they can avoid duplication of time and money intensive studies when carrying out treatments.
“A categorical exclusion means that we have done a project or similar project that has been fully analyzed before and we know the outcome,” Pollock explained. “If we have a new project that is very similar or identical, a categorical exclusion allows us to move forward on the project without repeating extensive environmental analysis.
“We want to use the work that has been done in advance for us where we can expect a reasonably similar outcome,” she continued. “These exclusions provided in the farm bill allow us that leeway. It is standard terminology for the National Environmental Policy Act.”
The farm bill and the designation also allow for larger treatment areas — up to 3,000 acres at a time. “These areas are larger and they need to be developed collaboratively with different groups and to engage the public at that point in time when proposals are being put together,” Hille said on the matter.
Currently, there are numerous threats and risks to the tree species on the Allegheny National Forest — invasive species and diseases that have been introduced to the ecosystem over the years and are poised to take a serious toll on the health and biodiversity of the forest.
The growing list of insects and diseases on the Allegheny include Beech bark disease complex, which covers the entire forest and is expected to kill 95 percent of American beech trees; hemlock woolly adelgid, which was found on the forest in 2013 and has all but eradicated Eastern Hemlock trees in southern forests; gypsy moth, an insect that favors oak species and defoliated around 105,000 acres on the Allegheny in 2013; emerald ash borer, which causes mortality to all North American ash species, was found in 2013 and is now likely established on the Allegheny; sirex woodwasp, which causes decline and mortality in a variety of pine species, including red and white pines; and native defoliators such as eastern tent caterpillars, cherry scallop shell moth, elm spanworm and fall webworm.
“You look at all the pests and diseases individually and each of the tree species all those different pests are targeting, then you look at it taken altogether and it adds up to a large potential impact cumulatively across the landscape,” Hille said.
In April, Corbett’s administration issued a press release detailing his petition to use the provision of the farm bill to designate the forest as an insect and disease treatment area. In it, they reference annual health surveys by the Forest Service and the support of the Pennsylvania State Forest Resource Assessment, the National Insect and Disease Risk Map, the Allegheny National Forest final environmental impact statement and a substantial number of published scientific studies which all paint a bleak picture should the many ailments of the Allegheny go untreated.
“Intermingled ownership patterns within the ANF landscapes pose unique hazards to public and potentially private infrastructure,” the press release states. “The ANF has a great diversity of tree species, including 38 inventoried commercial tree species and nine non-commercial tree species. Most of these species are currently impacted by or are vulnerable ...”
“It really is a challenging and interesting time to work in natural resources,” Hille said. “It is so dynamic, so many things are changing everywhere.”