It can be challenging to sustainably manage family-owned forests. Non-commercial treatments like controlling invasive species or thinning competition can be investments in future forest health that don’t pay off for decades. On their own, small-to-medium properties may not hold enough potential for a contractor to conduct intermediate or commercial management. In Pennsylvania, where 70 percent of forests are privately owned, these barriers pose a risk to Penn’s Woods. A general lack of sustainable management leads to a forested landscape that is less diverse, less healthy, and less useful to wildlife and humans alike.

To counter these issues, a new approach is emerging: neighboring landowners are forming woodland stewardship networks, where landowners simultaneously work towards their own management goals to improve the success of their fellow network members. The approach doesn’t involve pooling resources, sharing profits, or necessarily working across property lines, but by simply pushing toward sustainable forest management at the same time, neighboring landowners are increasing their ability to attract forestry contractors at reasonable rates and increasing the health of the wooded landscape. The current status quo is a relatively homogenously-aged forest that is hardly managed, but a group of neighbors working towards their management goals will result in a mosaic of diverse stand ages. This increases the health of the landscape and provides habitat for wildlife species that require young forests, like golden-winged warblers, American woodcock, and ruffed grouse, or mature forests with vigorous understory growth, like cerulean warblers. This effort is being led by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Chesapeake Forests Team, who is piloting a program to facilitate the building of these networks in central Pennsylvania.

The Woodland Stewardship Network Program is a pilot project, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, that helps landowners form stewardship networks and begin managing their woods. All members of a stewardship network receive a free forest management plan that is compatible with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), so they can immediately apply for forestry cost-share through the USDA program. This helps speed up the forestry process; EQIP can cost-share the writing of management plans, but the process can result in an extra year or longer that a landowner must wait before conducting management, and plan writing and management activities don’t always get funded the first time a landowner applies. Once the forest management plan is written, landowners are assisted in applying for EQIP funding for management implementation and also receive a voucher that reimburses them for costs of implementing activities recommended in the plan. The voucher is based on the amount of acres that a landowner contributes and the total amount of acres in the network, to incentivize more neighbors to join. It typically doesn’t add up to a huge amount, but allows landowners to continue to manage past what EQIP will fund, like purchasing a backpack sprayer and herbicide to keep up with infestations of invasive species.

Networks are currently being built through the program in Franklin, Mifflin, and Cumberland Counties. The approach and the Woodland Stewardship Network Program incentives are not only helping stewardship-minded landowners to get more done in their woods, but are bringing their neighbors, who have no forest management plans and conduct little to no management, into the fold. At the very least, there will be several large blocks of connected forest that have updated forest management plans, decreasing the likelihood of high-grading in these areas. At the most, it will result in improved forest health within these large blocks, and the creation of habitat patches for imperiled wildlife like golden-winged and cerulean warblers that, due to their proximity, are more beneficial for population growth and persistence in our state.

At this time, the Woodland Stewardship Network Program only covers a small area (see the map below) and only has funding to support a small number of networks. The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay hopes to scale the program up by increasing the number of networks supported and by reaching further geographically, but there will never be enough resources to assist every private forest landowner in the state. The network approach, however, is valuable everywhere, and landowners could receive immense benefits by banding together without programmatic assistance. Helping your neighbors to engage in forest management can make the work more efficient and effective, and will result in a healthier forest landscape that is more resilient, enjoyable, and valuable.

The current extent of the Woodland Stewardship Network Program is limited to areas where golden-winged and cerulean warbler management funds are available within two watersheds identified by the American Forest Foundation to hold high numbers of family-owned forests.

For more information, contact Ryan Davis at