In the spring of 2022, I received a call from a Pennsylvania landowner who was interested in planting trees on his property in York County. We discussed existing land use practices, his goals for the property, and the Alliance’s reforestation program. While he was excited about implementing riparian forest buffers to protect his streams, he was particularly interested in improving habitat for white-tailed deer. After our discussion, it was clear that this landowner shared the Alliance’s passion for our Chesapeake forests. With shared goals for landscape conservation and reforestation, we planned a site visit to determine how we could partner on a project.

As it turns out, this landowner co-owns a property of significant size in southern York County. The property was partially forested, with a substantial amount of productive farmland, as well as marginal ground that was highly sloped, wet, shaded, or stream-adjacent. As the landowners explained their desire to increase forest cover on the property, we realized that we could plant trees to reforest many areas that were in riparian zones or marginal for production. In doing so, we could also retain the flat, productive fields for production agriculture. We then began to identify potential planting areas and started planning for implementation.

As avid hunters, the landowners suggested we wait until the following spring to plant, to avoid potential impacts to deer movement during the fall hunting seasons. Our fall planting seasons often overlap with Pennsylvania deer seasons, so we work closely with landowners who hunt to avoid hunting seasons when possible. Deer hunting in Pennsylvania is a proud tradition, and something that many folks throughout the Commonwealth take very seriously. These landowners in particular were very excited to increase the amount of forest cover on their property to enhance the habitat for deer and deer hunting.

A whitetail buck stops to check his surroundings while passing through tree tubes.

After mapping the proposed planting areas, we arrived at a total of 45 acres of new forest! While the planting areas were not all contiguous, they were applied to marginal lands and riparian zones throughout the property. We developed a planting plan for the site, proposing many tree and shrub species that provide both food and cover for deer and other native wildlife. Some of the native tree species that we decided to plant for deer included persimmons, oaks, crabapples, and American plums. These species provide food for deer in the form of mast (nuts and fruits produced by trees and shrubs) that can be utilized on a seasonal basis. Oak acorns are a particularly important mast crop for deer. Additional species like red maple and tulip poplar were added, as they provide important browse for deer during certain times of the year. We also included a number of species for their aesthetic value, like flowering dogwoods, sweetbay magnolias, and winterberry holly! And the many remaining species included in the mix will eventually provide forest cover for deer.

A whitetail fawn sprints through the future forest.

When spring 2023 arrived, Alliance-hired contractors began the daunting task of planting over 12,000 trees! The landowners were incredibly grateful to finally see their dream come to fruition. Having purchased the property recently, they had been hard at work trying to improve the habitat value for deer and other wildlife. With funding, technical support, and coordination from the Alliance, they were able to significantly speed up the process.

A bachelor group of whitetail bucks congregate in a newly planted buffer area.

Once the planting was done, the landowners patiently watched their 45-acre forest of tree tubes throughout the summer of 2023, hoping the trees would begin to pop out of the tubes quickly. I reminded them that the trees grow at their own speed, regardless of how much time you spend watching them. As someone who takes pride in working his land, the landowner agreed to work as our contractor to maintain the trees and shelters throughout the first three growing seasons. This maintenance is important, to ensure that trees and shrubs become established. On his frequent maintenance trips, the landowner strategically placed remote cameras throughout the property, hoping to catch a glimpse of a nice buck to pursue in the fall.

A whitetail doe sneaks along a field edge, shortly before the start of hunting season.

Unsurprisingly, the deer on the property took to the tree plantings almost immediately. Trail camera photos showed deer of all age classes traveling, feeding, and resting within the newly planted tube forests. The trees were not yet producing food or cover, but the deer seemed to already value utilizing these areas that were formerly marginal ag lands or field edges. The landowner compiled the trail camera photos throughout the summer, patiently waiting for fall hunting season.

A trail camera image of the buffer buck inspecting a tree shelter. The landowner would later harvest this deer during the Pennsylvania archery season.

When archery season finally arrived, the landowner headed into his deer stand with a specific buck in mind. It was a buck he had seen throughout the summer and captured on trail camera, regularly using the tree planting areas. For the first few weeks of the season, this buck seemed to know just what to do to evade the hunter. But by early November, the landowner was able to successfully harvest the buffer buck, using his traditional archery equipment.

The buffer buck, harvested in fall 2023 by the landowner using traditional archery equipment.

The initial phase of the project had come full circle. While the trees still have a long way to go before maturity, the results of the planting efforts are already apparent. Deer and other wildlife are already using the tree planting areas, and the streams on the property are now more protected. And two of the landowners were able to achieve their goal of harvesting a buck on their own property.

Hunters, in general, are often some of our greatest conservationists. Their passion for spending time in the outdoors puts them in close proximity to the remarkable beauty of our Chesapeake forest ecosystems, helping to create a conservation ethic. Through the Alliance’s reforestation program, these landowners were able to achieve their goal of enhancing habitat for deer and other wildlife, while also protecting water resources. And because of their willingness to participate in our program, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is now a little better for it.