Seeing the forest and the trees

Charles Fergus
September 01, 2003

"I ask landowners to lie down in their woods and just watch the tops of trees." Jim Finley, one shoulder propped against a gray-barked trunk, cranes his neck and looks at the forest canopy overhead. We're standing among sugar maple, red oak, black cherry, and basswood trees in the 30-acre Ag Progress Days Demonstration Woodlot at Rock Springs agricultural research center, ten miles west of Penn State's University Park campus.

"People tend to look at a forest down here." Finley's free hand describes a chest-high arc. "But up above—that's where the action is.

"Each tree defines its own growing space. The whole idea of a tree is to figure out, 'How can I get my branches above my competitors' branches? I physically define my space by my ability to beat up the tree next to me.' Look at the way that oak is hooking the branches of the one beside it." Indeed, in the breeze stirring the woods on this bright April morning, all kinds of elbowing and scraping and shoving can be discerned 80 feet up, on limbs not yet obscured by leaves. "There's a battle going on up there," says Finley, "a battle for sunlight."

Finley says he "inherited" this woodlot in 1981 following a move from Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, where he was a regional extension forester, to University Park, where he became extension forester in the School of Forest Resources, with responsibilities statewide. Each August, up to a thousand people tour the woodlot during Ag Progress Days; others come for tree identification and logger education classes. Finley uses the site, and the management practices employed there, to get private landowners—around 513,000 of whom hold three quarters of Pennsylvania's 18 million wooded acres—to look at the ways in which their management decisions affect the ability of forests to regenerate over time. Finley gives more than 60 forestry-related programs each year, teaching people how to sustain their woodlands' productivity for future generations.

Finley stops beneath a large white pine. Although lofty, the pine ascends in three separate trunks, making it much less valuable for lumber than a tree with a single trunk. He explains that, years in the past, weevils attacked and killed the tree's leader—its dominant growing tip—causing the pine to bush out. White pine weevils do their work in full sunlight and tend not to infest trees growing in shade. To Finley, the pine's misshapen form suggests it sprouted in a pasture. In fact, the age and size of the woodlot's various trees tell him that the tract was farmed until just after World War I, when it and many other marginal sites were abandoned as people hankering for the good life moved to cities and towns. Finley calls such deductions "forensic forestry" and uses them to help people recognize past land uses, on individual properties and across landscapes.

"This is the mother tree." Finley rests his fingertips on the pine's trunk, stained white with pitch. "It's probably the seed source for all the younger pines in this part of the woods." In 1984, while teaching a course in woodlot management, he had his class mark this portion of the stand to convert it to white pine. Black birch, a less desirable species, was logged off "with the intention of putting light on the forest floor"—enough light to encourage the growth of the sun-loving pines, but with enough trees remaining so that they cast sufficient shade "to keep the weevils at a minimum." Now, Finley is pleased to see the young pines growing straight and tall. "We've been nurturing them for almost 20 years," he says.

Earlier on our walk, Finley had pronounced the demonstration woodlot his favorite stand of forest, saying, "It's probably where I'll be buried." Now he adds, with a grin that may be devilish, may be sincere: "I've told my son, 'Right here—this is where to scatter my ashes.'"

At age four, Finley suffered a fever that wiped out much of his hearing, particularly in the higher frequencies. That loss disappoints him ("I bought my son a tape with 36 bird songs; I could only hear three of them") while occasioning a certain amount of risk: "There's a yellow-phase timber rattlesnake that lives here in the woodlot. I've seen him twice. Unfortunately, I can't hear him when he buzzes." Despite his hearing loss and the fact that he was "a sickly child until the fourth grade," Finley spent a lot of time out-of-doors around his hometown, Munhall, near Pittsburgh. "I had the freedom to just go walking in the woods,to be out there observing." His father took him hunting, and hiking in state parks, where he met green-clad rangers: "I wanted to be a forest ranger from the time I was five years old."

After high school he was accepted at both Utah State and Penn State and elected to stay close to home. "Academically, I was challenged," he recalls. "I understand now that I had some sort of learning disability. I had an awful time reading; I still avoid reading out loud in a public setting.

"I damn near flunked out of college. They threw me out of Forestry. In the Division of Undergraduate Studies, I took a battery of exams, and they gave me a five percent chance of graduating." Finley got his grades back up, transferred back into Forestry, and ended up "squeaking by with a 2.29" grade point average.

After a three-year stint with the U.S. Forest Service, working in seven states, Finley returned to Penn State for a master's degree. The University hired him as an extension agent. He smiles: "I was now working for the school I was supposed to flunk out of." His son Andrew was born in 1976. Beginning in 1981, Finley built his own house in a suburb of State College: "I'm still finishing it," he says. The house includes kitchen cabinets that Finley crafted out of Pennsylvania black cherry; its floors are white oak milled in Alexandria, Pennsylvania.

After he was divorced in 1985, Finley became a single parent. He kept working on his house, kept working with his son. "He was diagnosed with what's called a 'learning center maturity problem': when he reads words, he can't always store and process them in a way that makes sense. If they're read to him, they're his. So I spent a lot of time reading to him."

Finley had been accepted into Cornell's Ph.D. program, but the divorce changed everything: He had to stay employed to keep his son. He started on a doctorate at Penn State while continuing his job in forestry extension. His research and thesis dealt with the competitive bidding process on private timberlands—"how the bid process works from the logger's perspective. It turns out that sawmill bidders don't pay as much attention to lumber prices as loggers do. The sawmill reps need to keep a production facility running: when the mill yard is empty, the world gets really rough. The loggers seem more in tune with the market." Finley received his doctorate in 1991.

His son graduated from high school in 1995. Andrew Finley has since earned a bachelor's degree in forestry from Penn State and a master's at the University of Massachusetts. He is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, studying the use of geographic information systems and satellite imagery to interpret forest inventory data: the types of trees stocking a woods and the volume of timber they represent.

Jim Finley pauses in a favorite spot. Most of the state's original woodlands were logged off between 1885 and 1930. Today, Pennsylvania's forests are maturing again and a new wave of cutting is taking place. Finley has looked at the effects of timber harvest on sustainability.

Finley and I sit down on a pair of substantial oaks that an early snow had toppled the previous October. He points out how one of the tree's roots, yanked untimely from the ground, kicked up a handful of angular black shards: "Charcoal. We're sitting on an old hearth. The woods here was probably logged off around 1870, maybe earlier, to make charcoal for the iron industry. Pennsylvania Furnace is just down the road."

I ask about the state of our forests today.

"About 60 percent of Pennsylvania is forested now, compared to 40 percent a hundred years ago. The major period of exploitation"—when most of the state's original woodlands were logged off, for lumber and fuel and to create farms—"happened from 1885 to 1930. Today, Pennsylvania's forests are maturing again, and a new wave of cutting is taking place. We did a regional study in 1998, which essentially asked, 'Is timber harvesting adversely affecting forest sustainability? Are we retaining sufficient trees in the overstory to replace trees removed by logging?' In Pennsylvania, in 48 percent of the logging jobs we looked at, the harvests were classified as sustainable. In New York it was 28 percent and in West Virginia, 22 percent."

Why are we only 48 percent sustainable?

"Deer are a major problem. We're giving away the forest heritage of tomorrow to the high deer densities of today."

Then there are "interfering plants. "Native species like ferns, mountain laurel, and blueberry are not preferred deer foods. When an oak forest is logged (oaks being the most prevalent and among the most valuable trees in Penn's Woods today), deer zero in on sprouts from the stumps of the harvested trees, browsing them back; competing plants grow lushly, as do mid-canopy species such as striped maple, all of which cast shade on the ground, suppressing the growth of any sprouts or seedlings the deer may have missed. In urban areas, and increasingly in the woods as well, aggressively seeding non-native plants known as "invasives" choke out replacement trees. Invasives include multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, barberry, privet, and ailanthus, also called tree of heaven. Says Finley, "We're simplifying the species composition in our forests and moving toward trees that have less value as lumber and offer less to wildlife" in terms of food and cavities where animals can shelter and nest.

Acid rain is changing soil chemistry, apparently making some forested areas inhospitable for the regrowth of certain trees.

"I think we should address the deer problem first," says Finley, "because, following a timber harvest, if we put up a fence and retain our seed source, we usually get regeneration."

Sustainable forestry is "a widely debated, contentious issue in our profession," admits Finley, who serves as a director of the Sustainable Forestry Partnership, a coalition of university departments. Researchers don't all agree on the impacts of deer, acid rain, and invasives. "We're trying to ask questions such as 'How can we identify and protect the different components of forest ecosystems?' And 'Are we actually teaching students to think about those things today?'"

In the eighth field season of a research project conducted with two fellow Penn State foresters, Finley is looking at hardwood regeneration, particularly of oaks, on state Bureau of Forestry lands, of which there are 2.1 million acres in Pennsylvania. "We go to a site and try to assess its ability to regenerate, then come up with a set of guidelines to bring about the desired results."

With five other faculty members spread across four disciplines, Finley is studying different aspects of deer hunting, including hunters' attitudes toward changing regulations designed to reduce deer numbers in Pennsylvania, as well as issues related to hunters gaining better access to the private land where many of the state's estimated 1.5 million deer live. Finley is also involved with a hunter movement study on Sproul State Forest in the big woods country of northcentral Pennsylvania: "We've found that, on average, a deer hunter will move only about half a mile off the road, with most hunters moving a shorter distance than that. Often hunters don't get back to where the deer are. Eventually we hope to link the hunter study with a deer movement study, to learn where the hunters are, relative to the deer."

Finley hunts deer himself. During winter, he cuts his next-year's firewood in the demonstration woodlot. He skids each log out on top of the snow, his drag rope secured with a knot known as a timber hitch. He splits the wood and dries it before burning it in his stove, and he heats his well-insulated house with a mere cord and a half of firewood annually. His research activities and the frequent programs he gives allow him less time than he'd like for woodworking, turning bowls out of cherry and sumac ("I told my son I'm going to turn an urn out of sumac to hold my ashes," he says with a grin); building seagoing kayaks out of pine, cherry, and walnut (three such craft hang from his garage ceiling); and fashioning cross-country skis of hickory laminated to pine.

He is remarried, to Linda Fitterer Finley, a past president of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association and an owner of woods herself. Says Finley, "Linda believes in the same principles that I do: the need for stewardship of our forests, and the fact that forests can be sustainable if we understand that managing them depends on a series of conscious decisions that gets us to a place where we want to be."

He spends what time he can in the demonstration woodlot, where he continues to see new facets of familiar trees. He delights in pointing out aspects of this contained, yet expansive and exemplary ecosystem: The rotting stump of an American chestnut, a tree once abundant across the woodlands of eastern North America and now extinguished by an imported fungal pest. Broken limbs from that October snowstorm: "Trees compartmentalize their injuries, wall them off with new wood as they heal."

He stands among oak and ash, near a small stream that cuts through the woodlot. A wild turkey gobbles from Tussey Mountain, which rises directly behind the tract, and Finley does not hear it.

"I like to be out here, just looking at them," he says, his eyes lifting. "Trees are so..." he pauses, searching for the right word: "enticing."

James Finley, Ph.D., is professor of forest resources and extension forester in the School of Forestry, 7 Ferguson Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-0401;

Last Updated May 02, 2005