Living laboratory offers thousands of acres for research, recreation

By Anne Danahy
January 23, 2015

The traps that Kurt Vandegrift uses to capture mice in the Penn State Stone Valley Forest are like waiting rooms at a doctor’s office.

The white-footed mice sit in them before a check-up that runs the gamut — from a tick and flea inspection to a blood sample being taken. Then the Peromyscus leucopus are tagged with a passive induced transponder tag that provides each with an 8-digit digital identification number before being released back into the wild.

The goal isn’t just learning about the health of the mice; it’s gaining insight into the viruses they carry that can transmit diseases to people — think hantavirus and Lyme disease.

The work — Vandegrift’s team has checked, tagged, sampled and released more than 50,000 mice since starting the project in 2003 — is being done in Stone Valley Forest, a 6,775-acre property primarily in Barree Township, Huntingdon County, that spills into neighboring Jackson and West townships. While the Stone Valley land is perhaps best known for outdoor recreation that is free to the public, it also serves as a petri dish for faculty and student research.

“The most visible part of the forest is the Shavers Creek Environmental Center and the lake and cabins, but there are also nearly 7,000 acres of forest around it that make the research that goes on possible,” said Joe Harding, who oversees the property that is part of the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Joseph Harding-Director of Operations

Joseph Harding is the Director of Forestlands at Penn State.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

“It’s a continual demonstration project,” Harding said. “It’s totally open to the public.”

That research includes students pursuing masters’ and doctoral degrees; faculty taking students on trips for classes in forestry, English, engineering; and a range of long-term projects. Some projects, including Vandegrift’s, give undergraduates a chance to gain in-the-field research experience.

The federal government acquired the land in the 1930s as part of the Land Resettlement Act that let farmers sell property not well suited to farming. That led to a U.S. Forest Service Experiment Station. In the 1950s, the property was deeded to Penn State, and what is now the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management in the College of Agricultural Sciences maintains it to this day.

Harding said Penn State was deeded the land for use as an “outdoor classroom.” That meant faculty and students in the forestry program could use it as part of their school work. It also meant a sawmill that brought jobs to many people.

Today, the land is home to Vandegrift’s work and many other long-term projects, including the second-longest running watershed experiment in the country. Other researchers are looking at climate change, how invasive plant species can be controlled and the Earth’s “critical zone” — that area that runs from the tops of trees to the earth’s surface and into the bedrock below.

“One of the facts many people don’t know about the forest is how many people have completed research for their masters’ and PhDs there,” Harding said.

“Often, there aren’t visible signs of research, but it’s still going on,” Harding said.

The forest is also home to the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, the Stone Valley Recreation Center and the popular Lake Perez, which has been refilled following the completion of dam restoration work. The lake is slated to be open to the public in time for this year’s warm weather.

Stone Valley-Lake Perez-101

Lake Perez and Stone Valley, located 17 miles east of the University Park campus, is home to the 6,775-acre Penn State Experimental Forest.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Like much of Pennsylvania, the land was settled in the 1700s, evidence of which can be found in the 47 old house sites, along with other archaeological gems such as old logging tools, a place for making ice blocks and a sled to pull them.

“There is a lot of history out there,” Harding said.

Some of that history can be seen in a black and white photograph that shows a group of students packing up their horses outside of “Fergie’s Woodshed” — the building that stood from about the turn of the century until 1940 where Ferguson Building is now. (It is named for John A. Ferguson, professor and head of the School of Forestry from 1912 until 1937.) The students were headed out to the “experimental forest” that is Stone Valley.

Stone Valley-Fergies_Woodshed illustration

On the left is an early, 20th century photograph of "Fergie's Woodshed', named for Professor John A. Ferguson, showing students packing supplies and horses prior to heading out to Penn State's 'Experimental Forest.'  A model of 'Fergie's Woodshed' is on display today in Penn State's Forest Resource Lab.

IMAGE: Illustration: Patrick Mansell

The land has been meticulously catalogued, with detailed mapping and inventories of the oaks, hickories, maples and pines. The types of wildlife cross the spectrum too — from the usual squirrels and deer, to the more elusive bobcats and fishers. Harding noted that fishers, a relatively recent addition to the area, are one of the few predators of porcupines, the prickly animal known for gnawing the bark off trees.

Visitors can learn about the land during demonstrations that take place or on self-guided tours, stopping at the informational signs along the road to learn about subjects like the trees and timber sales.

“It’s a continual demonstration project,” Harding said. “It’s totally open to the public.”

Those timber sales are part of the forest’s 50-year management plan, which is based on a thorough inventory using a mathematical formula that helps planners make decisions. That inventory comes from mapping the entire forest, which is broken down into 1,700 management units — some filled with oaks, others with pines, ash or walnut trees, still others a mix.

“To the untrained eye, it’s trees,” Harding said. “To us, it’s species of trees and quality, density and other things.”

Once divided into management unit, Harding and others collected samples from the different sections — overstory trees, midstory trees, nonnative or invasive species; then measured those species, looking at size, quality and health.

That data lets Harding produce growth projections for what will happen in the future — which trees will grow or fade — and develop management plans based on that. Sometimes, that calls for timber sales, others for planting. All of that is what helps keep the forest self-supporting.

“It’s an operational forest used for teaching, research and demonstration,” he said “and it’s open to the public for hiking, biking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, camping — with a free permit.”

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Last Updated January 26, 2015