Allegheny National Forest

Before 1923

Today, the Allegheny Plateau is known for black cherry and other hardwoods, but two hundred years ago these species were less numerous. Today’s forest is largely the result of two things: the exploitation of timber at the turn of the century and, since 1923, years of scientific and sustainable management by the Forest Service.

Two hundred years ago, the forest in northwestern Pennsylvania was mostly Eastern hemlock and American beech, with white pine along river bottoms and oak on the slopes of river valleys. Black cherry accounted for less than one percent of all trees on the Plateau. This old-growth forest was characterized by large trees and fallen logs. Deer populations were at naturally-regulated low levels, estimated at 10 deer per square mile, so the understory vegetation was dense and richly diverse.

European settlers reached this area in the early 1800s. At first, trees were cut mostly to clear land for agriculture and to provide timber for cabins and barns. Soon, the first commercial water-powered mills cut small amounts of lumber from selected pine, hemlock, and large hardwoods. By 1840, portable steam engines made circular sawmills practical. Mills that could process 10,000 board feet of lumber per day were common.

Tanneries that used hemlock bark as their source of tannin for curing leather began to appear in the late 1850s. This infant industry received a great boost by the Civil War demand for harnesses, military equipment, and industrial belting. By the end of the century, the tanning industry was a major forest industry in Pennsylvania using huge quantities of hemlock bark. The logs were removed later and sawn into lumber products.

Between 1850 and 1900, American society and technology changed in dramatic ways. People, moving West and into the growing cities of the East, demanded lumber to build homes, stores, and furniture. Demand for paper and other wood pulp products increased. An eighty-fold increase in coal production led to the need for more lumber for mine props, timbers, and planks. Band saws came into use after 1880, making possible the construction of huge mills capable of sawing 100,000 feet or more of lumber per day. Railroads provided convenient transportation to consumers and markets. They also opened up extensive and previously inaccessible areas of timber with specialized locomotives such as the Shay, which could traverse steep hillsides, uneven tracks, and sharp curves. All of these factors supported large sawmill and tannery industries.

A new enterprise, the wood chemical industry, changed the course of forest development. Between 1890 and 1930, wood chemical plants produced charcoal, wood alcohol, acetic acid, acetate of lime and similar products, and provided a market for virtually every size, species, and quality of tree growing on the Allegheny Plateau. Harvests during this era were the most complete ever made in the area, clearing nearly every accessible tree of every size. The once vast forest of the Allegheny Plateau was almost completely removed, leaving barren hillsides as far the eye could see.

Many large corporate forest landowners in Pennsylvania and other northeastern states simply abandoned the land and moved West in search of new forests. The land left behind often ended up on delinquent tax rolls, prompting a financial crisis for rural counties. The bare soil and logging slash made floods and wildfires a constant danger.

In 1911, Congress passed the Weeks Act, allowing the federal government to buy land in eastern states for the establishment of National Forests. The Allegheny National Forest was established in 1923. The land was so depleted that many residents jokingly called it the “Allegheny Brush-patch.” Some worried the forest would never recover.

After 1923

An old-growth forest of hemlock and beech once stretched along northern Pennsylvania, but heavy logging between 1890 and 1930 left only pockets of that early forest in places like Hearts Content. Since the Forest Service began to manage the Allegheny National Forest (ANF) in 1923, a vibrant new forest of light-loving hardwoods like black cherry flourished, and today the ANF boasts some of the world’s finest hardwood forests.

The Forest Service brought new concepts in forest management to the Allegheny Plateau—multiple benefits and sustainability. The Organic Act of 1897 introduced the National Forest mission: to improve the forest, provide favorable conditions for water flows, and furnish a continuous supply of timber to meet people’s needs. Seedlings are planted and watersheds are managed to ensure clear water for fisheries like trout and clean drinking water for all.

Over time, various laws added other benefits like wilderness, heritage resources and grazing to the original idea of watershed protection and continuous timber. The Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960 recognized outdoor recreation and habitat for wildlife and fisheries.

The motto “Land of Many Uses” captures the National Forest goal of a healthy, vigorous forest that provides wood products, watershed protection, a variety of wildlife habitats and recreational opportunities—not only for us today, but in a sustainable way so future generations can enjoy these benefits, too.

When the Allegheny National Forest was established in 1923, the immediate challenge was nurturing the young trees growing amongst logging slash on the recently-cleared hillsides. Until that happened, wildfires, floods and erosion were a threat. With care, the forests grew. Since they started growing at roughly the same time, most of the trees in today’s second-growth forest on the Allegheny Plateau are the same age (70-100 years old).

Between 1900 and 1940, the young forest grew and evolved from openings to young forest to maturing forest. Each stage in forest development brought different benefits for people, wildlife, and plants. Like a community, a forest is healthiest and offers the most benefits if it contains a variety of ages and species of plants and animals.

By the 1940s, the forest began to take on an appearance familiar to us today. The Forest Service gradually resumed timber harvesting under strict research-based guidelines to ensure sustainability for future generations.

The Forest Service also established a research station for the Northeast in 1923. Soon, research scientists were studying complex relationships among vegetation, animals, soil, nutrients, weather, and disease.

During the 1920s, recreation on the ANF focused mostly on dispersed activities like hunting and fishing. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) changed the face of the country by building hundreds of recreation facilities, including Twin Lakes and Loleta Recreation Areas on the ANF. These and other facilities became popular after World War II when newly-mobile families discovered the joys of outdoor recreation.

The creation of the Allegheny Reservoir when the Kinzua Dam was completed in 1965 brought the most dramatic change to developed recreation on the ANF. Within ten years, a tremendous development program resulted in campgrounds, boat launches, beaches, picnic areas, hiking trails and overlooks around the reservoir shoreline and elsewhere throughout the forest.

Over time, people’s changing and more sophisticated expectations led to campground improvements like electricity, hot showers, and baby-changing stations. Areas to watch wildlife (Buzzard Swamp, Little Drummer), trails for cross-country skiing and motorized recreation (all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles) and fully accessibly fishing piers, trails and restrooms have been added, too.

Defining the way a National Forest is to be managed can be controversial. The National Forest Management Act of 1976 required each National Forest to implement a Forest Plan with extensive public involvement, outlining the vision for how and where management activities will be emphasized. The ANF’s Forest Plan was approved in 1986 and was reviewed and revised in 2001 as forest managers, scientists, and people who value National Forests to continue to work together to care for and sustain the forest today and for the future.

Additional Resources:

Human Heritage of the ANF

Courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society