You wouldn’t think a chainsaw is beneficial to a forest that is slowly being rebuilt, but you’d be wrong.
One person yielding a chainsaw is Luke Bobnar, a 2010 Clarion University biology graduate with a minor in environmental sustainability. Bobnar works for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which is working to restore the Allegheny National Forest to its original splendor.
The project involves strategically cutting down trees and placing them in and across streams and bodies of water to provide habitats for fish and other wildlife.
Bobnar explained that our forests are relatively young and thick. The large trees that would naturally fall across streams and fall in flood plains in a natural ecosystem are not present, due to industrial clearcutting that occurred in Pennsylvania more than a century ago. Clearcutting is the practice of clearing all trees in a uniform way.
"It's left our streams bereft of habitat in many places," Bobnar said.
Bobnar estimates that the Allegheny National Forest should have between 70 and 380 large trees per mile per stream.
"We should naturally be chock-full of wood and we're not," Bobnar said.
The wood, which they place either in the water or across the water, provides a cover and a habitat for fish who need a cool place to swim in the summer, as well as a place to hide from predators such as other fish and birds.
Workers strategically choose trees with nothing taken from the stream's edge. Workers try to mimic a natural tree fall.
"While we aren't felling the largest trees in the forest, like a wind event 300 years ago might have, adding smaller diameter timber (from brush/treetop size up to about 20 inches across) has a huge impact on habitat, sediment cycling, hydrology and geomorphology of the stream."
Other animals also like hiding in a thicket of fallen trees and those fallen trees are beneficial to flood plains.
"Most people think of flooding as a pretty bad thing. Up here in the headwaters in the Allegheny National Forest, flooding, when there's no infrastructure around, it's a really good thing," Bobnar said.
Trees help reduce flooding downstream by holding the water back by thousands of gallons. Some of that water goes into the water table.
In addition, some of the water creates vernal pools where insects, tadpoles and other species serve a positive purpose in the environment.
"Through feeding on algae and downed tree matter (leaves and sticks) present in those pools, those insects and tadpoles represent an efficient energy transfer mechanism in the food web. They are seasonally abundant/available, and whether they metamorphose into adults or are consumed as larvae, all are important prey species for a variety of predators, and wind up redistributed as fertilizer throughout the landscape," Bobnar said.
Flooding also serves to create side channels – a popular hiding spot for young trout.
"They (young trout) find refuge in these areas that may be cut off from the main channel, where larger, hungry fish may reside," Bobnar said.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy also gets help from volunteers who help with projects such as the one in the Allegheny National Forest.
"The volunteers we have are outstanding," Bobnar said.
As long as you can walk along stream, the Conservancy can use your assistance, Bobnar said.
One such volunteer is Katie Zawrotniak, a Clarion University senior environmental biology major.
Zawrotniak was on a field trip for another of the Conservancy's projects, when she decided should would like to volunteer.
She likes how the work achieves "multiple outcomes using really simple tools."
"You get a huge amount done and you're basically using nature to do it," Zawrotniak said.
Zawrotniak said the project opened her eyes to how much Pennsylvania had been clear-cut and the project seeks to salvage what others saw as a wasteland.
"I love my classes here at Clarion, but the field opportunities make it come to life," Zawrotniak said. "When you go out on field opportunities, it becomes clear that you're not just learning things to take a test and get a diploma; you're learning them so you can make a difference for your neighbors and the environment. And Luke is especially good at conveying that."
"I can't recommend working with Luke and the Conservancy enough. The organization does great work. They have plenty of opportunities all year round and Luke has been amazing to work with," Zawrotniak said.
At the site of the project in the Allegheny National Forest, a sign reads: "Please leave trees in and along the stream. They provide important habitat for trout and other aquatic species."
Bobnar understands why people have misconceptions about downed trees in streams. As an avid angler, he used to get frustrated fishing around trees in the stream. "They made it difficult to cast and even walk around. I never realized what awesome benefit they provide, or what natural conditions looked like before industrialized processes altered our landscape."
"Even though I am still an avid fisherman who might drop a cuss word when I snag on some brush, I look more kindly on it. The branch that protects a fish from my hook also keeps it safe from a heron, or a larger fish, or even from getting washed away by high flows. I know there are more fish in the stream because of the wood, and if they coax a bit more skill from me to catch, I am so much the better for it."
Bobnar been working in the Allegheny National Forest for the past five or six years, but doesn't expect the project to be done any time soon.
"The work on the Allegheny National Forest will continue into the foreseeable future, as long as funding and working conditions allow," Bobnar said. "Current estimates indicate that it will take at least 30-50 years, if not more than 100, for natural processes to restore something resembling historic habitat conditions on the Allegheny National Forest."
The good news is some of the original clearcutting has started to self-regenerate. Bobnar said the Conservancy will help jump-start the regeneration process if need be and has in some instances, but natural regeneration, along with the Civilian Conservation Corp. has completed much of the replanting in the Allegheny National Forest.
He believes this type of work – in the elements – is where he is in his element.
Growing up, Bobnar loved Robert Redford's portrayal of Jeremiah Johnson because he wanted to be a mountain man. When he was in high school, a family friend had what Bobnar considered an exciting career working seasonal wildlife jobs removing feral hogs from sensitive environments or dealing with nuisance bears in national parks.
"Hearing of these adventures in faraway places, I thought 'That is the life for me!'"
"To have the highest chance at being able to do this, I learned that a person needed a degree and a strong constitution; or as the narrator in 'Jeremiah Johnson' might say 'the proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains.' Being somewhat possessed of the spirit, I endeavored to attain the wit."
Choosing Clarion University made economic sense to him and provided him with the biology degree he needed. He was also in the Honors program.
"From my experience at Clarion University, I was able to network with fellow students, professors, and professionals in the wildlife/environmental restoration field. These contacts served me well in several seasonal employment jobs, and while working for a private consulting firm."
When the opportunity came to work for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in aquatic restoration work, Bobnar jumped at the chance.
"The physical labor is very taxing, and figuring out how to blend a restoration project into a stream in a manner that looks and functions as a natural log jam would, can be quite the mental challenge. At the end of the day, I am tired, but a good kind of tired where you know you have labored, and mind and body are stronger for it."
Bobnar understands that working in varying weather conditions isn't for everyone.
"I find that this work rejuvenates me. Depending on a person's worldview, inclement weather and strenuous working conditions can either be a terrible day at work, or a challenge to be met optimistically that builds character. I choose to build character, and encourage other folks to do the same."
The Allegheny National Forest will be all the better for it.