Forest evolves from teaching lab to hunting ground

Woodland: The role of the Stoney Demonstration Forest has gradually changed since its founding in 1981.

October 24, 2004|By Joe Eaton | Joe Eaton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Private forest owners who want to see what a timber clear-cut will look like in 20 years can visit the Stoney Demonstration Forest, but not in the fall and winter, when hunters, selected by lottery, prowl the area.

The 318-acre forest near Riverside is visited by more hunters than landowners, though the land was originally purchased by the state in 1981 to serve as a laboratory for demonstrating forest management practices.

Mike Huneke, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources forester, said the Stoney Demonstration Forest was meant to be a place where foresters could teach landowners how to manage their woodlands without endangering the environment.

"It's supposed to be a place where we can demonstrate forest management practices and show private land owners the correct way to do things," Huneke said.

From 1981 until the mid-1990s, DNR foresters built water crossings and paths in the forest. They measured off a control area, where the forest was left to grow, cut a small section of trees down to the stumps and selectively cut 22 acres to encourage the growth of high market-value hardwoods.

But in the late 1990s, the DNR State Forests and Park Service began focusing its resources on other projects, including encouraging landowners to establish buffers along waterways to protect water quality. In 1996, the parks service took over management of the demonstration forest.

Since then, little teaching has been done at the forest, although DNR and the Harford County Forestry Board have taken groups of landowners and government officials on tours there.

"In the last eight years, we have not put a lot of focus on the demonstration forest," said Wayne Merkel, the DNR forester who managed the forest from 1981 until 1996.

Instead, the forest is now used mainly by hunters. They enter a lottery for 10 hunting slots a day over nearly six months, beginning last month, effectively shutting it down as a demonstration forest.

Ken D'Loughy, manager of DNR Wildlife and Heritage Services in the region, said the agency's goal is to encourage a variety of activities, including hunting and bird-watching, on state land.

"I think the approach we have always taken in looking at state land is to provide a cross section of recreational opportunities," D'Loughy said.

Although the forest is now better known as a hunting ground than a laboratory, the work DNR foresters did there in the 1980s and early 1990s is still useful to forest owners, Merkel said.

On a recent afternoon, Merkel led a reporter on a tour of the forest. Merkel is a forest service veteran who can measure the height and diameter of a tree on sight and identify most trees and plants in the forest by their common and Latin names.

Wandering down a path, he pointed out a haul road where cut trees were dragged to a landing area and loaded on tractor-trailers. Building a good haul road protects the forest floor, which soaks up rain like a sponge, Merkel said. A badly built haul road means erosion of the forest floor.

Merkel talks about trees as a commodity, but he considers himself an environmentalist. He has seen the ground ripped up when loggers do not bother to build good haul roads. And he has seen logging machinery working in streams, destroying the water quality. He is proud of the work he has done at the Stoney Demonstration Forest.

"Here you can see where to place a road and how to build water crossings to keep streams clear," he said.

This is particularly important to landowners like Ron Hendricksen, who has had 30 acres near Havre de Grace in a forestry plan since 1976. By entering land into such a plan, owners can freeze the assessed value of their property, thereby stabilizing their tax burden.

"If not for that, I could not afford to stay here," Hendricksen said.

One group in Harford County is trying to make sure that more landowners see what the Stoney Demonstration Forest has to offer. Two years ago, the Harford County Forestry Board sent DNR a list of projects it wants to start at the forest. The list included putting up trail markers and signs that describe the work foresters have done so visitors will know what they are looking at. And the board suggested leasing the property from the state to do educational outreach.

"What I want is more educational opportunities for woodland owners in Harford County," said Charles Day, the chairman of the forestry board.

So far, DNR has not responded to the board's request. Kenneth Jolly, who is in charge of forestry service field operations in the state, said he has not seen or heard about the board's proposals.

"It's probably winding its way through channels somewhere," Jolly said.

The forestry board has nothing against the hunters who use Stoney Demonstration Forest. And its members are careful not to criticize DNR, which appoints its members. Day said he expects DNR will grant some of the board's requests.

The demonstration forest is important now, Day said, because more people in Harford County are buying small plots of woodland.

"I'm hoping it can be an educational place," he said. "They can look at something and say `Huh, I don't want that on my wood lot' or `Hey! That is a good idea. I'm going to go for that.'"

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