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The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is implementing the Young Forest Initiative, which intends to increase the amount of young forest habitat present on state Wildlife Management Areas. This project assesses how climate impacts may affect young forest goals, and how creating young forests may reduce vulnerabilities of existing stands and improve future forest resilience.

Project Area

Map of the Rattlesnake Hill Wildlife Management Area
Rattlesnake Hill Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is located in western New York, near the northern edge of the Allegheny Plateau. The property comprises 5,160 acres, of which 4,791 acres are forested. Multiple forest types are present, including oak, aspen, northern hardwoods, hemlock, conifer plantations, and young forest. A Habitat Management Plan (HMP) was produced for this WMA in 2016 which outlines goals and objectives for all habitat types, with a priority to increase the young forest component. This adaptation demonstration project assesses the young forest aspect of this HMP.

Management Goals

view of a young forest

The primary forest management goal for this WMA over the next 10 years is to increase the amount of young forest habitat available to benefit associated wildlife species, several of which are currently experiencing steep population declines.  Planned young forest will be created by regenerating overmature oak stands and conifer plantations using even-aged forest management.  Another important goal is to control non-native, invasive vegetation to maintain forest biodiversity and ensure desirable regeneration.  Specific objectives are to create 362 acres of young forest by establishing 191 acres of seedling/sapling oak stands and 171 acres of seedling/sapling mixed hardwood/conifer stands, and to reduce invasive vegetation presence in the project area to 5% or less.

Climate Change Impacts

For this project, the most important anticipated climate change impacts include:
Many invasive plants will increase in extent or abundance from increases in temperature, longer growing seasons, and more frequent disturbances.
Certain insect pests and pathogens will increase in occurrence or become more damaging due to increases in temperature, longer growing seasons, and more frequent disturbances.
Forest vegetation may face increased risk of physiological drought during the growing season. Warmer temperatures can result in decreased soil moisture even without an associated decrease in precipitation.
Warmer, drier summers may increase the occurrence and severity of drought, particularly on xeric sites.
Winter conditions may become milder, leading to less overall snowfall or less persistent snow cover, with recurring soil freezing and thawing.

Challenges and Opportunities

Climate change will present challenges and opportunities for accomplishing the management objectives of this project, including:

Challenges

Stands targeted for regeneration are currently vulnerable to climate impacts and if management is delayed it could become more difficult to achieve goals.
Conifer plantations have low species diversity and minimal understory.
Many oak stands are 70+ years old on dry sites, an increase in pests and moisture stress could increase susceptibility to oak decline.
There could be reduced establishment success of desirable seedlings following timber harvest because of competition with invasive plants or severe moisture stress.
Abundant deer herbivory could further stress seedling establishment or ability to compete with invasives.
Less snowpack could affect management access or increase deer browse damage. Repeated soil freeze/thaw could damage shallow-rooted seedlings (e.g., maples).
Existing conifer plantations are planned to be converted to natural mixed hardwood/conifer stands; however, native conifers currently on the WMA (i.e., hemlock, white pines) are expected to decrease in this subregion.

Opportunities

Vigor and productivity of seedling growth may improve due to increased temperatures and a longer growing season, which may help seedlings compete with invasive plants and grow above deer browse height.
Several dominant species on the WMA (e.g., red and white oaks, red maple, hickories) are expected to have stable or improved growing conditions under future projections.
Several less common species here (e.g., cucumbertree, chestnut oak) should see more favorable conditions in the future and could help maintain overall forest diversity.
Conifer species naturally occurring further south (e.g., pitch and Virginia pine) may provide an opportunity for assisted migration and direct planting, if natural regeneration of conifers is not successful.
Creating young forests to benefit wildlife while targeting stands with currently high climate vulnerability provides an opportunity to establish future forests with greater resilience.
An increase in extreme weather events could damage unmanaged forests on the WMA; if invasive plants are successfully controlled to reduce local seed source, this could naturally establish additional young forest acres to benefit associated wildlife.

Adaptation Actions

Project participants used the Adaptation Workbook to develop several adaptation actions for this project, including:

Area/Topic
Approach
Tactics
Creating young forest habitat and establishing future forests of improved adaptability
Retain coarse woody debris to maintain moisture, soil quality, and nutrient cycling.
Harvest timber when the ground is frozen to avoid soil disturbance, compaction, and erosion.
Increase number of species in low diversity stands (conifer plantations) by regenerating a natural forest. Follow-up with planting of adaptable species if natural regeneration is not satisfactory.
Create a diverse mix of forest or community types, age classes, and stand structures. By establishing younger oak stands, they will be less susceptible to oak decline.
Increase monitoring for known or potential invasive plant species to ensure early detection.
Control existing populations before and after timber harvests to reduce seed sources.
Promote abundant regeneration of multiple species in order to supply more browse than deer are expected to consume.
Use tree tops from harvest to protect seedlings from browse.
Emulate aspects of natural disturbances through forest management techniques to encourage the development of multiple age cohorts.
Use silvicultural treatments to promote and enhance diverse regeneration of native species.
Transitioning plantations to more complex systems by underplanting or promoting regeneration of a variety of native species expected to do well under future conditions.
Retain the oldest and largest trees with good vigor during forest management activities.
Retain survivors of pest or disease outbreaks, droughts, windthrow events, or other disturbances.
Retain individual trees of a variety of uncommon species to maintain their presence on the landscape.
If natural regeneration is not satisfactory within a few years post-harvest, consider planting seeds or seedlings from further south in native species ranges, as they may be more adapted to warmer conditions.
During timber harvest marking, keep as seed sources tree species that are near the northern extent of their ranges.
Control invasive vegetation and interfering native vegetation before and after regeneration harvest.
Consider installing tree protectors for future-adapted seedlings if browse pressure is limiting their growth.
Perform follow-up timber stand improvement or crop tree release cuts to favor and promote growth of desirable growing stock.
Consider direct planting if natural regeneration is not significantly composed of tree species expected to do well under future conditions.

Monitoring

Project participants identified several monitoring items that could help inform future management, including:
Desirable regeneration in young forest: Is regeneration composed mostly of desirable species (from a habitat perspective)? Is regeneration adequate to ensure a fully stocked future stand?
Oak regeneration: Is the regenerating oak component enough to ensure a future oak-dominated stand?
Mixed hardwood/conifer regeneration: Is there a sufficient conifer seedling component to ensure a future mixed hardwood/conifer stand?
Adaptability of young forest: What percent of regeneration is species forecast to do well under future conditions? Is regeneration composed of diverse species to ensure future stand resilience?
Invasive species abundance: What is the abundance of invasive plants both before and after timber harvest?

Next Steps

Prescriptions for the conifer plantation timber harvests are currently in progress and should go out to bid in the next year or two. Oak regeneration harvests will occur a few years following that. An increase in effort to monitor and treat invasive plants in and near the project area will begin immediately.

Learn More

To learn more about this project, contact
Maria
.

Keywords

Early-successional habitat
Wildlife habitat

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