The Comeback Kid

Nurturing South Mountain back to health

Imagine the incredible vastness of the forest that greeted William Penn when in 1682 the first arrived in what is now Pennsylvania. Historical accounts tell us that up to 90 percent of the state was cloaked in old-growth forests, showcasing white pine, Eastern hemlock and a mix of hardwoods. To early settlers, this expanse must have felt endless, a resource unlimited.

So the cutting began. Homes were built. Farmland created. Ships erected. Houses heated. Furniture constructed. Railroads laid.

By the late 1800s, Pennsylvania was the nation’s greatest source of lumber. At times, millions of logs choked the Susquehanna River, bound for sawmills in Williamsport or shipbuilding yards in Baltimore. Then things got quiet. By the early 1900s nearly all of the state’s virgin timber had disappeared.

Fast forward. Today, Pennsylvania’s forests are returning—some 60 percent of the landscape is now forested—and areas protected and managed by The Nature Conservancy offer places across the state for these woodlands to continue to recover. Nature is resilient. Given the opportunity and a little help, it will fight its way back. This is South Mountain’s story.

Located on the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Mountains, South Mountain has a logging history not unlike those of the peaks around it. Logged for different purposes going back to the pre-Revolutionary War era, the landscape had deteriorated considerably by the late 1800s.

But things turned around for South Mountain when at the turn on the 20th century it became home to Pennsylvania’s first state forest, Michaux, and one of the first forestry schools in North America, Mont Alto.

Set on the path to recovery early, much of South Mountain has been under protection and management for more than a century, with The Nature Conservancy contributing to the effort beginning in the 1970s. Now a thriving second-growth forest, the landscape hosts rare plant communities, a high concentration of vernal pools, high quality trout streams and many species of forest breeding birds. It’s a testament to nature’s resiliency, and man’s resolve.

And while still not exactly the forested landscape William Penn would recognize, South Mountain is getting there, and the Conservancy is still helping. View a timeline of South Mountain’s comeback.


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