More than 75 percent of the woodlands in Ross Township parks is not sustainable, according to a state forester who has urged local officials to take measures to ensure their regeneration.
“The existing woodlands are in fairly good shape in that there are no major insect or disease problems or damage from vandalism, but if a disturbance were to occur and take out those trees, like severe weather or a pest infestation, the next forest growing in would have no desirable species," said Michael DiRinaldo, a service forester with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
He said the woodlands wouldn’t be suitable for timbering and would fail to meet standards for wildlife and recreation.
Nonnative, invasive plants that dominate the understory would flourish to the detriment of oak, hickory, maple and other desirable kinds of saplings, said DiRinaldo, who visited , , and parks last year at the request of Ross resident Karla Maruca.
Maruca is chairman of the township’s Deer Management committee. She also serves on the Comprehensive Parks, Recreation and Open Space Study committee, which is creating a long-term plan for updating the township's 23 parks.
The township has more than 200 acres of dedicated park space and is to ask what they would like included in the plan.
The deer committee is in Ross in order to control the population.
Maruca advocates controlled hunting in Ross’ municipal parks.
Whitetail deer take their toll eating fallen acorns and buds of young maples, poplars, white pine and hard-needled spruce saplings, but they are just one piece of a larger picture, said DiRinaldo, who recommended a holistic approach to forest regeneration.
“You could get rid of every deer in Ross Township, and it wouldn’t solve the problem.”
Exotic invasives such as honeysuckle and alanthus altissima— an Asian native commonly called Tree of Heaven — are crowding out natives attempting to grow in the understory, DiRinaldo said.
“Tree of Heaven is a particular problem because it grows fast — four feet in a year — and secretes a chemical in the soil that prevents other plants from taking root. It looks similar to our native sumacs, but it’s a different character altogether.”
Its offensive odor has earned it another moniker — stinking sumac — and when it is cut down, it might impact the respiratory system, DiRinaldo said.
“At least that’s a theory," he said, adding, “Cutting down is inadvisable, anyway, because the roots will produce 10 more trees. It needs to be chemically killed.”
Not removing Tree of Heaven has other repercussions because each specimen can send many thousands of seeds into the wind to sprout elsewhere, DiRinaldo said.
DCNR assesses public woodlands as a service to local municipalities, said DiRinaldo, who expressed his concerns about Ross’s forests in a letter to the township on Aug. 26, 2010.
Township Manager Wayne Jones said he has no knowledge of DCNR’s report.
“I really can’t respond to this because I’m not even aware of there being an issue with our forests,” he said.
Ross Parks and Recreation Manager Pete Geis said he was aware of woodlot problems but said the parks plan would emphasize other needs, such as upgrading facilities and installing new equipment.
He said forest sustainability needs to be addressed regionally, rather than on a township level, with DiRinaldo’s agency and the Pennsylvania Game Commission — the state’s deer management authority — taking the lead.
“Invasives spread so quickly. If the township does something and the surrounding communities don’t it would be about as effective as putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” he said. “The problem would be back in a year.”
The challenge facing Ross is huge, DiRinaldo said.
"The cost would be infinite. There’s not a municipality in the country that could handle this in one blow. The realistic approach is to ID areas likely to have the greatest disturbance and those with the greatest ecological value, and go from there.”
Doing nothing can be even costlier, he said.
“You don’t want to risk losing wild-game habitat and having wild game pushed even further into residential areas. You get ‘heat islands,’ or areas without shade. Water runoff worsens, and, of course, once you lose canopy, it’s gone.”