Marion Brooks Natural Area, Elk County, PA Edward Frank
  January 01, 2009

Marion Brooks Natural Area, Elk County, PA

Marion Brooks NA is the kind of place where when you pull into the parking lot, you say “Wow!”  In front of you as far as you can see are bouquet-like sprays of white paper birch trees rising above the snow covered forest floor.  At first glance the paper birch trees are all that you see.  Each multitrunk cluster is made up of three or more individual stems 8 to 12 inches in diameter and 40 to 70 feet tall.  As you gaze upon the scene you see scatter examples of other tree species among this virtual monoculture of white.

 Marion Brooks entrance area

I had not really known what to expect when I decided to visit this site on a bright, cold New Years morning.  I typically read what materials I can find in my library and on the internet prior to visiting a site to get a feel of what to expect, and what to look for while visiting. 

The reports talked of a unique stand of paper birch trees dominating this 975 acre tract with little else present.  I had seen some photos, but the reality was much better than this preamble.  This natural area is small portion of the Quehanna Wild Area primarily located in Elk, Clearfield, and Cameron Counties in north central PA.  It is also park of the range of the elk herd here in Pennsylvania.

  Paper Birch

Paper Birch

This entire area is part of the Allegheny Plateau region on PA.  In the late 1800’s the area was extensively logged.  First for white pines, then later with the use of logging railroads, virtually everything else.  This site is located on a small stream called Paige Run.  It is too small for floating logs as was common on the larger streams in the area.  Instead when first logged only the most valuable timber, the white pine was removed.  These logs were drug and rolled to holding dams built in the small stream valleys like Paige Run.  In the spring with the melting snow and runoff, these splash dams were breached and in a swoosh of water the logs would be carried down to the larger streams to be floated to collection and sorting areas on the Susquehanna River at Lock Have and Williamsport.  When the white pines were gone logging railroads were built to harvest the rest.  By around 1912, the entire area was a wasteland of barren and eroding hills.  Repeated fires took place among the branches and tree tops left behind the brush that followed the logging operation. These frequent and intense fires burned across the area and devoured even the organic materials in the soil, leaving behind a mineral soil with virtually no organic content.  It was in this soil that a few pioneering species, like paper birch were able to establish a foothold, where nothing else would grow.  The monoculture of paper birch is the result of these events almost 100 years ago.  Even now in large areas of the tract nothing else has grown.  A good account of the history of the area can be found in the book:  “Great Buffalo Swamp, A Trail Guide and Historical Record for the Quehanna Plateau and Moshannon State Forest”  by Ralph Seely.

Marion Brooks Natural Area, Elk County, PA      
number species scientific girth height Date Measured By Method
1 Northern Red Oak Quercus rubra 7' 11" 80.15 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
2 American Beech Fagus grandifolia 2' 11" 57.03 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
3 Red Maple Acer rubrum 5' 1" 70.08 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
4 Black Cherry Prunus serotina  5' 3" 81 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
5 Paper Birch Betula papyifera 3' 11" 62.97 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
6 Sassafras Sassafras albidum 3' 11" 58.56 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
7 Red Maple Acer rubrum 6' 6" 85.03 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
8 White Pine Pinus strobus 3' 9" 35.08 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
9 Paper Birch Betula papyifera 3' 10" 74.83 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
10 Pitch Pine Pinus rigida  2' 9" 36.43 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
11 Norway Spruce Picea abies  4.2" 9 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
12 Pitch Pine Pinus rigida  5'  4.5" 64.09 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
13 Larch, European Laris decidua 4' 8" 72.17 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
14 Norway Spruce Picea abies  5'  5.5" 77.26 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
15 White Oak Quercus alba 6' 0" 61.16 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
16 Pitch Pine Pinus rigida  ~5' 67.77 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
17 Pitch Pine Pinus rigida  5' 9" 60.83 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
18 White Pine Pinus strobus ~ 84.36 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
19 Eastern hemlock Tsuga canadiensis 4' 6" 59.81 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
20 White Pine Pinus strobus 11' 2" triple 102.38 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
21 Pitch Pine Pinus rigida  6' 2" 63.67 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
22 Paper Birch Betula papyifera 3' 11" 45 1-Jan-09 Edward Frank ENTS
I did not explore the entire area on the trip this afternoon.  Much of my time was spent in the 20-30 acre stand near the parking area.  This was the best and purest of the paper birch stands I found on the trip.  Here there were very few other species of trees and they were scattered infrequently among the birches.  Beyond this area the paper birches continued to appear and add a brilliant splash of white to the forest trees, but their frequency declined from perhaps 95% of the trees present to perhaps 20%.  I of course do not know what is found in areas  did not visit.  In areas outside the entrance patch the trees also tended to be bigger in size. For an unusual situation like this, with an area of stunted and almost monoculture forest, and a more diverse forest elsewhere.  I think a good approach would be to develop a Rucker Index and profile for just the areas of the nearly pure paper birch stand and a separate Rucker Index and profile for the site as a whole. 
The results of my days measurements are presented above.  The upper portion of the list in light blue color, representing 11 measurements were taken within the paper birch stand.  The lower values, 12 through 22, were measurements I took in other areas of the park.  I unfortunately did not find enough species within the birch stand to complete a ten species Rucker Index.  There were more species present, but  was unsure of my species identifications. 
Paper Birch Stand:     RI5   = 75.91
Marion Brooks          RI5   = 82.03
Marion Brooks          RI10 = 72.77
Still a Rucker Index seems to be inadequate to describe the character of the site.  I will need to find a better way to characterize it on a return trip.  Within the paper birch area the most common secondary species was sassafras, and then red oak.  Other species were less frequent.  White pines were present as small trees generally less than 15 feet tall.  Scattered about also were Norway Spruce seedlings and saplings.  the largest of these were 9 feet tall.  other species present included witch hazel and some whose identification I was unsure. 
There is a section on Marion Brooks natural Area within the Elk County Natural Heritage Inventory by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, 2006.

This site, located within the Marion Brooks Natural Area, contains a small depression wetland supporting a population of creeping snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula), a plant species of special concern. Hemlock stumps, decaying remnants of logging from the early part of the twentieth century, contribute to the pit and mound microtopography that characterizes the wetland. Creeping snowberry occurs in the portion of the wetland where scattered white pine (Pinus strobus), red maple (Acer rubrum), hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), and pitch pine (Pinus rigida) form a sparse canopy. It can be found growing on the slightly elevated mounds, along with low sweet blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus), and cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea). Several species of sedge (Carex folliculata, C. gynandra, C. rosea), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), and round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) also grow throughout the wetland. A thick carpet of sphagnum moss helps maintain the acidic character of the wetland.  Adjacent to the wetland is an aspen/gray (paper) birch forest, an early successional forest community considered rare in Pennsylvania. Following repeated wildfires that resulted from logging during the early part of the last century, a dense, nearly pure stand of paper birch (Betula papyifera) grew up. The fires burned away much of the soil-forming organic matter on the forest floor, leaving thin, nutrient-poor soil unsuitable for anything but the pioneering birch (Fergus 2002). Other trees intermingled with the birch include sassafras (Sassafras albidum), red maple, black cherry (Prunus serotina), serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.), and witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinium) dominates the herb layer.  The supporting landscape extends to the boundary of the immediate watershed hydrologically linked to the depression wetland.

I did not locate and of the serviceberry, likely because I could not identify it if  found it. After leaving the entrance area a followed Losey Road about 1/4 mile to Page Run and a short distance upstream of the run on the northern side of the run.  There were several relatively large European larch trees near the culvert where the road crossed the run.  just past this culvert were a small patch of Norway Spruce.  These are likely the seed source for the Norway Spruce seedling and saplings within the paper birch area.  Exploring in this area I started to find some larger pitch pines, white pines, and even a hemlock.  There is a loop trail leading off from here that extends a distance of three miles or so.  I left that trail for another day.  The tallest tree found in the day was a triple trunk White Pine that just topped 102 feet. 

  Pitch Pine

What really was interesting in this area were the pitch pines.  they are a very and some tree, that looks old and gnarled even when young.  many of them were in the 5 foot girth and 60 + foot tall range.  This area also had a fair amount of mountain laurel,  this was a species absent from within the pure paper birch stand.  I am wondering how much alleopathy as affected the species composition within the birch stand.  If it has affected the composition as much as the poor soils.  Many of the articles describe the paper birches as reaching senescence, but I am not sure that is true. 

There are dead paper birches, but even the largest appear to be healthy.  a more disturbing situation is the lack of saplings of paper birch, or much of anything else within the birch stand.  This is likely the result of over browsing by deer.  I would like to see some deer exclusion fences placed in portions of the area to see what plants and trees would be able to grow within the enclosurers.  There are some saplings of other species outside the pure stand area, but even these are few in number.  

Some reports suggested that gray birch was also present in the area, but I failed to find any.  Gray birch also has white bark, but is marked by black patches or medallions at the base of limbs.  these are not present in paper birch.  paper birch also exhibits fine horizontal lines and paper-like peelings on the white bark.  I hope to make several more trips to the area and better document what trees and patterns are present. 

On the way to Marion Brooks I passed a yard in the village of Caledonia in which perhaps a dozen plus elk were grazing.  Unfortunately  was in traffic ad there was no place to pull over ad take a photo.  As luck would have it, on the way back the elk herd had moved to a different section of town,  I was able to pull off the road at a parking lot to a business that was closed and grab a few shots of the elk.

Ed Frank


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