Hunting for the endangered National Forest of the Northeast
A search for the only national forest in Pennsylvania and New York
I see the orange vest announcing itself from at least seven or eight tree-lengths away. The man wearing it looks low to the ground, in between the witch hazel and hawthorn shrubs. I stop in the middle of the trail, on top of a carpet of oak leaves and slippery soft soil. “Don’t shoot,” I whisper to myself, removing my hood and unzipping my all black jacket. I sheepishly lift my right hand, but the hunter doesn’t wave back. Is his rifle pointed at me? Does he at least have a magnifying scope? There’s no way of telling, other than the fact that I’m still standing.
I walk forward, squishing through the soil that the melted snow has softened. With each step, I wait for the man to move. But he is frozen still. A warbler is singing her warnings overhead. The wind is whispering through the barren hardwood canopy. A sheet of clouds is shifting faster than usual in front of another sheet of clouds. The layers of leaves are padding my footsteps. And finally, when I’m only an acorn’s throw away, the hunter’s face rolls towards me, stops, and then drops. His eyes are closed. He’s asleep.
I stand there for nearly a minute, exhaling the breath I was unknowingly holding, and debating what to do next. I’m in the Allegany State Park, and it’s the beginning of bear season. Although no one told me. As no one does in the wild. The signs were all there though — in hindsight, of course. The army of pickup trucks parked next to me in the wooden cabins last night. The absence of a single other hiker along the trail I’m on. The bear roadkill that I had seen off of the highway. Or the amateur fisher I accidentally scared the holy ghost out of a month or so before. He had tried to run when he heard me coming. “Jesus Christ,” he said, unraveling his fishing line from the berry bush he had run into, “I thought you were a black bear.” I apologized and tried not to laugh, but couldn’t help it. Just the day before, I had cycled past a homemade Black Bears Matter sign, which I had many mixed feelings about. Now, standing in front of the entangled fisherman, as an assumed black bear, the irony was too good.
Despite these signs, the Allegany State Park ranger hadn’t said anything about hunting, and the trail he recommended just before I set out somehow sounded hunter-proof. “North Country is the longest trail in the US, over 4,000 miles, from North Dakota all the way to Vermont,” he said. “Just follow it a few miles south and you’ll hit the national forest as soon as you cross into PA.” Which is exactly what I was searching for: the Allegheny National Forest, the only national forest in Pennsylvania, and one of only four national forests in the eleven Northeast states.
I had spent weeks in the national forest in West Virginia, and my entire childhood inside of dozens of national forests that checkerboard California. But Allegheny would be my first on the east coast. If only I could make it there, alive, and in one piece.
Finally, after catching my breath, I tiptoe past the sleeping hunter, along the 4,000 mile North Country Trail. It’s quiet for another four to five minutes, until I turn the corner and see two other orange vests, this time walking directly towards me on the trail. “You better get something orange on, buddy,” the one in front says as I walk up to them. “Some of these jack asses will shoot at anything moving.”
I want to ask him if they would unknowingly or knowingly shoot at anything moving, which seems like a critical distinction, but I willingly assume the former and tell him I was worried about that. “I walked past one guy sleeping just now,” I say nervously. They both look at each other, shaking their heads.
“Oh, he’s one of ours.”
“Sleeping huh?” the guy in the back says, smirking. “Well, we’ll have to do something about that.”
I laugh but don’t ask what that might mean. Instead, I tell them that I’m heading to the national forest and they stare at me like I had said I was trying to make it to Yellowstone or Yosemite.
“The national forest is way out there, buddy,” the guy in front says. “You better get back to the camp and put some orange on there.” Which is exactly what I say I’ll do. I turn around, wish them good luck, and beg them not to tell their friend I had ratted him out.
“Don’t worry, we’ll tell him a racoon told us,” the guy in front says, and I laugh, willingly assuming this wasn’t supposed to be more than an innocent joke.
The next day, I finally make it to the national forest. By car. And still without any orange. My plan had been to buy a vest along the way, but of course, I don’t remember until thirty minutes after I pass the only market that’s open. Fortunately, though, there aren’t many pickup trucks near the national forest trail head. Only one, parked at the end of the trail, on the opposite side of where I’m planning to begin the hike.
Instead of hunters, though, I immediately see an oil pump. Morrison Trail Restoration Project Funded by Shell Appalachia and America Refining Group, the sign at the beginning of the trail says. I think about a call I had earlier that week. “I don’t think companies should be paying for forest restoration,” the conservationist said, “it’s a conflict of interest. They’re the ones who got us in this mess.” I said I understood, but that companies are now realizing climate change is a major business risk, and so they have an entirely new motivation to become sustainable. That they were the ones who helped get us into this mess, so they need to be responsible to help get us out. The conservationist didn’t buy it. And walking past the first oil pump on the restored Morrison trail, I can understand why.
“Unfortunately the US Forest Service doesn’t get any benefit from the oil and gas that’s on the national forest,” the forest botanist told me earlier, when I dropped into the USFS office before reaching the Morrison trail. “We get all the consequences but none of the benefits.” I shook my head and she pointed to the Allegheny forest map on the wall. “A 500,000 acre brush pile, that’s what they called this place back in the 30s, before it became national forest. No one wanted it. Everyone thought the oil was all gone, so we didn’t buy the oil rights.”
After ten minutes on the trail I pass the seventh or eighth pump. This one is barely off the trail, with a tire-scared dirt road leading up to it. I turn left, following the tire treads. OIL CREEK ENERGY LLC, the sign post says. It looks like one of the metal Imperial Walkers from the Empire Strikes Back, only smaller, and without guns. At the bottom of it, there’s a small turn-handle that’s attached to the end of the metal piping: Apollo Conbraco Ind. Inc USA. I put my hand over it, look around for a camera, and pull it to the left.
At first, only air comes out, hissing in anger. Then a yellow liquid rockets forward, followed by a flood of foam, filling the air with the fumes of petrol. For a brief second, I think about leaving the valve open. Eco-sabotage, Earth First!, Monkey Wrench Gang, Malcolm Xing the forest. But what would all that spilled fuel do to the biodiversity, to the trees, to the ecosystem? I shut the tap, take another picture, and nervously jog back down the skid trail.
The next day, I continue on my search for the Northeast national forests, this time heading deeper into New York. Finger Lakes is the only national forest in the state, and it’s also the smallest, of the country’s 150+ national forests. It’s my last day of the trip, and one of the USFS foresters who I talked with on the phone is gratefully willing to meet, even though it’s the afternoon before Thanksgiving.
We’re the only people in the 10+ room office, and the rain is tapping against the glass window as we begin to talk about the forest’s funding needs. “The last few years have been rough,” he says, leaning against a shelf inhabited with stuffed forest birds — ruffed grouse, ring necked pheasant, wood duck, wild turkey. “We haven’t even been able to afford seasonal workers. Can you imagine — We had our district ranger on a mower, emptying trash cans, cleaning up campgrounds.” He waves his hand towards the empty room and says there was no one else to do it.
I tell him that the mission of the Understory, the nonprofit we’re setting up, is to help bring more resources into forest management. “What would you do with more funding?” I ask. He laughs. The list is long. We brainstorm for awhile and eventually I thank him so he can get to his Thanksgiving weekend. Plus it’s getting darker and I still need to explore parts of the forest.
I ask him for suggestions and he tells me about an old growth stand of hemlock that I have to check out. Also the Fossenvue trail, his favorite part of the forest. And the Interloken Trail, which goes through some of their 4,000 acres of pasture land. And Potomac and Blueberry Patch Campgrounds, the only campsites in the forest. And Watkins Glen State Park, which, along with Letchworth State Park, is like the Grand Canyon of the east coast. I look at the dark clouds outside, and the clock on the wall, and then back at him. “Guess I’ll have to come back soon,” I say, and we both laugh. He tells me to wait for a second and comes back after a minute with something orange in his hands.
“So you’ll be around to come back.” He doesn’t actually say this, but his smile and head nod does.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I say, holding my new orange vest as I open the car door.
A few minutes later, as I drive into the forest boundary and then step into the old growth hemlock stand, I realize that we’re all hunting for something. Some of us carry a gun. Some of us carry a camera. Some of us carry an orange vest. And some of us carry nothing more than hopes and aspirations.