Is there anything more soothing than a crackling fire on a blustery, winter day or evening?

I love a wood fire — inside or outside. Firepits can be so communal — blanketed friends huddled together, watching embers flicker into the night. The dancing light, the steady heat, the smell of wood smoke.

I have to admit, I’m glad I don’t have to schlep firewood any longer, anticipating the next snake to slither out of the woodpile. I did that enough in this lifetime. You know what they say about wood heating you multiple times: when you cut it, when you split it, when you stack it, when you carry it, when you burn it.

Click! The gas fireplace flashes on.

You learn a lot about wood and trees when you spend time outdoors, whether it’s building fences or clearing blow-downs on the farm, or climbing an oak to set an ambush point for a white-tailed deer you hope will amble by.

Penn’s woods are healthy and growing strong.

Keith Craig, executive director of the state Agriculture Department’s Hardwoods Development Council, talks about plentiful forests and how harvesters are leaving two trees for every one that they take. For decades, our hardwoods have been fortified by the growth rate of two to one.

Luckily, most regeneration occurs naturally. There are no tree plantations. As part of the sustainable resource model, foresters pick and choose when they harvest and what they want. It’s much like tending a garden, picking the best and clearing the weeds. Craig calls it science.

Meaning, we won’t run out of firewood.

There are 17 million acres of forests in Pennsylvania, covering 60 percent of the land mass.

Hardwoods is a $17 billion industry, with a peak economic effect as high at $25 billion before the recent ecession. About $1.2 billion in Pennsylvania hardwood, lumber and paper products are exported to more than 20 countries. Hardwoods employ 60,000 employees, down from 86,000 in the good days, encompassing furniture, moldings and staircases.

There are more than 2,000 wood-products companies in the state — those are sawmills, manufacturing facilities, paper mills and others. That number is down from about 3,000 as recently as six years ago.

Actually, the highest density of hardwoods jobs is not where the big trees grow. The greatest level of employment is in the Lancaster-to-Philadelphia corridor, because of furniture, cabinetry, paper and cardboard manufacturing.

Lumber production has been as high as 1.2 billion board feet as of two years ago; now down to 600 million. Craig says that optimistically, they’ve seen an upturn as housing has come back and are now producing 800 million board feet.

Don’t think it’s all hickory-dory in the woods. There are real threats.

It’s proven time and again that deer affect the amount and quality of regeneration on a massive scale across the state. Foresters, like farmers, have a stake in maintaining balanced herd numbers.

The minimum allowable number of white-tails per square mile of forest is 24, before they level significant destruction on the browse and future trees. That’s the standard formula used by biologists to trigger controlled and other harvests.

Ironically, up in the state’s big woods, where the big trees grow, hunters claim 24/7 that “There are no deer.”

Little buggers are the biggest bandits.

Invasive insects gone wild can raze a forest as efficiently as anything at the end of match.

The small emerald ash borer threatens to devastate one of the biggest hits in Penn’s woods. Louisville Slugger has used Pennsylvania northern white ash for baseball bats since the business began. The beetle from China showed up in Michigan 10 years ago, spread through Ohio and into the commonwealth five or six years ago. It’s now found all over Pennsylvania.

I’ve taken quite a few deer out of a slugger of an ash tree on family ground. I can’t imagine having a stand site elsewhere if the beetle had gotten there first.

The Asian longhorn beetle could devastate up to 40 percent of the forests in Pennsylvania. It threatens maple and 10 other species here. The huge, black beetle has white spots. It’s been found in New York City’s Central Park, Massachusetts and Ohio. While it hasn’t been found in the commonwealth, Craig urges anybody who finds a longhorn beetle, to call the Agriculture Department right away so it can be analyzed.

Foresters are on guard, and an eradication plan is in place.

“They move in firewood. They live in firewood,” Keith Craig warns of the invasive bugs.

If you move firewood, do so carefully and according to regulations.

There are rules against importing firewood from other states and strong advisories are in place to not move it within the state from one district to another.

I love the woods, if they are keeping my feet toasty in the hearth, or supporting the platform for my feet 20 feet above the ground during hunting season.

I find their health checkup to be good news. We must continue to take care of the woods.

Forests are the foundation for the environment we enjoy. Standing tall, standing strong.

Send your wild thoughts and news of upcoming hunting or fishing events, to bjsmall@comcast.net. Follow on Twitter @Arrows2010.

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