Sometimes, Pennsylvania’s first female state forester gazes out the backyard window of her Manheim Township home and dwells on a European beech tree.
The tree brings Ellen Shultzabarger calm. That’s a good thing because she’s responsible for 2.2 million acres of the commonwealth’s state forests.
Shultzabarger has taken over the reins at the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry at a time when public and private forests are being buffeted by invasive insects and plants, forest diseases, controversy over natural gas extraction and the effects of climate change.
The 41-year-old, who gained the respect of the bureau’s 700 full-time and part-time employees over the last 14 years, says she is bent on keeping the state’s forests sustainable, available to multiple uses and to get people to connect to the trees around them.
“We want to keep forests forested or increase forest cover for their benefits to water quality, wildlife habitat, human health and the mental benefits that trees and forests provide,” she says.
The manager of one of the nation’s largest reserves of state forests comes from a strong environmental background.
She grew up near Shippensburg. Her family had an orchard, and she loved planting seedlings and watching them grow to bear fruit that could be picked and eaten. She explored the nearby South Mountain and Connequidic Creek.
After getting her degree in natural resources at Ohio State University, she worked for the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation, then helped developers avoid threatened species with the Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife. She got a graduate certification in urban planning and policy from Tufts University.
She arrived at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in 2004, working in a variety of roles, including making sure state forests were managed ecologically for native plants, wetlands and wildlife.
Most recently, she was chief of conservation science and ecological resources.
An ardent hiker, she moved to Lancaster County in 2004. She lives with her husband, Brian, a daughter, 11, son, 9, and a retriever and setter-pointer mix in the Country Club Heights development.
She supports the bureau’s long-held concept of multiple use of state forests, which include recreation, timbering and more recently, natural gas extraction. Not everyone thinks they are compatible.
“That’s really our job as a resource manager, to balance all those values and uses,” she says.
Sometimes it comes down to balancing the competing preferences of mountain bikers and hikers, even plants versus birds.
When it comes to fracking, Shultzabarger says the agency makes gas companies co-locate roads and combine rights of way whenever possible to minimize disturbance.
But the roads and pipelines fragment blocks of forest and disturbances invite invasive plants.
Required mitigation measures include planting pollinator species of plants in the newly created open areas.
In areas where the endangered northern flying squirrel are found, trees are planted to enable the animals to leap across openings.
The bureau requires that drilling pads be restored when retired.
The effects of climate change have become a new addition to Shultzabarger’s management decisions.
She helped develop the conservation department’s new Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Plan and is co-chair of the agency’s climate committee.
Already, she says, state forests are seeing more invasive species, flooding and buildup of material that make forests more prone to fires.
She wants to continue to see more trees planted both in state and private forests to improve wildlife habitat and water quality across the state.
Planting riparian buffers along streams accomplishes both, she says, noting that her bureau used to be called the Division of Forest and Waters.
To aid that goal, her agency has begun working with farmers to plant trees whose fruit will have commercial value.
Tree-planting efforts also extend into urban and suburban areas. She praises Lancaster city’s green infrastructure project as a model for urban forestry in the state.
She dismisses her ascension to becoming Pennsylvania’s first woman state forester as any kind of an iconoclastic milestone.
“But it does mean something as far as women in the natural resource field or those fields where there aren’t as many women in them,” she adds.
“I did always want to be part of leading forest conservation. I never knew it would be forestry.”