By Sara Stewart
INDIANA — Michael “Mike” Lawer, 30, is the owner of Millstone Land Management in Marion Center. A native of Indiana borough, he is a graduate of Duquesne University and Penn State, from which he received an associate’s degree in forestry.
“I am a third-generation Lawer family business owner in Indiana County,” he tells the HawkEye, “and damn proud of it.”
His grandfather and father founded companies that manufacture chalk and marker boards.
Lawer is currently contracted with White Township to oversee forestry projects at all of the township’s properties, including its Recreation Center on East Pike Road and White’s Woods Nature Center.
Lawer’s plan for the woods has incurred substantial public backlash. A lawsuit has been filed by the Friends of White’s Woods citizen advocacy group. And Lawer’s 56-page plan for White’s Woods is under review by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which recently sent a representative to inspect the proposed site in the woods.
Lawer said he expects his 56-page plan to be released at the next meeting of the White Township Board of Supervisors on June 24 at 7:30 p.m.
On June 9, Lawer spoke by phone about the plan, which aims to reduce the number of trees and remove invasive species in White’s Woods. Following is an edited version of the interview:
Question: There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding your proposed work in White’s Woods. What’s been your reaction?
Lawer: You could say I’m frustrated, or I’m hurt, but those would be inaccurate. I’m even more focused and more passionate than ever about this project, out of respect for the people of Indiana County and White Township. I see people post on Facebook that “they’re doing this for profit,” or that “I was walking in White’s Woods and I saw trees painted and I’m outraged.” I called my buddy and said, “I read your Facebook post.” He’s like, “White Township is cutting all the trees down!” I’m like, “Huh? That’s just an overview, it was based on findings, just recommendations. That’s not the actual report submitted to the DCNR two weeks ago.” This is the same conversation I have with everybody. I talk to my 91-year-old grandma and her perception is skewed.
Question: What percentage of the trees are you aiming to take out?
Lawer: In the initial overview, we made our finding based on the basal area. [According to Penn State extension service, basal area is “a measurement of the cross-sectional area of a tree trunk in square feet at breast height”]. Stem count-wise, I’d say around 500. It depends on what your definition of a tree is. For one stump, you have multiple stems coming out of it. You can go in and find evidence to make it a thousand trees if you wanted.
It’s like living in the slums of the biggest overpopulated area. Too many trees. We want to take the basal area to something around 60. That removes almost 50-60 percent of the population of the crown ratio.
It’s like social distancing. Everybody six feet apart. You want to stay healthy. Trees need to have some space, they need to not brush into each other. When we made our initial proposal saying we need to take close to half of the volume, that was similar to what Babyak proposed. [Forester Dave Babyak in 2007 proposed removing 21 percent of White’s Woods tree volume in a plan that was not adopted by White Township supervisors. Read Babyak’s June 9 interview with The HawkEye here.]
If you look at the total amount I have proposed to be cut, within the 50 acres [tract 1 of 7, as shown on Millstone’s map] I have marked 2.4 percent of the total 240 acres. I marked trees due to insect damage, disease, decay, weaker species. So many different variables.
Question: What do the green- and the blue-dot markings on the trees mean?
Lawer: I always change cans of paint, to keep me in line. One day I’ll use green, one day I’ll use blue. I make sure I don’t overlap. It’s more a line-of-sight thing, it has nothing to do with anything fun.
Question: Can you describe your reasoning for the soil roto-tilling included in your White’s Woods plan?
Lawer: First things first, treat the soil. You need to treat the soil, it’s a living organism.
There’s no scholarly research on this, but I bought this machine to take out invasive plants, and my operator, in reverse, noticed it was doing a good job rototilling. I said to my operator, who’s like a redneck genius, “Is there any way we can get it to go nice and flat?”
What we’re doing in White’s Woods can be seen by the caretaker’s property [at the township recreation center on East Pike]. There’s a little patch of woods in there, and we reinvigorated the soil, and you’ll see it has exploded with new tree growth and new ground cover. It’s all desirables and has less than 5 percent regeneration [of invasive species].
Question: You met with some of the Friends of Whites Woods members, and IUP scientists. What was your impression of those meetings?
Lawer: I don’t want to be rude, but it’s kind of embarrassing to hear someone who claims to be a biologist say things like, this is a natural or a wild area. [The terms are defined under state law.] That’s like saying you’re a vegan while you’re eating a piece of jerky.
There are only a few natural areas that exist [in Pennsylvania]. There are only maybe two old-growth forests remaining in Pennsylvania. The vast majority of the state was clear-cut several times. White’s Woods has been clear-cut several times, that we know of. It’s been poorly managed. It’s a forest where high-grade loggers have gone through and picked nice trees out and left junky trees.
A healthy forest is a diverse forest. You have biodiversity. When I do my tree tally, it should have 15-20 different species of trees. When we assessed the volume of the timber it was less than 10 species. It’s very unhealthy. That’s why we’re creating tree nurseries.
When I go into the woods with [Friends of White’s Woods member] Andy Davis, he’s a really nice guy, he’s passionate, he doesn’t want the forest to be hurt. He doesn’t want to lose this resource through its being mismanaged. But the worst thing you could do is get too many cooks in the kitchen.
Nobody really has done what I do. I’m the only one that has done stewardship for the Allegheny National Forest. I’ve managed over 50,000 acres in Armstrong County alone. I’m not a traditional forester, I didn’t go to school to be a traditional forester. I have training working for the sawmill people, you know, doing what people would say is traditional forestry. But I am by no means a traditional forester. I am an outside-the-box-thinking forester.
I told Davis, “You can’t make decisions based on emotions.” He’s kinda telling me that I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t want to see White’s Woods mismanaged or put in the wrong hands. This is my baby.
[IUP biology professor] Jeff Larkin too — I met with him separately, and it was like, “Hey Mike, this is great, we agree with everything you have marked, but we’re kind of offended that White Township didn’t ask us to be a part of this.” It’s like, well, let me do my job. I have evidence that backs up that what I’m doing will work.
He said, “You do this and you’re gonna have invasives everywhere. Nothing’s gonna grow in here.” I said, as long as I’m treating the soil compaction, it’s the only way to get regeneration in here. [At the East Pike recreation complex], less than 1 percent of the area I treated is regenerating non-desirable plant species. We planted $6,500 in wildflower species. Nobody’s talking about, “Boy, isn’t that gonna be freaking awesome.” Nobody has ever done this process that I do. It’s definitely different.
These IUP guys lied their asses off, lied to my face. Said one thing and wrote this report that said an entirely different thing. That’s a pretty low blow.
Question: And you also had differing opinions with Dr. Larkin about deer?
Lawer: They said, “We’d like to collaborate with you on putting up deer fence.” I don’t agree with the deer fence idea. When you’re managing a place like White’s Woods, people like to see deer. I don’t want to take that away from people. So why would I want to put up a 50-acre fence to exclude something that’s part of my management plan? I want to promote growth for wildlife.
Their idea is to exclude deer so everything will grow in the 50 acres. What I found, based on evidence and management, is if you create more food, it creates more competition for plants to grow straighter. It’s like, hey, let the deer in there.
I said, let’s kill some deer. It will create a healthier population of deer. Right now, the forest is unhealthy. We have an unhealthy population of deer. When you have issues like chronic wasting disease, the best thing you can do to protect that resource is to remove some of that resource.
I talked to DCNR, and we’re going to have a designated hunting season. There will be a shooter test, a written examination and a designated area to hunt in. There will be a drawing. Odds are it will be doe-only, because our sex ratio is off. We have 15 does for one buck. Every deer we shoot we can test to see if they have chronic wasting disease.
There are states that have a thing called Earn a Buck. They say, if you want to hunt in our state, if you want to shoot a buck, you have to shoot a doe first.
White tailed deer need to eat eight pounds of woody browse a day to survive. They’re not getting it in White’s Woods. There are deer going into people’s backyards. Lyme disease is through the roof.
Question: How do you respond to the charge that this project’s main aim is to sell the timber for profit?
Lawer: I hold this project as sacred, and [the media] compared it to income-generating harvest. That’s not the case. You don’t hear anything in the paper about these bike trails I’m working on right now, the community gardens I’m going to be putting in, all the other awesome stuff.
Any income generated from the sale of timber, they’re selectively objective marked trees. It’s hard to compare that to what’s done traditionally. When you hear “logging,” you think about those big clear-cuts that don’t have the science. They don’t have a full-time herpetologist working for them like I do. We’re trying to build sustainable parks.
This is going to be the poster child for sustainable objective forestry. I made that up in a meeting. It was just a theory. The idea behind it is, OK, there’s going to be pollinator gardens, all this cool shit we’re going to build, and it will cost money, and these permits cost money — all of these costs, you have the resources for. I go in and assess the timber, and get a value based on volume. You have a million dollar total value, and after the cut, skid and haul, after you pay someone to do the cutting and skidding, assume half of your money is gone. Now you only have $500,000. What are your objectives?
So I went into White’s Woods. I said, “Let’s come up with all these cool ideas. And let’s get a thorough idea of how much that’s going to cost.”
At East Pike, I assessed the timber — not total, but what needed to be cut. What was a dangerous tree, an ugly tree, trees that might fall on the road. And said, “How can we squeeze as much money as we can out of these trees that need to go?”
I came up with a value with the work that I did. As far as removing the invasives, I think it was $17,000 they paid me. I marked and tallied [the trees] and, hey, all of a sudden we made back that money we have to pay Mike Lawer! This is a beautiful thing.
That’s where the sustainable relationship comes in. Kids can stay in these summer camps [at East Pike], and they [the township] take the trees from White’s Woods and sell them to this sawmill, thermo-treat the lumber, and build these cabins. “Wow, this wood came from White’s Woods.” That’s what the supervisors have hired me to do.
Question: Did you anticipate people getting so upset about this proposal?
Lawer: The first thing I said to the supervisors was, there will be a serious problem. You will get bothered. People are going to freak out, people are going to get so mad at me.
I’m willing to stick my neck out, because I know with my team and my passion, if you just believe in me, that’s all you really need. You gotta believe in your heart. It isn’t just like I woke up one day and decided to start spray-painting trees.
The biggest hippie liberal in my high school called me and said, “I hear you’re trying to do this White’s Woods thing.” He said, “I got your back, tell me anything you need. As soon as I found out you were the one doing it, everything was good.”
All these people writing letters to the editor – I’m like, for God’s sake. If I heard all the trees were getting cut down in White’s Woods, I’d probably chain myself to a tree, too.
It’s just another season that the invasives are still there. I said, hey, I’ve got other stuff to do. I’m going to build those bike trails [at the rec complex]. I’m working on tree nurseries. Our big one is going to be at Getty Heights Park. It’ll feature shade-tolerant and shade-intolerant plant species. And I’m contracted to teach environmental education.
Sara Stewart is a freelance journalist who writes for the New York Post, CNN.com and other publications. For The HawkEye, she has covered domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic and White’s Woods. She lives in Indiana and is a member of the Borough Council.