Blackbird State Forest: A Man Speaks for the Trees in a Delaware State Park.

Forester Jim Dobson discusses his attempt to convert this former agricultural field into an oak hardwood forest. Photo by Jessica Hicken
Forester Jim Dobson discusses his attempt to convert this former agricultural field into an oak hardwood forest. Photo by Jessica Hicken

“Where you’re standing right now used to be a pasture, a dairy farm actually.” We are standing in a gravel parking lot at the Blackbird State Forest Visitor’s Center, surrounded by tall trees and the sound of cicadas. Our guide, Jim Dobson, a tall, bearded man, is detailing his job as a forest manager at the park. Blackbird State Forest spans approximately 5,600 acres and is a popular site for visitors seeking to spend a day among the trees. The park makes a lot of its profit off meticulously managed timber harvest. On the rusted bumper of Dobson’s truck is a sticker that reads: “Call Before You Cut” over a silhouette of pine trees, along with a phone number.

Dobson spends much of his time patrolling the forest, planning out methods of management to maximize the forest’s health. Currently, he says, he is trying to regenerate the oak trees in the forest. In order to do so, he must eliminate all other seed spores. It can take the oak trees around five years just to root before they even show any signs of growth. It takes a lot of work. Dobson tells landowners, “If you want to do this, that’s all well and good but if you don’t do the maintenance, it’s not going to look like this,” as he gestures to the tall trees around us, proudly describing the area as “dog-hair thick.” He has to maintain the timber species in the forest as well. If he lets the forest go, it will all turn to sweet gum, maple, and poplar trees.

Photo by Heather Buleje
Photo by Heather Buleje

“When you do forest management, what you try to do is mimic nature.” A lot of Dobson’s work is tending to the understory of the forest because without it, there would be nothing for a lot of the animals to eat. His job includes not only cutting back a lot of trees, but also administering prescribed burns in many areas. Prescribed burning is a technique used to strategically set fire to specific sections of forest or field in order to allow the plant-life to regenerate as a healthier overall area. Indicating the thicket of tall white pines in front of us, Dobson explains that it is burned every five years.

Dobson tells us that oaks, the tree he is encouraging to regenerate, have not always been this prominent here. Chestnuts, he says, used to be all over the region. Now oak has become the dominant tree in the chestnut’s wake. He goes on to tell us, however, that red oaks probably will not be here in the next twenty-five to thirty years. They are suffering from a condition called bacterial leaf scorch (BLS). BLS used to exclusively be an urban problem, but has since spread to the forests. All red oak species are susceptible to it, with the exception of the willow oak. White oaks will likely replace the dominant red oaks should they all succumb to BLS. Due to their more rigid internal structure, they bounce back pretty quickly when exposed to the bacteria.

Forest management seems like no easy task. On the job for thirty-some years, Dobson is incredibly familiar with the forest and knows the history of every tree. “I’ve walked over every acre of this forest,” Dobson explains. “No two acres are the same.” Be it cutting, selling, or burning the forest, Dobson thinks thoroughly about his methods and the wildlife species they will affect. Standing among the trees, he beams underneath his green cap as he looks up at the forest in admiration. It is evident that this is a man who is proud of his work.

By Dana Goin