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TrekEast Blog 48: Facing the Energy Assault in Pennsylvania

Already Feeling its Greenhouse Effects

July 23, 2011

Imagine for a moment you are an Allegheny woodrat.  You are comely and winsome as a kitten (though a bit compulsive in your domestic gathering habits), but burdened with a human name, “rat,” that has discouraged people from valuing you. (Perhaps you’ll recall, we visited habitat of your cousin, the Key Largo woodrat, in the Florida Keys at the beginning of this trek, and learned that your even rarer cousins have lost most of their habitat to roads and housing developments and now are threatened by feral house cats, too.)

Your kind once thrived on talus slopes and other grounds rich in crannies throughout the Ridge and Valley Province of the Central Appalachians. At first, you could abide the arrival of Euro-Americans, because they mostly settled the valleys and you mostly lived up on the ridges. As the new human residents logged and mined more and more of the mountains, however, your kin lost much of their homeland, and your numbers dwindled.
After decades of people removing the trees and even the ground from much of your territory, your species is in trouble. Your frequent neighbor, and occasional predator, the timber rattlesnake, has declined drastically, too. When large-scale habitat restoration is needed, instead comes further habitat fragmentation, in the form of upscale subdivisions bringing driveways, power lines, and houses high onto the ridges. Also dicing up the land is people’s related hunger for cheap energy bringing coal and oil and gas mining and industrial wind turbines into the remaining vestiges of intact forest along central Pennsylvania’s ridges.
Habitat fragmentation harms sensitive species in diverse and bewildering ways. One of the contributors to the decline of you woodrats is raccoon scat. Raccoons, unlike many other carnivores, thrive in fragmented habitats, and indeed may follow roads or power lines into forest blocks where the clever masked mammals were previously scarce. Moreover, raccoons have become unnaturally abundant in landscapes where people have eliminated the top predators, particularly cougars and wolves.
Raccoons carry a roundworm, or nematode, that does not harm them but can be fatal to wood rats. Being pack rats, you Allegheny woodrats gather all manner of objects for your middens. Unfortunately, your kind now often unwittingly gather what soon sickens you, when you add raccoon scat to your storage piles. In a chain of events even biologists did not predict, your species is sinking dangerously close to extinction in large part because habitat fragmentation is admitting a parasite to which you have no natural resistance.
These reminders of the interconnectedness of wild things, and the cascading effects of human-caused habitat and species losses, came to me at Plummer’s Hollow, a private Nature sanctuary owned and protected by Marcia & Bruce Bonta & sons. The Bontas are one of the most generous and Nature-oriented families I’ve ever met. On the modest incomes that Bruce earned as a librarian and Marcia as a writer, the family managed to put back together a more than 600-acre land-holding that had been heavily logged and farmed in the past but which they are slowly restoring to a natural condition. The Bontas botanize and study natural history daily, not just to get to know their land well but also to overcome the discouragement that can come from being dedicated to the natural world and seeing so much of it destroyed.
Marcia and Bruce Bonta and their equally brilliant son Dave and I discussed how bears and other large creatures probably use forested ridges to move through this Ridge and Valley Appalachian landscape, in which most of the valleys have been taken over by towns, roads, agriculture, and business. The Bontas are worried that escalating energy extraction – including hydro-fracking for natural gas, erecting giant wind turbines on remote ridge-tops, and strip-mining for coal – may sever the remaining connections through much of Pennsylvania.
America’s energy binging is a huge threat to wildlands and wildlife in the East, as well as the West. Without at least some of Pennsylvania’s portion of the Central Appalachians kept wild and roadless, an Eastern Wildway can never be complete. Pennsylvania is blessed with conditions that grow some of the largest trees in the East (such as in the old-growth remnant at Cooke Forest in northwest PA) and with extensive public land holdings (largely, state forest), but it also has one of the sorriest histories of land exploitation in the country.

Much of Pennsylvania has already been clearcut, drilled for oil and gas, or mined for coal – including big parts of Allegheny National Forest and smaller parts of the state forests. Now energy companies are after the natural gas residing in the Marcellus and Utica subterranean rock layers, even though its extraction will contaminate water supplies and further fragment wildlife habitats. Meanwhile, invasions of exotic tree pathogens, including emerald ash-borer and hemlock wooly adelgid, abetted by a warming climate, are further diminishing the sylvan quality of Pennsylvania.
On this trek, I’ve been trying to focus more on opportunities than on threats, which most conservationists already know of and spend much of their time fighting. In the Central Appalachians, however, the energy-related threats are so pervasive that it would be disingenuous to talk about wildlife connections without addressing them.
Among the good conservation groups in Pennsylvania that are both confronting threats from energy extraction and protecting and reconnecting wildlands are Clearwater Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy(TNC). (Necessary haste in PA prevented me from traveling northwest to visit important project areas of Allegheny Defense Project, a good tough wildlands advocacy group, and Friends of Allegheny Wilderness, which has a citizens Wilderness proposal for the Allegheny National Forest that would protect big roadless areas in the PA Wilds, north-central to northwestern part of the state. The visionary forest protection group Heartwood is also active in PA.) Liz Johnston of TNC kindly met me on beastly hot afternoon to show me some of their new preserve on southern Brush Mountain. This preserve was badly logged before TNC could acquire it, so it is now a restoration project. Part of TNC’s work in confronting climate change is mapping sensitive habitats and key wildlife connections, and trying to direct energy exploitation away from these areas.
ClearWater Conservancy friends, including executive director Jennifer Shuey and biologist Katie Ombulsky, and Millbrook Marsh Nature Center director Molly Hetrick, kindly devoted much of an even hotter day to showing me around their project areas. Their organizations are introducing thousands of kids every year to the wonders of Nature in central Pennsylvania. ClearWater is replanting native vegetation along Spring Creek and other streams, working with officials to remove unneeded dams, and purchasing lands for additions to state forests and for establishment of wildlife corridors along ridges and from ridge to valley.
The Bontas’ and TNC’s and ClearWater Conservancey and other friends’ good work is made all the more urgent in this overheating climate. I could not forget about climate change as I pedaled north through Pennsylvania, finally finding shade and cooling water along the Pine Creek rail-trail in north-central PA, during one of the worst heat waves on record.  Adding to the almost insufferable heat were the cruel gouges up mountainsides near Pine Creek, where already the infrastructure is being built to hydraulically fracture shale layers thousands of feet below and suck the natural gas out of them.
There have always been heat waves, of course, but this one felt downright hostile; it felt like revenge for humanity’s bad behavior. If we mine the rest of Pennsylvania’s coal and break its very bedrock to extract the once safely sequestered carbon, we will cut the lifelines needed by wildlife in the East, even as we speed the cooking of the biosphere. Maybe we ill-mannered humans deserve the coming climate chaos, but the wood rats and rattlesnakes and bears and bobcats who have lived here far longer than we have surely do not deserve such punishment.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: As my friend Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and author of EAARTH, says of addressing climate change, we must do everything, to avert the disastrous effects of human-caused global overheating. We must drive less, walk more, buy local, reduce-reuse-recycle, save and reconnect every possible piece of natural habitat, put solar panels on our houses, restore riparian buffers, reforest denuded lands … Also, support the groups mentioned in this and other TrekEast blogs, and work with land trusts in your area on habitat connections, even as you fight off the carbon-mining projects that would prevent reestablishment of an Eastern Wildway.
For the Wild,
John 

 

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