Photo by Noah Shatzer

Can Nature be Improved Upon? The ranger perspective.

08/08/2022

The South Mountain Partnership is proud to feature a communications partnership with the Michaux State Forest, the core of our region and heart of the South Mountain, by bringing you a new perspective straight from the forest in this column written in conjunction with the Bureau of Forestry staff and the Friends of Michaux.

Nature. What does that word mean to you and how do humans fit into nature? According to the folks at Merriam-Webster, it’s a pretty dynamic word. To cite a few:

A creative and controlling force in the universe.
the basic of inherent features of something.
the external world in its entirety.
Or my personal favorite: the material world, especially as surrounding humankind and existing independently of human activities.

So, the word defined still leaves the door open for questioning. Is nature a thing? A place? A description of the actions and tendencies of living things? What if it’s all of the above?

To keep it framed within the walls of this topic, lets define it as everything there is out of doors. I’ve heard folks refer to the Earth as a gigantic organic spaceship hurdling through outer space, revolving around a star in the “goldilocks” zone where water can exist in liquid, solid and gas forms, giving birth to carbon based life forms, and eventually, Humanity.

The line of what is natural and unnatural has gotten blurry. Certainly, humanity has given birth to some rather unnatural things. When compared to the rest of the world, the internal combustion engine, the internet and the stock market don’t seem natural. But Humans are from Earth, and if we are natural, does that make everything we do natural?

Let’s zoom into the forest, where plants and animals live in symbiosis. The entire forest ecosystem can be perceived to be working in a synergistic way, similar to how the cells in an organism work together to complete a life cycle. Acorns fall from an Oak tree, the deer and the squirrels eat some of the acorns, some sprout, and some seedlings get browsed down by wildlife. But some trees make it to maturity, and they produce acorns, shade, erosion control, nesting habitat for rodents and birds, and eventually the tree dies. But the tree’s work is not done. Now, it is a den tree for owls and flying squirrels, and a substrate for mushrooms to grow on and break down the lignin in the tree, preparing it to return to soil. When the tree eventually falls, it becomes a nurse tree, soaking up moisture to release to surrounding plant life in times of drought. And eventually, it turns back into the very soil it sprouted from. Truth is, when a tree meets death, it’s got a lot of useful work left to do, because nature knows no waste. Nature is a zero sum equation.

Is humanity contributing to that symbiosis? If you consider the amount of forest land replaced with development since European contact, it’s a hard idea to defend, when there are parking lots, factories and landfills where there used to be forests, meadows and hill country. But, we are here, almost 8 billion of us in fact. We are quite the consumers, and there is traction to the idea that humanity is a parasite on the Earth. At the same time, humanity has acknowledged its pillaging of the land and taken steps towards remediation. The Clean Air and Water Act, the Wilderness Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and Americas greatest idea: the public land system. Some of us don’t look at a forest and see dollar sings in the form of commercial development and timber sales, some of us see a beautiful place that should be left to its own devices. But society exists, and the working forest is the reality that surrounds us. To sum it up, I’ll quote the timeless brilliance of Aldo Leopold “ We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Which brings us to the Michaux, the cradle of forestry in America. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has created the Bureau of Forestry to protect and manage this wild, natural resource. It is not an easy job, and there are many user groups with varying needs and expectations. And then, there is the ecosystem that adapts, while we scramble to “improve” something that existed for billions of years before we came along…

So, we juggle priorities, using controlled burns, select cut timber management, invasive pest control, wildlife reintroduction and hunting management. And recreation access for many different user groups, road maintenance, timber sales, and education programs.

The forest management can be broken down into 3 main facets: timber sales, outdoor recreation and forest/wildlife health or habitat enhancement. As it turns out, what might be best practice for one facet is not best practice for another, and there is difficulty in maintaining the balance.

Ask the trout fisherman what he or she would prefer to see to improving fishing opportunity and you might get a request for larger clearings for room to cast, more streams being stocked and trail infrastructure for easy access to the best holes. Ask our contacts at Trout Unlimited or the PA Fish and Boat Commission what they would prefer to see and you might get a request for large woody debris projects on certain streams, ripping out old bridge culverts and reduced stocking of streams with native and wild populations of fish. So, what is ideal for the trout is not necessarily ideal for the trout fisherman, and a decision must be made as to which interest take precedence?

This is only one example, but it does a great job portraying the conundrum that land managers grapple with on a daily basis. We want the public to enjoy their time hiking, biking, fishing etc… but these activities are not without impact to the natural balance of the forest. If the Bureau was to place keeping things “natural” at the top of its priority list, there would be major impacts on timber sales and public access and recreation opportunities. So we cant make all of our decisions with that single factor in mind.

There are positive ways to look at the Michaux and the community that loves it dearly, and that’s what drives the rangers to suit up every day and protect the resource with the public’s help.

  • How can you as a friend of the forest minimize your impact while still getting what you need from nature? After all, we all need it for mental health. The screentime, technology, social media and lack of exercise that modern day to day life has normalized are not good for people in constant doses, we need to unplug and unwind in the forest. Lets all do it with safety, longevity and Leave No Trace ethics in mind.
  • If you’re hiking, biking or camping, leave a note with friends and family on where you expect to be and when you plan to be home. This is rarely needed, but when it is, there is no substitute.
    If you see something, say something. Calling the Michaux District Office to report trash dumping, suspicious activity, poaching or any abuse of the resource, helps rangers do their job more effectively. Rangers have the training and experience to deal with these situations so never put yourself in a compromising situation to try to assist a potential or ongoing investigation unless you are directly asked to do so. That being said, a picture of a license plate is very helpful.
  • Always follow Leave No Trace This means leave only footprints, make only memories and take only pictures. In regards to campfires- from March 1st, to May 25th, there are absolutely no campfires of any kind permitted. This is peak fire season for several reasons, wind and sun penetration to the forest floor before leaf out being the most major factors. Outside of that season, the Smokey Bear signs will point to the fire danger for that day, and a simple call to the District Office you are visiting will get you the most up to date information on fire safety.
  • Most importantly, remember that the Michaux isn’t what we have, it’s what we have left. We don’t own this, we are borrowing it from the next generation. Outdoor recreation is finally being recognized as an economic force in this country, but with that comes consequences. Places being “loved to death” is a new reality we would do well to avoid.  The Michaux is a tremendous place and we can make it even better and ensure it’s capacity for future generations to enjoy. We just need to sacrifice some convenience and keep respect for the habitat, plant life and wildlife in the front of our minds.    Signing off, The Rangers.

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