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PA’s Keystone Fund: Symmetrical Program in an Asymmetrical Political World

If there is one rule or overarching principle that taxpayers want applied to how their hard-earned money is spent by government bureaucrats, it is symmetry.

If taxpayers put money in, they expect to get money, or value, back out.

Gasoline taxes? Show me the newly paved highway! Etc. Real simple symmetry.

This is the most elementary social contract between citizens and their self-selected governments, and today ain’t Ninth Century Europe, where armed tax collectors come knocking and begin turning the humble home inside out in search of hidden wealth to take, er…collect.

Today, when the government takes your money by threat of coercive force, you grudgingly turn it over, expecting to at least see some benefit from it.

At budget time is when the legislature and the executive negotiate over how the collected resources of a state or nation are going to be spent. Right now it is budget time in Pennsylvania, and there are no guarantees. Neither the governor nor the legislature has my trust.

Both are up for re-election.

In the middle of it all we have the Keystone Fund, Pennsylvania’s conservation engine. The Keystone Fund is used to run most of Pennsylvania’s “Ranger Rick” – style conservation programs. State parks, state forests, land acquisition, new kiosks, etc. Good stuff. Worthy stuff. The kind of stuff that makes the taxpayer say “Hey, I finally got my money’s worth back!”

The Keystone Fund is funded by taxpayers, but also in large part by the net returns from timber and natural gas sales from public lands. There is an appealing, nearly holy symmetry to any government program that uses money from its own programs to pay for its own programs.

It is the way government should be run!

Now, the Keystone Fund is at risk because it is a symmetrical program living in an asymmetrical political world populated by career politicians who disburse public funds to win public favor, and votes.

Instead of returning the proceeds from timber and gas sales back into the very natural resources that produced them, we now see the likelihood that elected officials will use this income stream to buy off their favorite constituencies. So they can get votes, and get re-elected.

How sad to see one of the very few examples of good public policy, the Keystone Fund, fall victim to something so crass, vulgar and common as an elected official.

To quote Mark Twain: “I think I can say, and say with pride that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.” (Speech 7/4/1873)

Conservation vs Environmentalism

After decades of environmentalism, many Americans are burnt out on the movement’s constant sky-is-falling hype and never-ending Defcon 5 emergency messaging. Environmentalists’ craving for full control of our every motion and breath understandably scares the daylights out of normal Americans.

Though environmentalism is sold as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition by its proponents, the truth is that it represents an unnecessarily confrontational and expensive approach to environmental and public health, with misplaced priorities and unmeasurable outcomes.

Simply put, Environmentalism is the over-reliance upon government coercive force, command-and-control, one-size-fits-all sledgehammer policies to problems that might require a screwdriver, if needing anything at all.

The premise behind environmentalism is that mere daily acts of human existence are pitted against a static natural environment that must be defended at all costs, in the face of change being this planet’s biggest constant. Un-anointed humans are vermin in environmentalism.

Oh, sure, pollution and environmental destruction from human activity do exist: Over-fishing of the shared oceans is resulting in catastrophic population reductions of the most valuable fish (tuna, sharks, some salmon). Low-density residential development and warehousing goes up on our flattest, best, most fertile farmlands while national food security is an ever growing concern. Where will we grow our own clean food, if not on our best farmland closest to our largest population centers? Preventing water pollution is a constant effort. And certain chemicals were not vetted properly, with the burden of proof placed on the hapless citizenry before they were discovered to pose unacceptable health risks.

Republican President Richard Nixon said it best: “What a strange creature is man, that he fouls his own nest.” This is just being honest, though the very people most radicalized about environmental issues are also and equally fouling our collective nest with their own reliance on cars, iPhones, and hip clothing. They aren’t special. In fact the most “special” among them have their own personal jets and huge cars and boats with daily carbon footprints the size of small towns. Hypocrisy has a way of passively degrading and delegitimizing people, and that has happened with environmentalism’s biggest messengers, like Al Gore, Leon DiCaprio, et al.

Each of the real environmental health issues we face can and will be tackled with all of our best Yankee ingenuity. Not every day needs to be the summer of 1968, and not every environmental issue is Love Canal or will result in Planet Earth’s extinction if we don’t implement drastic policies right now. At its worst, environmentalism is virtue signaling and fake moral outrage.

A more measured, more adult approach is needed.

America is hopefully about to see a blossoming of conservation.  Aldo Leopold called it a “conservation ethic,” where a sense of stewardship results in concrete steps to protect natural resources for future generations of Americans.

Yet, conservation is mostly boring as hell. It lacks the screaming and yelling, the gnashing of teeth, the drama of environmentalism. It lacks the big demands for dramatic lifestyle changes and income redistribution that falsely substitute for self-examination, introspection, personal change.

By relying on market forces and free choices by people inside those markets, conservation empowers the very people environmentalists despise.  Conservation involves a lot of actual heavy lifting among and by people who care: Raising private money and judiciously spending public taxpayer money on carefully ranked projects that are of both great symbolic and tangible meaning to the citizens.

It involves natural resource management and planning, which environmentalists decry while using more than their fair share of those same resources.

While land conservation is the best example of conservation, there are plenty of successful, subtle, fish and wildlife management models and even agricultural management models (with pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fertilizer inputs). Back in 2002, I co-founded the Conestoga River Nutrient Management Project in Lancaster County, to use market forces to address waterway sedimentation finding its way to the Chesapeake Bay.

These are definitely not sexy policies. Conservation does not involve the glitzy rock star concerts, Hollywood celebrity interventions, and spectacular claims of imminent world-end that environmentalism has going for it.

Conservation is for adults, and now the adults are in charge. Hopefully the adults can teach the children to eat their vegetables, so to speak.

 

A Murder of Crows

My two greatest thrills in the outdoors are native wildflowers, like the trilliums and pink ladyslippers, and native birds, like grouse, turkey, woodcock, wood ducks, and various migratory songbirds.

All of these flowers and birds are under pressure under the best of circumstances, and in many places they are succumbing to that pressure because of artificial factors.

Native wildflowers are naturally browsed by deer, and increasingly collected by people who sell rare plants (and animals). If deer herds are balanced with the carrying capacity of the landscape and surrounding habitat, then the plant colonies can sustain the browsing. The collecting is usually illegal, involving sneaky trespass on private property and violating state law and regulation when done on public land. It is totally unsustainable.

When it comes to my favorite birds, the usual pressures of predation or hunting are hardly a factor in their population success. What is a growing factor is the impact of ground mammals on ground nesting birds, including all of my favorites above and others like more common ducks.

Ground mammals like raccoons, possums, skunks, fox and coyote have a natural place in the natural world, but humans have so greatly altered that natural world that some of these animal populations are disproportionately growing and having disproportionate impacts on other wildlife.

Exhibit A is low density suburban sprawl type residential home development, relatively large home lots in the one to five -acre range.

Low-density suburban sprawl residential development is now the ground zero for artificially high numbers of skunks, possums, and raccoons. Sprawl development provides perfect backyard habitat for these predators to breed and den, but these back yards are too small to hunt or trap effectively or legally.  So these burgeoning and unchecked predator populations keep pulsing out into surrounding farmland and forest. In those more stable habitats, these artificially high predator numbers wreak havoc on the other species who live there, notably my favorite birds, which happen to be ground nesters.

Ground nesting birds are highly susceptible to nest disturbance and egg loss when they are surrounded by artificially high populations  of skunks, raccoons, and possums. In many areas ground nesting birds are experiencing dramatic population declines because they simply cannot nest long enough to hatch a brood of chicks, or the chicks cannot survive predation long enough to develop flight, so they can escape from otherwise slow moving predators like skunks and possums. Adding to the challenge for ground nesting birds is the dearth of brush and young forest which provide the best places to hide a nest on the ground. Most farms today are devoid of brush, and “select cut” high-grade logging has ruined most private forests, while anti-conservation activists decry aggressive forest management on public lands. Brush and young forests are nearly a rarity today, despite serving as nature’s best habitat.

Yesterday I got into one of those internet debates most normal people avoid. It centered on allegedly real photos of a flying mature eagle with a talon stuck in a foothold trap, posted on Lancaster Online. Lancaster Online is run by politically partisan legacy media staff, and it is a huge source of fake news and alternate facts. So when I saw there the photo of a completely closed foot hold trap, with not even a tiny jaw spread to accommodate the eagle’s foot, it looked like yet more fake news and I posted comments.

As you might imagine, a murder of crows of sorts descended upon the article, and upon me, and upon any other poster who either questioned the facts as presented in the article, or who promoted trapping.

Crows are natural enemies of eagles and other raptors. Crows are huge nest raiders, eating baby bird chicks whole right out of the nest. In the context of the Lancaster Online article, the crows took human form: Animal rights promoters, PETA advocates, anti-trapping and anti-conservation voices.

Like with a surrounding pack of crows (called a “murder”) wildly harassing a lone eagle in a tree, the loudly hysterical anti-trapping commenters immediately invoked emotional appeals, personal attacks, lies, advocacy for trespassing, leash-less dogs, and private property theft and destruction. None of them made any sense. None were based on fact, though it is true that occasionally an animal in a trap gets hurt (never mind that every single one of those hypocritical commenters has a direct hand in wildlife death and destruction).

I responded frequently there, and was answered by a surrounding murder of crows, loudly cawing, squawking, screaming, wildly flapping their wings and leaping from tree to tree. Pretty funny to watch, because not one commenter there debated wildlife biology, habitat, etc. Only emotional appeals mostly based on lies and fake news were presented. Lots of hysteria, not much reasoning.

And that right there is why I trap, dear reader.

There are too damned many cantankerous crows, skunks, possums and raccoons eating all of the really cool, cute, useful little birds I enjoy so much. I haven’t sold a pelt since I was a kid. Instead, today I trap to thin out the populations of the destructive ground predators so that the defenseless animals they eat have at least a sitting chance.

As for the eagle photographed flying around Lancaster County with its talon caught in the foothold trap, I have pledged fifty dollars toward its rehabilitation, if it is caught alive. And I want to personally inspect the trap rig, because what is seen in the photos makes no sense. One commenter, a trapper, noted it appeared to be an illegal trap specifically set to catch a raptor, like the eagle, in which case this subject isn’t about trapping, it is about illegal wildlife poaching.

But you’d never know that from the deafening screaming and cawing and flapping from the uncaring, unthinking, hostile, mob-like murder of crows.

UPDATE: 2/8/17 4:30 pm “Just received a call from PGC Director Matt Hough. Matt informed me that the eagle/trap incident was a true event. Fortunately, PA Game Commission officers were able to capture the eagle and remove the trap. There was no damage to the talon. The eagle was released and flew away with no impairment as a result of the incident. Matt did not have any information as to the individual responsible for the trap,” from an email sent to me this afternoon.

 

 

Our dear friend, Don Heckman

Don Heckman needs little introduction in the sporting circles of Pennsylvania and the East Coast.

A founding member and long time leader of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, Don’s cheerful, generous and kind personality and locomotive work ethic helped re-establish wild turkeys to Pennsylvania in the 1970s, when the conventional wisdom said it was impossible.

Don was also a powerful advocate for the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsman’s Clubs, the National Rifle Association, and many other similar groups to which he was a devoted life member.

He was a persuasive advocate for the continued success of the Pennsylvania Game Commission on the whole, and its land acquisition and science-based habitat management programs in particular.

Don was both an incredibly good hunter, and at times also exasperating to hunt with. This is because of his own unique standards: He refused to shoot a gobbler (male turkey), unless it was both strutting and gobbling at the same time. Sneaking toms, peeping toms, cautious toms, running or flying toms he would not shoot, no matter how close or in range of his gun. None of those were sporting birds, in his estimation. Only a completely unaware longbeard was worthy.

Don and I turkey hunted together a number of times over the years, mostly in the central Pennsylvania farmland we both love. While it would be easy to regale Don’s skill as a caller and hunter, two instances come to mind that sum up the attraction of having Don as your hunting partner.

First was his wry humor. He meant it with love, of course.

“Mmmmmm, uh huh. That sounds like a turkey,” was a frequent back handed compliment from Don as I was scratching away on a friction call, mostly slates.

He wouldn’t care that my calling had actually lured in a nice longbeard to within range. That was no inoculation against the compliment. For Don, it was important to remind me that my calling could always improve, whenever he had the chance. And he was right, of course, as much as I do not like to admit it.  That’s what good teachers are about. He was, after all, a many time champion caller whose skill I could only marvel at and never hope to replicate.

And just to prove his point by spiking the ball, Don might decide to stand up and switch locations even as the gobbler was determinedly marching across a cut corn field directly to us.

Watching the alarmed bird take wing and sail to the other side of the valley, the now standing Don said to my sitting figure, “Yeah, he must’ve seen you move.”

Movement is the biggest no-no of all in turkey hunting, and rookies move a lot. Even veterans get caught moving their eyeballs by wary gobblers fifty yards out. To attribute the alarmed and rushed exit of a wild turkey to a hunter’s movement is a gentle way of saying “Your hunting skill needs some work.” Even if it didn’t at that very moment.

And then there was that truly exasperating standard of his, the one where he would only shoot a gobbler in full strut AND gobbling. That performance is like looking up in the sky and seeing the sun and moon align, because a longbeard gobbler that is both strutting and gobbling is completely in the moment. He feels no fear or wariness that usually accompanies most alluring hen calls by hunters.

As I am not ever going to approach Don’s skill as a turkey hunter (he has racked up more annual grand slam turkey hunts species-wise and across multiple states than anyone else I know), I feel fortunate to shoot any gobbler, strutting or not.

And it is a fact that my poor skill as a turkey caller usually results in birds sneaking in, peering in, or darting in for a quick look before running like hell to get out of Dodge, or “putting” (turkeys make a putt-putt alarm call when they are suspicious enough to flee) from 40 yards out, so that most of the gobblers I have killed were shot mid-stride to the next county.

Not in full strut AND gobbling, like Don would have.

One morning in Dauphin County about four or five years ago, Don and I were lying in a field while I called to turkeys below us. They came well within range, but the lead gobbler, a huge bruiser boss bird, stopped gobbling and was “only” fanned out and puffed up, strutting. Such an impressive performance was insufficient to move Don’s trigger finger backwards, despite my harsh whispers of expletive-laced encouragement.

Nope. Instead, Don stood up in plain view of the flock, maybe thirty yards away, with his shotgun trained on the head of the strutting gobbler, and he began simultaneously calling with his mouth diaphragm call.

Wild turkey hunters know that at the sight of a man standing up within two hundred yards, let alone thirty, wild turkeys scatter like dust in a hurricane. They are gone in the blink of an eye.

Not these birds. Don’s calling was so good, so realistic, so enticing that the entire flock turned to look at us with concern for the grossly misshapen hen addressing them, and then they calmly walked away.

Don never shot, though he would have easily bagged any of the gobblers there. He just said “Oh, well, let’s go try another spot.”

Don is now in another spot, a turkey chaser’s dream spot, I am sure. He was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor in late January this year, and he rode it out with the help of his devoted wife, Sandy, for the next few months, until he died on the night of May 17th, in the central Pennsylvania region he loved so much.

Like all of his friends and acquaintances, I will miss Don Heckman enormously. Sitting in a turkey blind I cried yesterday, thinking about his loss. Don died way too young, barely into his retirement, and not in time for me to prove to him that really, I can get a gobbler to strut AND gobble in range. But that is what I will continue to do, to aspire to, in Don’s memory, as representative as it was of one of the last great generational wildlife conservation leaders in Pennsylvania and in America.

Bye, old friend, boy do I miss you.

 

Hunting licenses, 1976 and 2015

Since my first hunting license adorned my back way back in 1976-1977, a lot has changed in the Pennsylvania landscape.

For example, wild game then so abundant that you could go out and shoot a couple for dinner is now practically extirpated.

Why pheasants and quail disappeared from Pennsylvania is a big debate with no clear answers. Loss of farmland to sprawl, low density development is one. Changes in farming practices is another; fallow fields had the best habitat. A plethora of winged and four legged predators cannot be discounted. Successfully rebounding populations of raptors like hawks and owls for sure ate a lot of plump pheasants. But why a sudden and dramatic crash?

Conservation successes since 1976 are plentiful and say a lot about wildlife biology. Wild turkey populations, fishers, bobcats and other animals once thought completely gone are now firmly in our lives, whether we see them, or not.

An interesting dynamic is playing out at our hunting camp. This year we have a virtual carpet of oak and hickory seedlings unlike anything we saw over the past 15 years we’ve owned it. Why?

Conventional wisdom is the deer population is low, and it’s true that it’s lower than it has been in 15 years. That is, deer are known eaters of acorns and tree seedlings. Fewer deer means more of both.

However, another factor seems to be playing out with these newly abundant tree seedlings. Where we once had an incredible overload of tree rats, aka squirrels, the new fishers have eaten them all. Like all of them. Not one tree rat remains in our carefully cultivated forest of white oaks. We see fisher tracks. We neither see nor hear squirrels.

As squirrels are known eaters of acorns and hickories, it stands to reason that their absence means more acorns and hickories hatching into baby trees.

Add a long icy winter that appears to have crushed our local wild turkey populations, also known for eating nuts, and the right conditions emerge to help a forest rebound and grow some new stock, a huge challenge we aggressively tackle every year.

So, my son getting his first hunting license yesterday is now entering a landscape that in some ways is just as dynamic as the one I began hunting so long ago.  What a difference these landscapes were and are, and who would’ve guessed the fishers would be responsible for oak and hickory forests regenerating?

A lot has changed in our wildlife landscapes, and yet not much has changed in my lifetime. Different animals, same kind of population changes, variations, pressures. One thing I keep reminding myself: It’s all natural, these changes. And while some are painful to see, like the loss of pheasants, other opportunities open up. Never would I have imagined in 1976, nor would any PA Game Commission staff, that in 2015 my son would get a bobcat tag and a fisher tag with his license.

Totally different opportunity than chasing pheasants in corn fields, but still good.

The Bob Webber Trail takes on a whole new meaning

The Bob Webber Trail up between Cammal and Slate Run in the Pine Creek Valley is a well-known northcentral Pennsylvania destination. Along with the Golden Eagle Trail and other rugged, scenic hiking trails around there, you can see white and painted trilliums in the spring, waterfalls in June, and docile timber rattlers in July and August, as well as large brook trout stranded in ever-diminishing pools of crystal clear water as the summer moves along.

Bob Webber was a retired DCNR forester, who had spent the last 40 years or so of his life perched high above Slate Run in a rustic old CCC cabin. That is the life that many of the people around here aspire to, and which I, as a little kid, once stated matter of factly would be my own quiet existence when I reached the “big boy” age of 16. Except Bob had been married for almost all of his time there. He was no hermit, as he enjoyed people, especially people who wanted to explore nature off the beaten path.

That Bob had contributed so much to the conservation and intelligent development of Pine Creek’s recreational infrastructure is a well-earned understatement. He was a quiet leader on issues central to that remote yet popular tourist and hunting/fishing destination. The valley could easily have been dammed, like Kettle Creek was. Or it could easily have been over-developed to the point where the rustic charm that draws people there today would have been long gone. Bob was central to the valley’s successful model of both recreational destination and healthy ecosystem.

A year ago, while our clan was up at camp, Bob snowshoed down to Wolfe’s General Store, the source of just about everything in Slate Run, and I snapped a photo of my young son talking with both Bob and Tom Finkbiner, one of the other long-time stalwart conservationists in the valley. Whether my boy eventually understands or values this photo many years from now will depend upon his own interest in land and water conservation, nature, hunting, trapping, and fishing, and bringing urbanites into contact with these important pastimes so they better appreciate and value natural resources.

Bob, you will be missed. Right now you are walking the high mountains with your walking stick in your hand, enjoying God’s golden light and green fields on a good trail that never ends. God bless you.

Welcoming Mr. Scott Frederick, WCO

I would like to extend a hearty welcome to Dauphin County’s new Wildlife Conservation Officer, Mr. Scott Frederick.  He is a recent graduate of the PA Game Commission’s Ross Leffler School of Conservation and he will be dedicated to conserving wildlife in Dauphin County.  He joins Mike Doherty, Terry, Derek, and other hard-working conservation officers, and their deputies, in the pursuit of promoting sound wildlife management, fair wildlife laws, and recruiting new hunters and trappers.

Scott, you will find us and our friends to be law-abiding, good citizens, who share your passion for healthy wildlife and wildlife habitat.  We will be there to help you whenever we can, and we look forward to working with you.  Welcome to Dauphin County!

Small success stories come in big, snoring packages

Sitting at lunch today with someone in his late 60s, we reminisced about how sparse bears and turkeys were 40 years ago in central Pennsylvania.

We also recalled how pheasants were in our back yards every morning, forty years ago, and how sad it is that they are now gone, victims of abundant raptors, foxes, coyotes, skunks, possums, raccoons, and loss of traditional farmland edge habitat.

Doug remarked that pheasants are not a native species, and that as much as he enjoyed hunting these colorful, beautiful birds, if he had to make a trade-off, he is happy with the outcome of surplus bears and turkeys.

While I wish I could have it all ways – abundant wildlife of all types, I agree with Doug.

Just to drive home how successful Pennsylvania’s bear conservation program has been, a friend texted me yesterday to say that the bear I had found sleeping under a log on his farm on the southern Lower Paxton Township line three weeks ago is still snoring away there.  He has set up a couple trail cameras around it to monitor its movements.  Although we did not hear any squeals of little newborn bear cubs then or this week, and we do not know its sex, it may have since given birth.  That long stay in that one place could be pregnancy, and would account for how long the bear has remained in the scraped out den-nest it made for itself.

What is amazing is that this deeply snoring bear is literally on the edge of suburbia.  Well, it is actually deep into suburbia, in a relatively small island of open space.  Think about it this way:  Bears used to be a symbol of wild places.  Now, they are often suburban dumpster divers.  That speaks well to the large population of bears still inhabiting the truly wild areas away from suburbia.  That original population of deep forest and mountain dwellers is obviously in very good health.

And on that same farm there are now roving bands of wild turkeys, something not seen since the mid-1800s, when wild turkeys were literally all eaten up in this region.

Conservation success stories are abundant, and here we have two – bears and turkeys.  We cannot take these wins for granted, however; we must safeguard what has been accomplished.  I hope that the Wolf Administration soon appoints the new Sportsmen’s Advisor.  That is a unique leadership position Pennsylvania can not afford to leave vacant.

 

On Being a Dinosaur

I am a dinosaur.

In so many ways, my beliefs, ideals, values, education, outlook, hobbies, lifestyle, and behavior seem as outdated and as uncommon as the dinosaurs that died out long ago.

Put another way, I am one of the Last of the Mohicans, certainly not THE last, but one of a dwindling group that sees the world differently than the corrosive pop culture fed daily to Americans by Hollywood.

And I am proud to be this way, to be a patriot, to exalt individual citizen rights and liberties above government intervention, to take risks and make sacrifices in a free market capitalist society that rewards hard work and penalizes laziness.  American Sniper, Act of Valor, and Lone Survivor are the only movies that moved me in many years because I believe in military heroes, although the Lord of the Rings productions are highly entertaining.

Meanwhile, pop culture would have every American equally unhappy, equally deprived of their rights and liberties, equally planted on a couch eating junk food and watching mindless TV shows that are at war with the underpinnings of Western Civilization.

(A short, hard-hitting article about Hollywood’s destructiveness by one of its most famous writers is here.)

And I am also an old-fashioned “Hook-and-Bullet” conservationist, a hunter, life-long gun owner and fisherman, an NRA member and even more so, a FOAC member who means it when I say “You can have my guns when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.”

But did I mention that conservation is a huge part of my identity? You know, farmland preservation, wildlife habitat protection, forest land acquisition for public ownership, and wilderness areas where I can hunt, fish, camp, and hike without seeing or hearing another human being for as long as I am out there.

And why is it so hard for so many traditionalists to see that traditional American values are directly tied to, and derive from, rural landscapes? And that our remaining rural landscapes are precious fragments of the great American frontier, on which our national identity and Constitution were forged?

So why wouldn’t a conservative want to conserve those rural landscapes that gave birth to his identity and values, that enshrine Constitutional rights and self-reliance?

For some strange reason, an increasing number of gun owners are not hunters, and do not really show that they care about wildlife populations or wildlife habitat, or about land and water conservation.  When I attend meetings at different sportsmen’s clubs, like Duncannon Sportsmen, and I hear the Conservationist’s Pledge, my heart wells up and I nearly get as teary-eyed as when I hear the national anthem, or the Pledge of Allegiance.  It doesn’t help that most of us in the room are sporting lots of white in our beards and on our heads.  The next generation seems to have taken a lot for granted, because all of the battles we fought decades ago bore such abundant fruit.

All this makes me a dinosaur, and although I recognize it, I am not happy about it.  I feel like I am watching the greatest nation on Planet Earth disintegrate under my feet, and it scares me, makes me sad, and makes me want to do what I can to try to prevent it from happening.

I do not want traditional American values to go extinct, like the dinosaurs, because although those values may not be in vogue right now, America was founded on them and the nation cannot successfully continue on without them.

Tom Wolf & Republican legislature should agree on this, if nothing else

A version of the following essay was published by the Patriot News at the following URL: http://www.pennlive.com/opinion/2014/12/if_they_can_agree_on_nothing_e.html#incart_river

Conservation: An Area Where Democrat Tom Wolf and the Republican Legislature Should Agree
By Josh First

Land and water conservation are not luxuries, they are necessities in a world of growing demand for natural resources. As America’s population grows, the natural resources that sustain us, feed, us, cloth us, nurture us, warm us, and yes, even make toilet paper (and who can do without that), must be produced in ever greater supply.

Some of these resources are at static levels, like clean water, while others, like trees, are renewable. All are gifts that God commands us to manage wisely in Genesis.

Pennsylvania is facing some challenges in this regard, however, as the Susquehanna River shows serious signs of strain, and our world-famous forests face a devastating onslaught of invasive pests and diseases.

John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, has been advocating for officially declaring the Susquehanna River an “impaired waterway” for years. The data Arway draws upon support his concerns: Dissolved oxygen so low that few animals can live in the water, one of three inter-sex (hermaphroditic) smallmouth bass populations in the country, a bass population with insufficient young to keep the species alive, the remaining bass covered in tumors and pfiesteria lesions, invasive rusty crayfish pushing out the tastier native crayfish, among many other factors. Once-abundant mayfly hatches are now non-existent.

Fishermen used to travel to Harrisburg from around the country to fish for smallmouth bass; not any more.

This past September a friend and I hunted geese out in the river, wading in our shorts. We saw none of the usual turtles, water snakes, birds, or fish that once teemed there, and the water smelled…odd. One day later, a small scratch on my leg had became infected with MRSA, and I spent four days hooked up to increasingly stronger antibiotics at Osteopathic Hospital.

In November, we canoed out to islands and hunted ducks flying south. Except that over the past ten years there are fewer and fewer ducks now flying south along the Susquehanna River. We speculate that there is nothing in it for them to feed upon, and migrating ducks must have turned their attention to more sustaining routes.

The river almost seems….dead.

Feeding the waterways are Pennsylvania’s forests, the envy of forest products producers around the world. Our state’s award-winning public lands and their surrounding mature private forestlands sustainably and renewably produce a greater volume of the widest variety of valuable hardwoods than any other state in America.

Our forest economy isn’t just about timber production, however, as hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation themselves represent large economic sectors. Our robust black bear and wild turkey populations draw hunters from around the world, but these popular species depend almost entirely on acorns from oak trees; without acorns, they would hardly exist.

The oak forests at the core of our world-famous hunting and valuable timber were once considered under the gun from overabundant deer herds, but with that problem now resolved they face an adversary that could turn them into the 21st century version of the American chestnut – sudden oak death disease.

Recall that the American chestnut, like the now-extinct passenger pigeon, once carpeted the entire east coast with unimaginably abundant white flowers and nutritious nuts that fed wildlife and humans alike, and its wood was a more available version of cypress – strong, rot-resistant, straight grained, easy to work. And then, like the once unimaginably vast swarms of passenger pigeons that had blackened the day sky until they also suddenly disappeared, the mighty chestnut was wiped out in a few short years, 100 years ago, by an imported disease.

Our oaks, ash trees, and walnut trees seem to be facing a similar doomsday right now.

Thousand cankers, emerald ash borer, lanternfly, ailanthus, mile-a-minute weed, Japanese honeysuckle, Asian bittersweet vine, and many, many other non-native invasive plants, bugs, and diseases now threaten our valuable native forests on a scale unimagined just a few years ago.

Ironically, the edges of our state and federal highways appear to be the greatest means of spreading these pests.

Today, Pennsylvania has a true balance of power between Democrat governor-elect Tom Wolf, and an overwhelmingly Republican legislature. There isn’t much policy that these two equal forces are going to agree on. But if there is one area that they should easily find common ground, it is land and water conservation.

Something is seriously wrong with the Susquehanna River, and something is about to be seriously wrong with our forests.

Whether a crushing regulatory response is the appropriate way to address these issues, or not, let’s hope that Pennsylvania state government can help fix these problems before they become catastrophes future history books write about.

Josh First is a businessman in Harrisburg