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Forget sexy issues like “climate change,” let’s solve real environmental threats

By Josh First

Pennsylvania’s forests are suffering from a one-two punch-out by both invasive bugs and pathogens that kill our native and very valuable trees, and then by a following host of invasive vines, shrubs, trees, and other plants that are filling the void left after the big natives are gone.

Today yet another bulletin arrived from PSU plant pathology / forestry researchers, noting that ‘sudden-oak-death disease’ was detected on a shipment of rhododendron from Oregon.

Oregon got it from Asia.

Pennsylvania’s forests are becoming full of non-native, invasive plants, bugs, and pathogens. Each of our valuable tree species now has its own specific attackers. God knows what our native forests will look like in ten years.

The Asian emerald ash borer is literally making ash trees go extinct as a species. I see whole stands of forest, hundreds of acres, where not one ash tree is healthy. Dutch Elm disease killed off most of our elms in the 1980s. An Asian fungus killed off the once incredible and mighty American chestnut tree. Forget pathogens and bugs, because lots of aggressive, fast-growing invasive plants are taking up room on the forest floor, pushing out and overwhelming needed native plants. Few if any animals eat the invasives, which are often toxic and low value.

Human-caused climate change?  It is a sexy political issue, and it is highly debatable. But forest destruction from non-native invasives is a real, tangible, non-debatable, non-politicized issue we need to address immediately. So many people and wild animals depend upon our native forests, that without them, our rural economies could dramatically fall and our wildlife could disappear.

Forester Scott Cary had this to say, tongue somewhat in cheek: “With the 1000 cankers disease in Walnut now in southeast Pennsylvania, that area is quarantined…maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on black birch and red maple [low-value native species long observed to be acting like aggressive, non-native invasives, and therefore harvested aggressively by responsible forest managers], that may be all we have left to choose from. Of course, Asian long-horned beetle may get the maple, so that leaves us black birch, the tree of the future.”

That is a sad place to be, folks.  And to think that so much money is wasted selling the phony issue of human-caused climate change, while real environmental disasters are actually happening…it shows you just how dedicated the environmental Left is to political dominance, not useful solutions to environmental problems.

Natural abundance right now

Natural abundance surrounds us now. Apples, chestnuts, corn, osage orange “brainfruit,” and much much more. We scramble every day to snag wild apples along road sides, pick up chestnuts up the street before the squirrels eat them, and toss a few funky looking “brains” from a Lancaster farm road into the truck bed.

All with the intention of planting them on rural properties we manage.

By introducing new seeds to a given piece of land, we increase the species diversity and DNA stock on that piece of land.  Like Johnny Appleseed of old, we kick open holes in the dirt and pat a seed or apple core into place.

True, turkeys, bears, deer, chipmunks, and squirrels will eat much of what we plant. But if we do enough, some will survive.

And from there they will grow into trees and shrubs, feeding wildlife and people in the future, thereby perpetuating nature’s abundance.

Invasive plants, your new job

Invasive plants like Tree of Heaven (ailanthus, a tree with orange seed pods that just seem to pop up around your property), Asian bittersweet (little vines that quickly become Tarzan-big vines), mile-a-minute, Japanese honeysuckle, Russian olive, barberry, multiflora rose, parasitic ornamental grape vines, and so on, are all becoming a huge problem in our forests.

Each of these plants displaces and suppresses native, helpful plants.

Out west, there are entire regions where it is actually illegal to have invasive weeds on your property.  If the county conservation staff find those weeds on your land, you can be fined a lot of money.  Why would property rights-driven Westerners embrace a law like that?  Wouldn’t they pooh-pooh plants?

Because invasive weeds carry a substantial financial cost, people who make their living off the land have a healthy abhorrence of these bad plants.  They are so quick to take over the landscape, and provide few to no benefits to people or animals.

Pennsylvania’s native forests are an important source of wildlife habitat, clean air, clean water, scenic beauty, recreation, and income.  Yet, our forests are becoming increasingly overrun by non-native invasive plants and trees.  Ailanthus is especially egregious.  It got its start and continues to spread from public roadsides, where PennDot and the PA Turnpike Commission have failed to control it.  The impact of ailanthus on our forests is becoming a real cost consideration.

It is time to have a public policy and a public agency work more seriously on the challenge posed by invasive weeds.

PGC: Great, Old Agency Unused to Modern Limelight

If there is one take-away from my many years in federal and state government jobs, it is that agency staff cultures change slowly.  In Pennsylvania, a great example of this is one of my favorite agencies, the Pennsylvania Game Commission.  PGC is an agency that is used to doing things the way it wants, often relying on its impressive history as evidence for its present day independence and independent culture.

PGC is presently in the headlines because of a $200,000 payment to its former executive director, Carl Roe, now very recently departed of the agency.

I thought it was an amicable departure; maybe not.  PGC staff say this is a settlement to avoid a possible lawsuit.  Critics of the payment include the governor’s office, the PA Comptroller, the PA attorney general, and many elected officials.  They say this is a sidestep around the state’s prohibition of severance payments, made between a board of directors and an executive director who were actually very cozy with one another.

This is sad, because PGC is a storied agency, a trend-setter in the area of wildlife management, wildlife science, habitat management, and public land acquisition.  Something I like is that PGC has uniformed officers who stand in front of Hunter Trapper Education courses filled with 10-18-year-old kids, and tell them that they have a Second Amendment right to own firearms.  Few states in America have such a wonderful role for their uniformed law enforcement officers.  We are fortunate to have this agency with this culture, and it is for this reason that I oppose merging PGC with DCNR.  Ranger Rick and Smokey Bear are not going to purvey that valuable message.

The flip side of the culture is what is often described as a “bunker mentality” among the agency’s staff, and this payment to Roe probably fits in with that view.

Most agencies are careful to avoid controversy, especially controversy that does not have a strong basis.  This payment does not appear to have a strong basis, so it is an unnecessary controversy that is likely to damage the agency’s standing among lawmakers and executives, as well as the general public and hunters who otherwise happily buy hunting licenses to support their favorite agency.  It comes at a time when the agency is already under the gun from oversight legislation (HB 1576, which does not address actual problems, but rather imagined problems unrelated to PGC and PA Fish & Boat Commission).

Don’t get me wrong, I like Carl Roe, and PGC has also driven me nuts at times.  I clearly recall the day he was brought on to the agency as an intern.  Me, then PGC executive director Vern Ross, PGC biologist Gary Alt, Carl Roe, and senior PGC staffer Joe Neville drove together up to Bellefonte to participate in the swearing-in of a new PGC commissioner.  Carl struck me as a bright, quantitatively-oriented, inquisitive, experienced manager.  Over the years since that day I have had many opportunities to meet with Carl, and he has always impressed me as a stalwart and intelligent promoter of PGC, hunters, trappers, and wildlife conservation.  This huge payment lightning rod situation just does not make sense in that context.

But on second thought, this payment does make sense if the insular agency culture managed to eventually penetrate into Carl’s otherwise solid judgment.  That has been a phenomenon witnessed among other new PGC staff; the broad “something-is-in-their-water” observation that people’s personalities changed dramatically once they joined PGC. Other evidence of an insular culture was recently brought to my attention: Four of the agency’s biologists (all of whom have some or all of the deer program’s oversight) have graduate degrees from the same school and they studied at the same post-graduate field station.  And no, they ain’t from Penn State, or any Pennsylvania university, for that matter, dammit.

I fear for PGC, because at a time when the agency is already under scrutiny from HB 1576, this new payment debate threatens to add fuel to the flames, and add a straw onto the camel’s back.  Part of the culture driving these problems is the same kind of culture that can cause the roof to suddenly come down.  Careful there, boys, careful.

*******UPDATE:

So, as has happened before, these essays get read, and I get phone calls and emails.  People calling me usually do not want to post on the blog, being afraid of attribution, and frankly, what some other people want to post here is not always worth keeping.  So here is the gist of what came over the transom in the past half hour: Things between Carl Roe and the PGC board were not chummy.  The payment to him is seen as a real money-saver.  I am unsure how an at-will employee like an executive director has any real legal recourse, unless he is fired for his religion or political views, things that are a) hard to prove and b) unlikely.  Also, I neglected to mention that Roe had, indeed, given away about $300,000 in agency funds to Hawk Mountain (GREAT PLACE, but not necessarily deserving of big PGC money) and other groups. This unaccountable and unapproved largesse caused real friction between Roe and the board, not to mention the rest of the stakeholders whose donations to and purchases from PGC are expected to be spent in a pecuniary fashion.

Last day of Great American Outdoor Show

If you have not yet gone to the new Great American Outdoor Show, today’s the day.

Even if you’re not a hunter, there’s still much to see and do. The Farm Show complex is enormous and every hall is packed. RVs, campers, boats, fishing everything, mapping, GPS technology, clothing. Etc.

One thing I noticed last week was a booth full of furs also selling turtle shells. Whether or not these shells are from wild native turtles, illegal, or from some farmed non-native species, it disturbed me to see them. Turtles take a good ten years to reach maturity, when they can begin breeding. Their nests are subject to raids by raccoons, skunks, snakes, possums, and bears. ATVs and dirt bikes often are ridden over the soft soils turtles choose to lay their eggs.  Collectors grab them for illegal sales, dads take them home for their kids to see, etc.

You get the picture. Turtles don’t have it easy.

If there’s one thing missing from the GAOS, it’s an emphasis on land, water, and wildlife conservation. Plenty of emphasis on the taking part, not much on the conserving part. Maybe that’ll change at next year’s show.

Climate change claims can’t ever be wrong

If you haven’t done so already, pay attention to global warming/ climate change claims.

Whenever the weather is hot, or cold, or windy, or in a lull, the vacuous claims are bandied about that these occurrences are evidence of “climate change” or “global warming.”

We’ve had an unusually cold winter. Why, it reminds me of the ones I used to know in my childhood. Do you, too, recall the deep snows on roads and huge piles of plowed snow in parking lots of the 1970s?

That snow was considered normal back then. Then we had twenty years of warm winters. Now we’ve had two years of cold winters. It’s certainly not global warming! Why, could it not simply be the natural variation of a complex, large weather system in a complex planet?

No matter what, people claiming that current weather is evidence of some bigger trend cannot ever be wrong. No matter what the weather is, they ascribe it to their favorite sky-is-falling environmental crisis du jour. It is a pretty ingenious way to argue, you have to admit: They just cannot ever be wrong. No matter what the evidence is – black or white, Saturday or Wednesday, Mars or Venus, cold, hot, very cold, very hot, lukewarm, tepid, accurate or inaccurate – or when it occurs, it all proves the same thing to promoters of human-caused climate change.

And the fact is that there are real environmental quality issues that need to be addressed and resolved. One that is near to my heart is the high grading of private forests, where the best commercial trees are removed and the junk trees are left behind. This creates huge swathes of forest with little habitat value for animals, and little present or future commercial value for landowners and the surrounding society that needs their forest products.

How sad that high grading forests is accomplished with such simple emotional appeals: “Why Mabel, we will just take the big trees, and leave the little ones for later. There’ll be lots of green left in your woods,” goes the high-grader’s sales pitch.

Because western clearcutting was so damaging to western ecosystems, clearcutting got a bad name back east. Back here most of our private forests are at a point where it’s either clearcutting most of our private woods, or allowing forest fire to shape them. Most of our private forests need to be re-set to zero. That will provide maximum diversity and the broadest habitat and commercial values.

But like claims of global climate change, clearcutting is another false boogey man whose opponents are driven by emotions, and not science. And the real damage is allowed to go on under the false guise of “protecting” the forests.

Who is a “sportsman”?

Sportsmen were the nation’s first conservationists, advocating in the 1890s for sustainable harvests of previously unregulated birds, fish and animals like deer and bear. Acting against their own individual self-interests, they banded together to place limits on wildlife and habitat so that future generations would have opportunities to fish, hunt, camp, skinny dip, sight-see, wildlife watch, and help wildlife recover from 300 years of unregulated market hunting and industrial exploitation.

By the 1920s, a culture of stewardship and natural resource conservation was cemented into the sporting ranks by leaders like Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt, and Aldo Leopold. Hunting clubs across rural America incorporated stocking programs, tree planting, and facilitating public land purchases to improve and increase wildlife habitat.

Fast forward to today, where wildlife populations are largely stable, wildlife habitat is not in crisis mode, and hunters and anglers are experiencing the best opportunities to harvest trophy fish and game in many decades. We are living in a golden age of the outdoor lifestyle.

Riding on the successes of past generations, today there are some grumbling guys with guns, crabbing that they don’t have anything to hunt. The real shameful behavior is the recent abandonment by some of these men of the sportsman’s stewardship ethic and the conservation pledge that made the hunting community highly respected among the larger society. A group of disaffected users, takers, and malcontents calling themselves “sportsmen” recently endorsed HB 1576, a proposed Pennsylvania bill which would gut the very state agencies charged with protecting Pennsylvania’s natural resources, and remove from state protection those plants and animals necessary for healthy hunting habitat.

The question on the table is, Are these men sportsmen? Are they sportsmen like Aldo Leopold was a sportsman?

While I wait to hear back from others, my answer is No, these men are not sportsmen. They are simply men with guns, freeloaders, spoiled children living off the hard work of both past and present generations, while complaining it isn’t enough and they want more, now, dammit. Their behavior is short-sighted and embarrassing, nothing like the visionary selfless sacrifice of their forebears. They should be publicly shamed and drummed out of the ranks of sportsmen.

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“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
― Aldo Leopold

Keystone Pipeline Needs Conservation

President Obama has nixed the Keystone Pipeline.
Environmental advocates applaud as the project dies, even as America continues to depend on foreign oil from people who hate us. It doesn’t make much sense.
What’s needed is a good dose of old fashioned conservation. You know, mitigate the pipeline’s impacts by protecting the land around it, thereby turning it into a permanent wildlife corridor and greenway.
Maybe even a transcontinental trail can run along it.
If I had anything to say about it, these kinds of solutions would be on the table, and the project would be moving forward.