Thanksgiving morning, my nephew texted me the wishes of the day, and noted that the weather had changed where he lives. Temperatures had been in the 60s the past few days, but Thanksgiving morning there was a half-foot of new snow on the ground, and more arriving as he keyed his message.
I was raised within a few miles of where he sat. Back then, there always was snow on the ground for Thanksgiving – the better for the menfolk to track deer while the womenfolk prepared the turkey.
We lived in the middle of 50 acres of woodland, in turn in the middle of several thousand acres of woodland owned by others. There were the remains of a few barbed wire fences, rusted strands poking out of 18-inch thick trees that likely had been only a few inches thick when the wire was strung. In those days of my youth, I never thought to research who had owned the property before my family.
Years later, as a journalist, I accompanied a planning commission on a field trip. A developer wanted to build houses on a wooded hill above a wetland just outside town, and a preservation group was trying to block the project.
As we walked through the woods, one of the would-be land protectors commented on the pristine forest, untouched, she said, since it was created.
And the creator, I noted, perhaps a little more sarcastically than was necessary, had even thought to build a rock fence about 50 yards from where we stood.
My comment, and the fence – created by some long-forgotten farmer who had cleared the trees and piled the rocks in a row when he cultivated his family’s food crops – were somewhat less than enthusiastically received.
The preservationists were wrong: The forest had been previously cleared by humans. And they were right: The acres of impervious cover – from the proposed new homes, driveways, and roads – likely would destroy the wetland. This time, it would not grow back.
In 2008, Glatfelter, a company in the business of turning trees into paper, decided paying taxes on land while it waited for trees to grow was financially silly. It owned 2,500 acres of tree farm in Adams County, where I live, and it wanted to sell. A developer wanted to buy it to grow houses. A consortium of conservation groups joined forces to purchase the land for preservation and public access.
In addition to some great hiking and a wonderful view of a large portion of the county, the 2,500 acres of mountainside provides area for water to replenish our supply. It performed at considerably less expense than the millions, maybe tens of millions, of dollars that would have been required for water treatment plants had the mountainside been converted to housing for people who could afford to pay the tariff on the view.
Residents of cities a few hundred miles downstream may not recognize the problem, but as they move into rural areas they begin to see their taxes rise as their very immigration forces development of drinking water sources, and mechanized facilities to treat our waste.
Much of our state forest land was purchased under programs begun by the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, and former Pennsylvania governor, Gifford Pinchot. He recognized the effects of forest clear-cutting, one mountainside after the other, that had made his family its fortune. He offered the notion that the nation’s resources could be developed to provide wealth and employment for the nation’s economy, and still be conserved for future generations.
We often do not realize what we have until it is gone. And if we never had it, the lesson is even more elusive, delayed until one day we are told “if only we had … (fill in the blank).” Then we blame our politicians for giving us what we wanted, rather than what we needed.
There is a constant tension between industries that seek to exploit natural resources for profit and conservationists wishing to prevent total destruction of the resources. If we are lucky, our grandkids will not blame our politicians for allowing industry to proceed too quickly, lest the exploiters of the resources turn their collective back on all those profits.
Industry commonly threatens to abandon its efforts in the face of regulation and limits. History suggests the threats are, for the most part, empty. Industry will flourish where there are profits to be made.
I am absolutely in favor of profits. Any person with an idea for producing something others will pay to have is to be commended and encouraged.
But I am thankful for my years growing up in the woods, and for the opportunity to learn their value. And I am thankful that there still are forests and fresh water for deer, bears, and my grandkids to enjoy. I hope when the offspring of my offspring reach the age I have attained, they are not longingly telling their grandkids of the natural wonders that once existed.
Painting by Thomas Cole
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