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PennFuture’s Leadership Tour Explores the Poconos

By Nancy Wottrich, Member of PennFuture’s President’s Leadership Council.
PennFuture’s Spring 2018 President's Leadership Council Tour was held in the Poconos of Northeast PA over the course of two days in which we discovered this beautiful region, learning about its natural and human history and discussing some of the pressing environmental issues currently threatening the area.  If I were to sum up my experience on this tour with just a few words, they would be “progressing, connecting and reflecting.”
Progressing: While some in decision-making positions persist in holding back alternative energy growth in this country, visionary individuals and groups are forging ahead to a fossil-free future – and the movement continues to expand. Mark Culp, Physical Plant Director of Northampton Community College’s Monroe Campus, provided our group with an in-depth tour of this Gold LEED facility. Everything about this campus has been designed for energy efficiency and sustainability. Impressively, all energy use is constantly monitored and adjusted by computer to maximize efficiency. 
Connecting: To paraphrase author John McPhee, it’s not enough to just fight to protect the places we cherish.  We need to make time to enjoy them as well – to connect through learning about them, to experience their raw beauty and strength, and to immerse ourselves in nature’s solitude, peace and healing qualities. From this comes our perseverance to keep up the fight.
Short of its former reputation as the “Honeymoon Capital of the East,” the Poconos area is also known for its clear, cold tannin streams that tumble off the plateau in a series of spectacular waterfalls. Home to native brook trout, these streams were coveted by elite fly-fishing clubs that bought up large tracts of land to protect their private playgrounds.  Coupled with this are equally large tracts of state forest lands scattered around the plateau and down the escarpment to the Delaware River.  
As a result of these protected lands, many of the Poconos streams have been classified as “Exceptional Value” because they have the best and cleanest conditions.  This status also affords them the highest level of protection when it comes to runoff, discharge and land disruption. 
Along the banks of Cranberry Creek in VanBuskirk Preserve, native ferns and wildflowers abound under the shade of hemlocks and rhododendron.  Rocks in the streams are carpeted with thick layers of moss and tree bark covered in lichens attest to the clean air quality. Water splashing over rocks and a symphony of bird songs are the music here. There is a peacefulness that washes over one standing in a place like this – a connection that is found no where else than in the midst of nature.  This preserve has protected one small fragment of precious habitat that once was found throughout the region. Exploring the creek further and with the aid of aquatic biologist Eric Baird, we sampled for macro-invertebrates. The kinds of species and quantity of each found can tell one a lot about the overall health of the stream.  The greatest diversity is found in cold, clear waters, like those in the Poconos, and provide food for the trout that reside here.   
It naturally followed that after learning about the Pocono streams, we should have the opportunity to enjoy them.   Some in the group were treated to private guided fly-fishing excursions on several of the famous trout streams in this area.  While I am not a fly fisher person, I can certainly relate to the zen-like nature of the sport.  Standing quietly along a babbling stream, tuned in to the insect hatch and skillfully laying down a hand-made duplicate ever so gently onto the surface of the water.  And of course the exhilaration of the catch, should one be so lucky!
Others in the group experienced the soggy and solitary nature of Tannersville Cranberry Bog, a property of The Nature Conservancy.  Nestled within 1,000 acres of protected land, this is the southern most boreal bog east of the Mississippi River.  Here sphagnum moss slowly decays into peat, forming a layer over 40 feet thick and carnivorous plants thrive in the nutrient poor soil.  As night descended, the bog chorus of birds and amphibians amplified. Even though the main road was less than a quarter mile away, it felt like we could have been deep in the wilderness.   I am eternally grateful to the individuals who had the foresight to protect this unique habitat.
Covering more than 130 square miles throughout the Pocono region, the protected lands of Delaware State Forest have become a haven for native plants and wildlife and a refuge for the Golden-winged Warbler, a species declining so rapidly that it has been a candidate for the federal Endangered Species List.  Loss of its very specific habitat along with Blue-winged Warbler hybridization have brought the bird to extremely low levels in Pennsylvania. Bruce McNaught, a member of PennFuture’s Leadership Council and a consulting biologist for the Pa. Game Commission, has been surveying this bird in the Poconos for over 10 years.  With his leadership, we toured areas of the state forest currently being managed for Golden-winged Warbler restoration. Thanks to the research of people like Bruce, recommendations from the International Golden-winged Warbler Group and coordinated efforts through the PA Bureau of Forestry, critical habitat management is occurring, and small stable populations of this species persist in Pike County.
Reflecting: Will we humans ever learn to live in harmony with our earth? It has been said we learn from our mistakes, but too often that is not the case when it comes to economic growth and setting environmental policy.  Be it ego, greed or misguided beliefs, we continue to make the same mistakes, and the health of our planet takes a hit each time. A very informative tour of Gray Towers, home of Gifford Pinchot brought home this point.  As the first director of the US Forest Service, two-time PA governor, life-long conservationist and outdoor enthusiast, both Pinchot’s professional and life philosophy was centered around wise use of our resources to benefit humankind, while still preserving the integrity of those resources.  A book his father gave him on his 21st birthday instilled this ethic in him.  The book, “Man and Nature:  The Earth as Modified by Human Action” was published in 1864 and addressed the concern that human actions were causing dire consequences to the health of the earth. A highlighted quote caught my eye.  It was written 154 years ago, but sadly the message is still as applicable today: “Man depends upon soil, water, plants and animals.  But in securing his livelihood, he may unwittingly destroy the fabric of nature that supports him. Therefore, men must learn to understand their environment and how they affect it.  And they must take action, individual and collective to restore and maintain a more viable setting. “
Interlaced with our enrichment experiences was serious discussion about the current environmental issues facing this region, including climate change, land development, and water quality, some of the issues PennFuture is tackling.   
Streams in the Poconos, and streams in general, were used as dump sites for eons.   Flowing into the Delaware River, the water source for over 15 million people, the quality of these streams is critical. Regulations established to clean them up have been very successful, and both the flora and fauna have rebounded. Now, however, many of those regulations are being challenged and attacked, and the result could be a return to the unhealthy and polluted conditions these streams previously endured.  
The economic revival of the Pocono region has seen an increase in land development, with expansion of housing, businesses and resort complexes. While this may be good for the economy, it must not be at the cost of habitat loss and ecological degradation. Tourism and outdoor recreation are the basis of this region’s economy.  There are proven ways to have the growth that feeds the tourism industry without destroying that which attracts them in the first place.  Businesses, industry and environmental groups must work together to reach agreements on how to provide for growth while preserving the resources, wild places and natural beauty.  PennFuture’s challenge and initiative is to make this the pivotal point upon which decisions for this region are based. 

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