The spirit of Mount Gretna

I am a recent transplant to the area—I read about Mount Gretna in a Pennsylvania travel magazine while waiting for a dentist appointment in 2009. For years, I could not get the utopian village described in that article out of my head, so in 2012 I started an annual tradition of spending the last week of the summer season renting cottages in Camp Meeting and Chautauqua and cramming in as many hikes, bike rides, events, and trips to the Jigger Shop as I could in those short week-long visits.  It turned out that one week a year (and extra trips for the Art Show) were not enough for me as I longed to experience the other seasonal activities, so I decided to retire here. I’m not yet retired, but I have the luxury of working remotely; so no time like a pandemic to pull up 39-year old roots from State College, PA and plant them in Mount Gretna by building my retirement home in the Borough…and I am so happy that I did!

Aside from the dentist office origins, my story is much like many residents who came to visit this mystical area and never left. And also like many residents, I have become involved in activities that occur in this year-round playground. And yet again, like many residents, I have grown concerned over the management of one of the main attractions in the area, the Clarence Schock Memorial Park at Governor Dick. Seeing first hand while driving or on hikes in the area, one cannot help but to notice the disturbance to some of the calming woodlands that greet you as you enter Mount Gretna from any direction. I became friends with a local artist and advocate who welcomed me into the Friends of Governor Dick, a group of concerned life-long, long-term, and newbie residents that put in time and effort to do what they can to stop the devastation of the “forest and woodland” that Clarence and Evetta Schock left in trust to be “maintained and preserved forever as forest and woodland” and “forever as a playground and public park.”

I am a systems analyst and so I did what comes natural to me and started researching and reading all that I could find on the park, the history, the namesake—Governor Dick, the trustees (past and present), the timber harvests, and the advocacy. On the surface, it appeared that the park board of directors cared deeply for the land and were doing what was best for the health of the park and perhaps the advocate group didn’t understand “forest management.” But something didn’t seem right between the words I read and what I saw with my own eyes. As I read more and more, a picture started becoming clearer to me.

That picture is that the Board of Directors of Governor Dick and the members of Friends of Governor Dick both value the park, but in different ways which represent opposite ends of a spectrum…profit vs. preservation. As I read the publicly-available documents on the management of the park: Conservation Action Plan, CAP 106, Forest Management Plan, December 2016; various articles of opposition of the management of the park’s natural resources and the boards’ reasons for those management practices: [Example 1Example 2Example 3], and a video tour of the park; I began to realize that the issue is semantics…between forestry and ecology. One includes managing the forest for profit and the other for the preservation of the planet!

This was it, this revelation defined the direction of my advocacy, which is to advocate for the management of Governor Dick for conservation not for profit and to spread the word on the differences. As a start, I found an article that provides an overview of the lesson that needs shared, which is the difference between forestry and forest ecology.

Forester vs. Ecologist by George Wuerthner, originally appeared in The Wildlife News, March 29, 2018

There is a huge difference between the Industrial Forestry worldview and an ecological perspective. Many people assume that foresters understand forest ecosystems, but what you learn in forestry school is how to produce wood fiber to sell to the wood products industry. I know because I attended a forestry school as an undergraduate in college.

Assuming that foresters understand forest ecosystems is like assuming that a realtor who sells houses understands how to construct a building because they peddle homes.

Foresters usually view ecological disturbance from insects, drought, wildfire, and disease as undesirable and indications of “unhealthy” forests. That is why they work to sanitize forests by removing dead and dying trees and attempt to limit with thinning influences like bark beetles or wildfire.

An ecologist sees these disturbance processes not as a threat to forests, but the critical factors that maintain healthy forest ecosystems. Indeed, one could argue that natural mortality processes like drought, bark beetles, or wildfire are “keystone” processes that sustain the forest ecosystem.

Where foresters seek to reduce tree density to speed growth, an ecologist seeks to maintain density to slow growth because slow-growing trees have denser wood that is slower to rot, hence last longer in the ecosystem.

Where foresters see wood fiber for the mill, an ecologist sees carbon storage on the ground. Indeed, even burnt forests store more carbon than thinned forests.

Where foresters believe they are “improving” the forest through manipulation, ecologist sees manipulation as degrading forest ecosystems.

Read full article here.

George Wuerthner’s post captures the varying shades of gray between the board and those that disagree with how the board is managing the forest and woodlands of Governor Dick. It is my, possibly naive goal, that the board members will embrace a community that wishes only to conserve the natural resources of Governor Dick for the wildlife that call it home; after all, hasn’t it given enough during the century-plus it provided fuel for the iron furnaces of the area? We have learned so much since that time about how that type of “management” harms the trees that are spared from harvest, the soil, the water supply, the habitats, and the amount of carbon that it can remove from the atmosphere. I am by no means an expert in ecology and I suspect the board members are not either so why not learn how we can work together to preserve Governor Dick…there are many able bodies willing to work to find alternative means of fund raising other than timber harvests.

There have been other versions of the Friends of Governor Dick that have worked over the years to preserve the ecology of the park, but as years pass and harvest after harvest continues, the latest incarnation of the Friends of Governor Dick feels more of a sense of urgency to our mission…it is no longer just a fight to honor the wishes of a philanthropist to protect the park he gave to all of us; it is for each of us to do what we can for the park, for our neighborhoods, and for our properties to help slow down the destruction of the planet itself and preserve the natural resources surrounding us as a down payment for future generations, not just for the economy of the present.

We have only just begun—watch this site as we plan events to engage the community in our efforts to stop future timber harvests on Governor Dick, to help heal the damage from past harvests, and to enjoy the park!

And personally, I am doing my part on my own little slice of this woodland wonderland…as I stated at the beginning, I built a house, in a previously undisturbed part of the forested Chautauqua area, so obviously I am responsible for removing habitat from the land on which my home was built. In turn, I am establishing my yard as a mini conservation area within the Chautauqua as part of the Homegrown National Park movement. I am working with a local ecological landscaper to recreate habitat on the portions of my lot that were disturbed by the build as well as improving the habitat in the undisturbed sections. And I will be advocating that my neighbors do the same—to move from a patchwork of disjointed habitats where critters are captive to small sections of land, to a quilted tapestry of connected homegrown conservation areas where they can roam freely as it is intended.

“Big things have small beginnings.” T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia

by Deb Simpson, Mount Gretna Resident


Leave a Comment