Defining Our Common Wealth

October 20, 2011

By Lilace

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted. See, I’ve fallen in love again and let other things slide. You remember how it is.

Taking a break at Hills Creek Lake

Me, I seem to fall hardest in autumn. I met Jimmy in September 1997, when I was 29 and knew in the first couple weeks it was forever. Last fall when my real estate agent brought me to the Whitney House for the first time, I was just as smitten. Jimmy and I bought it and were moved in by Halloween.

And this autumn, I have fallen more deeply in love with Pennsylvania. It’s not just that where we live now I have a sweeping view of hay fields and a small old cemetery against the distant hills (out front), and meadows of goldenrod and flaming sumac with winding paths mowed throughout (in back).  There’s the chickens too, of course. I could watch the chickens chase each other and the puppy in circles all day. No, it’s because I started getting out of my own yard and exploring what is just around the corner.

Hills Creek State Park is a few miles away. I was accustomed to thinking of the 407 acres in terms of my children—it has a great playground and in summer the lake and sandy beach are free. Since there’s no edge to drop off, I preferred it to the town pool while the kids were too young to swim. But recently I’ve discovered what a great playground it is for me. In a fit of determination, I registered for the annual Step Outdoors Tryathlon held at Hills Creek, thereby forcing myself to start training and get off my, er, front porch.

This Tryathlon (they spell it “try” to encourage first-timers like me) combined a 3 mile run, 2 mile paddle, and 9 mile bike ride on dirt roads. So I started riding the bike route among forests and farms, and fast walking the lakeside trail. The trail is mostly in mixed conifer and deciduous woods, with moist forest floors, gnarled roots, and seasonal creeks. Kingfishers rattled above and the prehistoric squawk of a heron made me peer through the branches to see it fly gracefully over the glassy water. I would be transported into an ancient place with a timeless sense of peace. I confess it amazed me how much more restorative it felt than walking my nice country road.

It did have a panoramic view of a drill rig on neighboring property, so close it seemed to rise out of the lake spillway. But it’s down now. And for a while a huge long swath adjacent to the park was cut open, stopping traffic and reminding me as I watched them lay the pipeline, of tendonitis surgery on my wrist. But that area is now covered, reseeded, and except for the gap in the trees where it runs through woods is not ugly or traffic-stopping anymore. Things change. It’s the lesson of the seasons, especially autumn with the leaves flaunting their transformations.

My first triathlon went well; even though I walked the “run” part, I took third place in the solo women’s category. People came from out of state for the event, and the camaraderie of folks enjoying the outdoors was as invigorating as the physical activity. Jimmy, who has a long history of competing in similar events, had been riding his bike(s) a lot too, getting away from the computer as much as possible, and training for his big cyclocross race last weekend in Carlisle, PA. It’s an autumn tradition for him.

This year as Jimmy went away for his big race, the kids and I participated in an event closer to home. Wanting to get them in on the fun, and hoping they were old enough to enjoy it, I signed us up for the Ives Run Trail Challenge. It’s a 4 mile course in nearby Ives Run Recreation Area surrounded by State Game Lands. Our seven-year-old son partnered up with an adult friend who wanted to introduce him to trail running, and I walked with our four-year-old daughter.

They both were the youngest participants, had a great time, and showed themselves what they could do. Our family turned a new leaf, one Jimmy and I have anticipated since having kids—they can now walk far enough and long enough for us to explore outdoors in the ways we love, leaving parking lots and trail heads far behind. This is why we chose to live in a place like Tioga County, where the sylvan aspects of Pennsylvania still predominate. The woods, lakes, streams, and accompanying wildlife are treasures worth more to us than any signing bonus or royalty check.

Early 1900's PA State Park beneficiaries

Intimately entwined with our state’s history of extractive industry (logging, tanneries, coal mining), is its history of state parks and recreation lands. Joseph T. Rothrock, the first Commissioner of Forestry in the early 1900’s, was a medical doctor as well as forester and developed camps in forest reserves for tuberculosis victims and others with respiratory illnesses. Later in the 1950’s, the new head of the Department of Forests and Waters (departments always morph and change names) set a goal of having every Pennsylvania resident no more than 25 miles from a state park. Though Maurice Goddard fell short of his goal, Pennsylvania now has one of the largest state park systems in the nation. And today the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and Tioga County Partnership for Community Health sponsor events in these public lands such as triathlons, trail runs, and other outings to improve the quality of life for Pennsylvanians and visitors.

Recently, Governor Corbett has talked of privatizing the state parks, taking a core part of our common wealth—one residents have supported with bond referendums and avidly utilized for over a century—and stripping it of protections meant to guard the long-term benefits of mental and physical health for state residents, as well as the value to wildlife. I don’t share some people’s faith in a free market; I feel sure that putting state parks in the for-profit sector will quickly degrade the resource, as economic values trump all others.

Corbett also quickly repealed former Gov. Rendell’s policy to limit gas drilling impact in state parks. Corbett says the policy was redundant; supporters say it allowed the state to manage (not ban) the drilling impact on tourism and recreation. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette outlines the situation:

Pennsylvania has 117 state parks, 61 of them in the two-thirds of the state lying above the Marcellus Shale, a 380 million-year-old formation that might contain more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The mineral rights — including Marcellus gas deposits — under 85 percent of that park acreage are privately owned. Courts have ruled that the so-called “mineral estate” rights are superior to surface rights in Pennsylvania, and that the owners of underground mineral rights must be given reasonable access to develop those holdings, even when they lie under parks or other publicly owned land.

So even without privatizing state parks, Pennsylvanians must struggle with what the Marcellus Shale rush will mean to our public lands heritage. We must all be flexible as well as vigilant during the shifting season of this Marcellus Shale autumn. And when I get anxious about the changes, I head for the woods and wildlands that so many people have worked to conserve and protect. Ironically, in these stressful early years of the gas boom, we need the peace of deep forests and the negative ions produced by clear running streams more than ever as places to recharge.