Sunday, November 30, 2008

Protecting Future Generations By Protecting Air, Water & Wildlife

It is easy to forget in these troubled times that government can help good people do good things. This post is predicated on that notion, and includes the tales of two personal odysseys with government-assisted happy endings some 35 years apart that I would like to share in this Thanksgiving season.

The first odyssey began back in the early 1970s. I was riding my bicycle into the White Clay Creek Valley, a pristine area in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware containing a diverse and unique range of plant and animal species.

The lower end of the 1,400-acre valley, most of which was owned by the chemical giant Du Pont Company, included a smattering of houses, some of them humble and some historic.

Where there had been a bungalow and detached garage only a few days earlier was a freshly seeded grassy area. There was no trace of the structures. I explored further and found to my horror that other houses, including a magnificent late-18th century farmhouse surrounded by immense sycamore trees, also had disappeared. The arc of sycamores was still there, but only freshly-seeded grass where the house had been.

When asked about these disappearances, a Du Pont spokesmouth explained that the company's insurance company had declared the houses as potentially dangerous, so they had been razed. Bullshit. The real reason was that Du Pont intended to dam the White Clay and flood the valley so it could draw water for a proposed textile manufacturing plant, and that effort would be advanced by surreptitiously making the houses disappear.

Long story short, the alarm was sounded, and through a coalition of environmentalists and sportsmen, Du Pont's plans not only were thwarted, but the pro-dam Republican-led county government in northern Delaware was ousted and a slate of anti-dam Democrats elected. (A young county councilman by the name of Joe Biden rode the anti-incumbent wave to a U.S. Senate seat.)

Du Pont backed down and in 1984 ceded to the states its holdings in the valley, including the 275-year-old house (photo above) in which I lived at the time. With a big assist from Congress, the White Clay Creek Preserve was created to protect this extraordinary ecosystem in perpetuity.

* * * * *
Fast forward to the here and now and Cherry Valley, a 31,000-acre set of interlocking ecosystems on the eastern edge of the Poconos region of northeastern Pennsylvania. While most of the Poconos have been gang raped by developers, some of whom were players in the early wave of predatory lending and sub-prime mortgage scams that have helped lead to the ongoing national economic collapse, the valley is substantially undeveloped.

It is a mosaic of dairy farms, trout hatcheries, a tree farm, vinyard, quarries and a smattering of homes (including the Dear Friend & Conscience's pad, which doubles as the Kiko's House mountain hideaway). Its
topographically and geographically unique ecosystems contain no fewer than five threatened or endangered species and over 30 species whose status also is of special concern. The quality of the groundwater is excellent.

Cherry Valley falls within the physiographic Appalachian Ridge and Valley province, which is characterized by long, parallel, sharp-crested ridges separated by narrow valleys. (See sidebar below for the geological and early political history of the Poconos.)

Elevations range from 300 feet in valley bottoms to 1,600 feet along the top of the Kittatinny Ridge.

The Kittatinny is the most active raptor and songbird migration corridor in the northeastern U.S. and one of the
leading such sites in the world with more than 140 bird species regularly recorded during the fall migration, including a few who find their way down to the DF&C's bird feeders. Its other claim to fame is that atop the ridgeline runs the 2,173-mile-long Appalachian Trail, which begins in northern Georgia and ends at Maine's Mt. Katahdin at the border with Canada. (Or the other way around depending upon one's starting point.)

Cherry Valley has escaped wholesale development through a combination of circumstances and the determination of residents still bitter over the Tocks Island debacle and alarmed at runaway development elsewhere in the Poconos that has decimated other habitats and led to unchecked growth.

The circumstances are the combination of multi-generational dairy farms along the
valley floor that are more or less the glue that holds the valley together and their environmentally aware neighbors. Their determination is seen in the coalition of area residents and organizations, including the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, Lenape tribe, Nature Conservancy and Pocono Heritage Land Trust, who have protected the valley for generations and eventually prevailed upon county and local governments, as well as tourism and builders associations, to support creation of the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

After several rounds of public hearings, the refuge is almost a reality.
Support is so overwhelming that it is possible that the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can make that so with a flick of a pen and will not even need an act of Congress.

State, county and local open space monies are exhausted, and
staffing the refugee cannot be a priority in the midst of a recession, but no matter.

There is no turning back and the hopes and dreams of those of us who see this crazy quilt of ridges, pine barrens, fens, kettle hole bogs, caves and pastures as a precious gift to future generations are finally about to be realized.
Among the hundreds of plant and animal species in the proposed Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refugee are several that are endangered or otherwise threatened. They include, from top to bottom, the bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii), Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), black-throated blue warbler (Dendroica caerulescens), Northeastern bulrush (Scirpus ancistrochaetus), American eel (Anguilla rostrata), dwarf wedgemussel (Alasmidonta heterodon), and bald eagle (Aliaeetus leucocephalus).

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