Their View | Environmentalism starts in your backyard

May 31, 2014 

Members of the Leadership Centre County Class of 2014 learned the importance of becoming advocates for conservation May 7 during its Environment Day. Activities that day took class members from Arctic ice sheets to the wetlands of Gray’s Woods — a “journey” that highlighted the importance of citizens becoming involved, be it on a local or global scale.

The day started with a presentation on global warming by Michael Mann, Penn State distinguished professor of meteorology and director of the Earth System Science Center. Mann said scientists have known about the effects of greenhouse gas for more than two centuries, so the basic premise of its effect on the planet is not controversial scientifically.

Increased temperatures and droughts impact crop productions and ultimately food availability for both humans and animals, which in and of itself should be enough to prompt a call to action.

The most sensible strategy would be to reduce the carbon dioxide emission levels worldwide; however, that strategy only seems to be attainable through government policies. China, for example, is the world’s largest generator of carbon dioxide but is also more advanced than the U.S. in terms of trying to reduce the effect through taxes and investments in renewable energy. More advocacy is needed to address these concerns closer to home.

Next on the itinerary was a visit to Gray’s Woods, where the ClearWater Conservancy and a neighborhood group called the Friends of Gray’s Woods have joined forces to conserve 43.5 acres of wetlands. According to ClearWater’s Kate Ombalski, the Gray’s Woods wetlands complex is a unique habitat that houses an array of wildlife and vegetation. A recent survey by a local resident and Audubon Society member, for example, identified 91 different birds within the wetlands. Those findings led the neighborhood group and ClearWater to recommend preserving the area rather than converting it into a recreation area with play fields.

Working with Jim Julian, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Altoona, the groups spoke to other residents, provided public tours of the wetlands, made presentations to the Patton Township Board of Supervisors and wrote letters to the Centre Daily Times to spread the word. These actions helped influence the decision to preserve the wetlands, and the groups are now working on a plan to help the public enjoy this rich resource.

The class then traveled to the Lowe’s parking lot on Valley Vista Drive, where they were met by Rod Stahl from Stahl Scheaffer Engineering, who explained how shallow basins on the north end of the lot were created to hold and distribute runoff from the parking area.

Stormwater runoff can have a significant environmental effect on the water’s path — concerns that are addressed via various municipal, state and federal ordinances and laws. These regulations require developers to control the rate and volume of water leaving the site. At the Lowe’s site, the basins contain plants that help filter the amount of sediment and the flow of any runoff.

The next stop was lunch at Otto’s Pub and Brewery. Water is a vital cog in the brewery’s operation, which is why it has a vested interest in water quality and conservation, said Otto’s co-owner Roger Garthwaite. Otto’s supports the fundraising efforts of nearly 30 local nonprofit groups in these endeavors, he said.

Next on the tour was a stop at the Penn State’s Wiley Lab Apiary, where the class met Mary Ann Frazier, a senior extension associate who is studying colony collapse disorder within the honeybee population. Colony collapse disorder has led to a dramatic decline in the honeybee population — a significant concern because the bees pollinate one-third of the food that we eat. Wax samples, pollen (bee food) and the bees themselves have also been evaluated and found to have high levels of various pesticides — so much so, in fact, that there have been cases called pesticide kills in which the pesticides have killed entire colonies.

Research has also revealed that a parasitic mite is killing bees, which has led researchers to study treatments that help increase a colony’s survival rates. There is a lot of concern among advocates about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to monitor and address this issue; therefore, it is vital that advocates at all levels — lawmakers, scientists, growers and “regular” citizens alike — do what they can.

The last stop of the day took the group to Millbrook Marsh, where class members learned more about invasive plant species. According to Eric Burkhart, program director at the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, vegetative communities are changing very rapidly worldwide due to the disturbance and movement of invasive species.

There are approximately 3,300 plant species in Pennsylvania; about half of those are invasive, and that number continues to grow. This can have extremely harmful effects on native vegetation. By giving greater thought to what you plant on our own properties, local residents can have a greater effect on preserving native vegetation.

Erik Foley-DeFiore, Penn State manager of sustainability programs, then led the class through an activity in which the majority of the group portrayed the environment in various roles to a three-person panel. The exercise helped highlight the connection between humans and the environment; plants and animals compete for resources, but we rarely talk about the world in our daily lives.

If the day taught class members anything, it is that the environment does not have a voice. Just like the advocates that class members met this day, we all need to do what we can to give the environment the voice it needs.

Teresa A. Davis is a member of the Leadership Centre County Class of 2014.

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