Nonprofit helps nurture afflicted habitats at Bear Run Nature Reserve, beyond
Researchers tracking song sparrows at the 2,200-acre Powdermill Nature Reserve near Rector have found the birds are breeding two weeks earlier in spring than in the past, a phenomenon director John Wenzel attributes to climate change.
At the Bear Run Nature Reserve, covering about 5,000 acres near Mill Run in Fayette and Somerset counties, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy is working to protect the state's official tree, the Eastern hemlock, from a damaging insect — the invasive, aphid-like woolly adelgid.
Climate change and invasive species — those that spread beyond their normal range and wreak havoc among native flora and fauna — are two of the major challenges managers are dealing with at parks, forests and other natural areas. The nonprofit Natural Areas Association, which recently moved its headquarters from Oregon to Ligonier, helps managers stay in touch with one another while staying on top of best practices for protecting habitats under their care.
“The association really fills an important niche that spans research and management,” said Wenzel, whose reserve and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy are among entities that partner with the association. “All these natural areas have to have some kind of public face. People won't protect something they don't know and understand.”
Tracing its beginnings to a 1974 conference in Wisconsin, the association attracted more than 600 people to its last annual gathering Oct. 18-21 in Davis, Calif., where the main theme was adapting to climate change — in the form of extreme weather patterns and seasonal changes. The conference will come to Pittsburgh in 2019.
Wenzel observed that adapting to climate change has provided a benefit for the local sparrows, allowing them to bear more chicks each season.
“In a way, that is actually encouraging,” he said. “It means they're responding to this general climate change and taking advantage of the fact that it's warmer earlier.”
But the ultimate impact on the local ecosystem has still to play out, and Wenzel cited a study identifying nearly 50 other songbird species that have fallen out of sync with the seasons in the areas they inhabit.
Stress on forests
“Our forests will continue to be stressed as they try to adapt to a changing climate. When ecosystems become compromised in that way, they're more susceptible to invasion by exotic pests,” said Lisa Smith of Stahlstown, executive director of the association and a trained field ecologist.
“Forest managers are facing challenges they never had to face before in light of energy development and fragmentation of forests,” Smith said. “Fragmentation creates corridors for invasive species. Vehicles (used in gas well, pipeline and road construction) are bringing invasive species on them.”
In its recommended site restoration practices, the Marcellus Shale Coalition suggests including native vegetation when seeding land that was disturbed for natural gas development.
President David J. Spigelmyer said the coalition continues to “work closely with environmental conservation groups to protect species and revegetate disturbed areas as environmental stewardship is fundamental to what we do.”
Rachel Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, pointed out federal fees that coal operators pay help to reclaim abandoned mining sites and address associated environmental hazards. She noted older coal sites also can be improved when companies re-mine them.
Charles Bier, the conservancy's senior director for conservation science, said the adelgid likely made its way into Pennsylvania on infested tree nursery stock. In an attempt to reduce its numbers, he said, the conservancy first will encourage them to take over some designated hemlocks at Bear Run and then will introduce a species of beetle that feeds on the pests.
Ligonier: Closer to nature
The Natural Areas Association shifted its headquarters from Bend, Ore., opening the Ligonier center in spring 2016.
Smith said the move has brought the organization closer to most of its members and to Washington, D.C., where it lobbies lawmakers and partners with key agencies such as the federal Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.
“The Midwest and Mid-Atlantic have been important strongholds for membership,” she said, “and the drive to D.C. is manageable.”
The specific choice of Ligonier, she noted, was “about getting closer to nature. It's a smaller town with conserved land all around it. This is part of the heart where natural area conservation has happened historically, and has continued to happen.”
The association has four employees. Three contractors help with publication of the group's quarterly journal. Smith said the group is making an effort to beef up its outreach to the 1,200 people and institutions on its membership roll, with an e-newsletter and regional workshops.
Smith joined the association in the 1990s, when she served as director of stewardship at the conservancy. She later became president of the association board and, since 2013, has served as executive director.
One trend the association hopes to help reverse is the decline of university botany science programs. “To manage habitat for animals, to manage ecologically healthy landscapes, one must have expertise and knowledge of plants,” Smith said.
The association backs the federal “Botany Bill,” which proposes more than $100 million for grants and staffing to support diversity of plant life.
Wenzel disputed the idea that “Mother Nature takes care of herself” in natural areas. “Each of these areas is a natural island surrounded by human influence,” he said. “If you leave it alone, it's a constant slide.”