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Forest Ecology:

Governor Dick's 1,105 acres are an ideal sanctuary for both people and wildlife. Unfortunately, the view from Governor Dick's observation tower is not s ideal. Cities, towns, farms, developments, and forests already cut up by logging and development stretch out in all directions.

Preserved forests like Governor Dick provide critical wildlife habitat for deep forest species that can't survive in human-modified environments. These forests also protect watersheds, improve air quality, affect climate, and are a source of recreation and relaxation. However, many of these forests suffer the ill-effects of forest fragmentation.

Forest fragmentation occurs when forests are cut up into smaller patches. Logging, development, and trails break up the forests, increasing the openings and edges that make it more difficult for deep forest species to survive.

As forest fragmentation increases, so does predation. Raccoons, feral cats, blue jays, crows, and foxes are just some of the predators that regularly prey upon young birds and eggs. They do this primarily within a few hundred feet of forest edges. Trails and roads also serve as conduits allowing predators access deeper into forest interiors. Cowbird parasitism and competition with non-native birds like starlings and house sparrows also follows forest fragmentation and human disturbances.

Neotropical songbirds migrate annually from tropical regions to northern forests like Governor Dick. Many need large, unbroken tracts of forest to nest successfully. Unlike year-round birds, migration schedules don't allow neotropical songbirds time to adjust to changes, find new territories, or try repeated nesting attempts if their first attempt fails.

Studies conducted by the Wild Resource Conservation Fund, Penn State, and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary found that the wood thrus nesting success rate dropped significantly in forests under 200 acres. Governor Dick's 1,105 acres would seem sufficient. But with fragmentation around its edges and spreading within its interior, it's quickly being cut up into smaller and smaller fragments. Many species of warblers, vireos, tanagers, thrushes, and flycatchers are also declining due to fragmentation.

Migrants also fall into what are known as ecological traps. This is where they continue to attempt nesting in what appears to be a healthy forest, but because of fragmentation are unable to maintain healthy populations due to low reproduction rates.

Salamanders and vernal wildflowers are also vulnerable to logging, development and forest fragmentation. Their slow reproduction and dispersal rates make it difficult for them to recolonize disturbed areas. Some have been shown to show little recovery decades, even a century, after logging has occurred.

Salamanders spend most of their lives under the leaf litter and logs on the forest floor. Open areas and trails become barriers to many species, disrupting movements and isolating already shrinking populations. And salamanders that survive the crush of logging equipment may not survive the warmer ground temperatures as the removal of trees allows more sunlight to heat the forest floor.

Many non-native plants thrive where native vegetation is disturbed or removed. Freed from the normal checks and balances of their native lands, they overrun and choke out native species. Most of the spring wildflowers growing along Mt. Gretna's trails are aliens growing at the expense of wildflowers.

Every tree removed from the forest by logging robs the forest of the benefits of the tree's death. Dead trees may remain standing for many years. Woodpeckers excavate cavities, which are then used by many species, such as owls, chickadees, flycatchers, flying squirrels, and white-footed mice.

When the tree finally falls it serves the needs of many other species. Chipmunks, mice, and salamanders burrow underneath. Ants and beetles bore into the rotting wood while mushrooms and seedlings sprout from it. As the tree decomposes it provides valuable nutrients to the soil while serving as a barrier to erosion.

Sometimes logging is claimed to be needed for fire prevention. However, it is primarily drought, not too many trees, that increases the frequency and severity of forest fires. Logging opens up forests to more rapid drying and greater wind circulation, thus exacerbating their effects and therefore the risk of fire.

Even the most careful logging can't avoid disrupting the forest. Wildlife communities are changed. And logging usually removes the healthiest trees from the forest those most needed to provide seeds for future generations of healthy trees.

The forestry management plans of the Bureau of Forestry and Pennsylvania Game Commission tend to favor the timber and hunting industries. This prevents many forests from growing 200-year-old trees and becoming older growth forests needed by species like the barred owls and goshawks, and species that require long recovery periods. There are even some songbirds that only choose century-old trees in which to build their nests.

Forests are complex webs of animal, plant, and fungi interactions. Every new trail, building, and disturbance upsets these delicate, time-tested balances. Some people don't start worrying till a species becomes endangered. But as Rosalie Edge, funder of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary said, "the time to save a species is when it's still common." Governor Dick is home to many species that can no longer be considered common.

Not every forest has to serve as a source of lumber, paper, and profits. Some forests need to be left alone, to serve as alternatives to whatever forestry practices are currently in vogue. They also serve as invaluable templates to aid in the healing of other forests damaged by years of logging, mismanagement, and abuse.

Governor Dick is unique. It is the last best chance to provide this are with its only large, older growth forest with species that can't be found elsewhere. It was already preserved and is not needed for development, timber, or other natural resources. But it will remain unique only as long as its caretakers resist the urge to "improve" it.