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The Edge of the Wood: Half-full, but leaking badly

There is continuous discussion among us concerning whether the glass of our continued inhabitance upon this planet be half empty or half full. I choose to believe the latter, although plenty of us are hard at work draining what is left.

Our forests will never look as they looked at the end of the last ice age, or before even then. We declare certain places to be wild, but declarations and carved wooden signs cannot make it so. There are two-track roads that will never totally disappear, even if we ban all future human traffic within the boundaries. Rail trails from an iron industry abandoned more than a century ago still are visible in many Pennsylvania woodlands.


Also, the climate is changing. Plants no longer exist in places they once flourished. We hear often about invasive plants and critters taking over the native habitat, but that always has been the case, whether because an asteroid in Central America erased the dinosaurs in northern Europe or because humans have an inherent desire to set up housekeeping on the other side of the next hill.

With each new settlement and each advance in technology, we have changed our environment and attempted to stake a new claim. Some estimates report private ownership of all land in Pennsylvania at north of 90 percent. Globally, the number is reported about 80 percent. Now POSTED signs block access to fields and wild creeks — creeks our state constitution proclaims to be public.

On the other hand, Pennsylvania’s Clean and Green program provides tax breaks to owners of 10-acre and larger parcels who use the land for farm or woodlot. Rather than taxing on the value of “highest and best use” — read: value for development — the land is taxed on its actual use. One of the program’s uses is “agricultural reserve,” defined as “noncommercial open space lands used for outdoor recreation or the enjoyment of scenic or natural beauty and open to the public for that use, without charge or fee, on a nondiscriminatory basis.”

In Adams County, more than 10,000 acres have been enrolled in Clean and Green’s agricultural reserve category. The landowners may place restrictions on the types and — per Act 98 of 2018 — not be liable for injuries the public may sustain while enjoying the free recreational access the owner thus allows.

We desperately need increased access to nature. Not only do we need clean air and water for the mere survival of our biological machinery, but recent studies also reveal one of the most effective mental health enhancers is time spent outdoors, among the trees and wild critters. Those of us who have experienced that part of our environment already are aware of what we are losing to private ownership, development, and financially lucrative industries, including the plastic bottles of water and the occasional park or aquarium with which we attempt to replace what we lose.

Big companies know the importance of clean air and water. Many are simultaneously proclaiming global warming to be a hoax or, at most, an insufficiently documented eventuality while quietly hard at work developing the next sources of energy. When those sources hit the market, they, like natural gas, electricity, and lamp oil, will cost dearly. So too, will preserving what is left of our land, water, and air.

We need fewer signs proclaiming POSTED, No trespassing, Property of Exxon and US Government — and more welcoming us to the woods and waters that keep us alive.

john messeder

John Messeder is a freelance reporter and photographer who resides in Cumberland Township. He may be contacted at

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