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A Natural Heritage

“I’m too old for this,” I think as I follow Jessica McPherson up and down the steep banks of Bob’s Creek on State Game Lands 26. I am also severely sleep-deprived and only sheer adrenalin keeps me going. But I am determined to keep up with McPherson, a woman four decades younger than me and in terrific shape from long-distance biking and fieldwork. After all, I had asked to go along.

McPherson is a County Natural Heritage Inventory Ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Her job is to look for and then document rare species, habitats, and natural communities on both public and private lands. When I learned that McPherson was conducting extensive fieldwork in my county (Blair), I was eager to accompany her.

On a cloudy, cool day in late September, we head downstream in search of American or mountain bugbane (Cimicifuga americana), a plant endemic to the Appalachians from Georgia to Pennsylvania. According to previous records, botanist John Kunsman had found it here back in 1986. Furthermore, Blair and nearby Cambria counties are the northernmost known sites for the wildflower. Found in rich, moist, forested slopes and coves in the mountains, American bugbane is listed as a Pennsylvania rare plant by the Pennsylvania Biological Survey.

McPherson is also on the lookout for any other interesting plants and plant communities, but she relies on the Game Commission for information on rare birds and mammals and the Fish and Boat Commission about rare fish, reptiles, and amphibians in her territory. Before setting out, she checks her laptop for previous plant location marks on maps based on Kunsman’s research. Then she hoists a pack on her back that holds water, a digital camera, maps, and a GPS unit, and we are off.

Slender, sure-footed, and lithe, the brown-haired young woman clambers up and down rhododendron-swathed stream banks, looking in vain for American bugbane. She also searches for floodplains, but most have disappeared under water. Hurricane Ivan roared through the area 11 days earlier and Hurricane Jeanne the previous day so the creek is high and its banks slippery.
Soon rock-hopping across the creek is the only way to move downstream without pushing our way through the thicket of rhododendron overhanging the steep bank. That is when I admit my age (to myself) and break off the end of a fallen branch to use as a walking stick. Along the creek McPherson makes note of the huge hemlocks, some mature yellow birches, and a few large American beech trees. She is also pleased to find several hobblebush shrubs tucked among the rhododendrons. The diversity of mosses is another indicator of good habitat.

Humming as she walks, she looks carefully at every unusual plant, painstakingly identifies it, and then lists its outstanding characteristics. Finally, she whips out the digital camera to further document her work. All in all she is impressed by the condition of the forest.

“A nice hollow,” she comments. “We are seeing signs of very mature forest in good condition.”

At last she pulls out her heavy, ten-year-old, GPS unit to see how far we have “stream whacked.” Do those fences and fierce signs ahead mark the property boundary? They do indeed, and so does the difference in habitat. On the state game lands we have seen what she calls “an exemplary forest community” with no sign of deer browse. On the other side, the forest is younger and heavily deer-browsed.

But we haven’t found any American bugbane. “Does that mean it is gone from this place,” I ask.

“It could be in the seed bank even if it’s not poking its head out this particular year,” she answers. “It takes a lot for us to write a population off.”

We head the half mile back to the road where we have left our cars and our lunches and eat a late lunch before proceeding upstream for the afternoon. There more floodplain is exposed and we discover a woodland of wildflowers–beechdrops, clintonia, Indian cucumberroot, foamflower, violets, Jack-in-the-pulpit–and several species of ground pine. A Canadian or American yew (Taxus canadensis) on one stream bank and a large American chestnut tree, the shells of its nuts beneath it, are other intriguing finds, our only native yew because it is declining statewide due to habitat loss and severe deer browsing and the chestnut because it seldom grows so large since the chestnut blight decimated the species.

“We try to go where the plants and animals are,” McPherson says, which is why we cross and re-cross the rushing stream and side tributaries and climb up and down a steep mountainside, still searching for the elusive American bugbane. As we descend a particularly steep slope, I pull a thigh muscle and limp my way over rough terrain with the help of my indispensable walking stick.

Finally, seeing no way back on the mountain side of the creek, or, more likely, taking pity on me, McPherson removes her shoes and socks and quickly wades across the rocky-bottomed creek up to her knees in rushing water. Lacking her exquisite balance, I gulp and, keeping my boots on and a tight grip on my walking stick, pick my way carefully across the wide creek. My boots fill with water, but I don’t care. We have reached a gravel road where I am able to stretch that thigh muscle enough to prevent my limping. Even so, although I had managed to keep up with McPherson only because, as a plant ecologist she moves comparatively slowly, her eyes constantly roving for plants, I am not in the shape she is.

Not only does she do this kind of rugged fieldwork, following land forms instead of trails, much of the year, she also lives the life of a committed conservationist in Pittsburgh, biking instead of owning a car, consuming little, and wondering why others can’t similarly enjoy more outdoor-oriented lives. A native of Maryland and a graduate of Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, she had recently joined other friends in a mammoth biking trip across Pennsylvania to New York City.

At the end of our day at Bob’s Creek, McPherson pulls a dried American bugbane from her plant press to show me what we didn’t find–a plant that looks much like its close relative black cohosh (C. racemosa) except that it blooms later in the season, is somewhat shorter, and has white flowers on one side of the stem instead of alternately as black cohosh does. Its resemblance to black cohosh is one reason why American bugbane is increasingly rare. Herbal collectors for the plant trade mistake it for its look-alike relative.

McPherson also tells me about some of her discoveries on other gamelands in Blair and Cambria counties. State Game Land #166 in Blair County, which adjoins Canoe Creek State Park, has a “huge, amazing wetland” in the middle of which she found a stand of poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) that usually grows mostly in northwestern Pennsylvania in calcium-rich soils. This “unique” land form includes shrub wetlands and a mixed palustrine (periodically wet) forest.

State Game Land #158 in Blair and Cambria counties has Pennsylvania state threatened northeastern bullrush (Scirpus ancistrochaetus) in its vernal ponds. A vernal pond on State Game Land #184 has a rare dragonfly. The state endangered Greene’s or Maryland hawkweed (Hieracium traillii) grows in a unique natural community on acidic cliffs on State Game Lands # 118.

McPherson is not just interested in surveying public property. She is also eager to survey private property, but she only goes where she is invited. Earlier, on a cool August day, she accompanied my son Dave and me on a walk over our mountaintop property. Once again she was alert to every plant on the ground and tree in the forest.

When we crossed the powerline right-of-way, McPherson stopped to admire a large deerberry shrub (Vaccinium stamineum).

“I don’t see much of this,” she commented.

She also spent time peering into our three-acre exclosure because it already illustrates what a mature hardwood forest might look like without heavy deer pressure.

She was most interested in seeing our four vernal ponds on top of Sapsucker Ridge. Vernal ponds, along with limestone outcrops, dry acidic cliffs, uncut limestone slopes, or uncut or unplowed wetlands, have been most fruitful during her survey in Blair County. But our vernal ponds have no rare plants growing in or around them. Only one pond has the common fowl manna-grass (Glyceria striata) growing along its edges. At least it is a native grass. So too is the grass she identified growing on the Far Field Road–Virginia cut grass (Leirsia virginica). Other plants that she identified for us were Lycopodium hickeyi (Hickey’s ground-pine) and a leafy liverwort rock spikemoss (Selaginella rupestris) growing along our stream. On a talus slope, she admired two large and twisted chestnut oaks and found at least two species of lichens on the rocks.

Once we stopped to watch a pair of box turtles courting near the vernal ponds, the male on top of the female but unconnected. And at our small exclosure (36′ by 36′), she was amazed to find the green carpet of Canada mayflower and Solomon’s seal leaves so late in the season. Coming back on Shortway Trail, we stopped to admire a row of deep rose and yellow pinesaps.

She concluded that we have “forest communities typical of our area but interesting because of their age and higher quality [unmanaged] habitat.” She went on to say that some of the nicest stuff she sees is on private lands, especially examples of intact natural communities, i.e. forests and wetlands with good species diversity and low impact or no management such as our place.

When she visits private lands, she always tells landowners that what she might find does not impact their ability to do anything on their property. She merely describes what she has found and suggests ways they can maintain special habitats and species. Many landowners are proud of their land and eager to protect whatever rare species or natural communities might be found on it.

The Natural Heritage Program is an international network for biological information. Pennsylvania has been divided in half for Natural Heritage Inventory purposes. The Pennsylvania chapter of The Nature Conservancy is finishing up the eastern half of the state and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy the western. Unfortunately, a block of counties in the northwest of the state is not cooperating, and so there will be a big hole in our knowledge of what natural treasures our state still possesses. Over the years, 116 plants, at least 17 mussel species, six mammals, six birds, one salamander, two turtles, 15 fishes, and no one knows how many insects have been extirpated from Pennsylvania, and more and more species are endangered, rare, or threatened.

As runaway development sprawl and more highways per mile than any other state in the country gobble up more and more open land, we need to develop an ethic of caring for the natural world we have left. Surely, all of us want to leave a natural heritage for our children and grandchildren at least as rich as the one we have experienced.

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