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From the Desk of
County Commissioner Kai Hagen

(7/09) In his essay entitled "Walking," Henry David Thoreau said: "I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least and it is commonly more than that -- sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements."

With the press of such "engagements" in our modern world -- our busy lives, so often filled to overflowing with daily obligations and responsibilities -- it is difficult to even imagine having four hours to spend every day on any extracurricular activity. But as soon as I say that, I remember that the average American somehow manages to watch more than four hours of television every day.

I watch, too, and Id probably be shocked to know how much it all adds up, what with my favorite sporting events, a daily dose of news, a movie here and there, a few half hour sitcoms or one hour dramas, and even some nature shows.

But the real nature show lies just outside our doors. And we who live in northern Frederick County are fortunate to have the real thing in abundance. Were blessed with a rich tapestry of woods and hills and fields, traversed by meandering streams which flow clear from thickly forested mountains.

This is not a Sierra Club calendar landscape of soaring, snow-capped peaks, empty deserts or deep canyons. Its not a rugged or pristine wilderness. Instead, it is a perfectly people-friendly and pastoral landscape, with four distinct, but not severe seasons; with good soils and plentiful rain -- a lovely and gentle patch of the planet. As Wendell Berry would describe it, we who live here have received the gift of good land.

It is not a gift we can take for granted.

One of the special and defining features of our region -- our home -- is the collection of ancient ridges and secluded stream valleys that comprise the Catoctin Mountains. The mountains, of course, are a scenic backdrop to everywhere else in the north county. But they are also where we go to walk in the woods, to picnic in the park, to enjoy spring wildflowers or autumn colors, to go fishing or birdwatching. to get away for an hour or a day. The mountains and their extensive forests are also a refuge for great diversity of native plants and animals.

But as beautiful as the Catoctin Mountain are, from a distance and up close, the people who pay special attention to these things see a bigger picture, and they want us to know the rest of the story.

They want us to know that, for all the natural diversity and beauty, the forests of the Catoctin Mountains have experienced devastating losses, and are facing serious threats today. Their message is that the richness and health of the forests is not only less than it once was, but that it is considerably more than it will be if we dont do more to protect and preserve it. Benign neglect and few thousand acres of parks and municipal watersheds wont prevent the significant deterioration of our mountain forests and streams.

Unfortunately, perhaps, there is no single culprit responsible for the impoverishment of the Catoctin Mountains. If there was, it might be easier to deal with it, to focus on one problem and take action. Rather, however, it is a complicated combination of many separate and related problems that, together, are taking a toll.

An incomplete list includes a withering array of items, large and small. Certainly, habitat loss and fragmentation of the forest in Frederick County is a familiar and serious problem, along with the increased isolation of our green mountains as more development surrounds them. The over-abundance of deer in the absence of natural predators or sufficient hunting is converting some areas to biological deserts, bereft of other plants, and the food and shelter they provide for other wildlife. High ozone levels and acid rain blow in from nearby cities and distant power plants. Exotic pests and diseases, such as those that took our magnificent chestnuts and elms, are now wiping out or threatening hemlocks, dogwoods, ash and more. Other non-native plants and animals, from gypsy moths to ailanthus trees alter and diminish the forest. And our changing climate threatens to make these mountains inhospitable to once common sugar maples, brook trout and more.

Together these problems require us to work together to solve them, or minimize their impact.

Recently, a new organization was formed to do just that, when the New Forest Society, the vision and hard work of Emmitsburg area resident Elizabeth Prongas, morphed into the Catoctin Forest Alliance.

The mission of the group is to preserve and promote the health of the Catoctin Mountain forest through collaboration with other groups and public officials, public outreach, education and engagement, and other activities. The effort got off to an impressive start in April, when more than 80 people attended a weekday meeting in Catoctin Mountain Park, including local residents, people associated with the parks, forestry and tourism, and a few local and state officials.

This is a well-conceived and much needed effort. Please take a moment to find out more, and consider getting involved yourself. Our mountains need our help.

Read other articles from Frederick County Commissioners