Backpacking on a path in the woods

Nature Conserved, History Preserved

From the days trees stretched from one end of the state to the other, to the rise of awareness of our impact on the environment and the beginnings of Earth Day, Brian Black works to explore and preserve Pennsylvania's environmental history.

By: Therese Boyd

“The aim or objective of a true conservationist is the stewardship of our natural resources, air, water, and land.” —Maurice K. Goddard

Nature doesn’t get any prettier than Pennsylvania any season of the year. In the southeast, a portion of the Appalachian Trail is available for hiking; there’s whitewater rafting on the Youghiogheny, canoeing on the Susquehanna, and skiing at Blue Knob (among many other ski resorts). Hunting on state game lands, camping in state parks, viewing elk or migrating birds—Pennsylvania has the full spectrum of outdoor activities.

Maybe it is no coincidence that such a beautiful state would produce some of the nation’s first and most prominent environmentalists and conservationists. A new film, Penn’s Woods: Cradle of Conservation, explores the state’s history from the days trees stretched from one end to the other before the timber business, to the rise of awareness of our impact on the environment and the beginnings of Earth Day.

Brian Black, distinguished professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona, has been involved with this project “for many moons,” he says. “The Pennsylvania Conservation Heritage Project gathered a group of environmental historians,” including Black. “We suggested a history, we suggested the best stories, and we sketched out the entire undertaking.” Over the course of the past 10 years, that “undertaking” has included filming videos such as Penn’s Woods, collecting oral histories from people who have been a part of conservation and environmentalism in Pennsylvania, and creating a bibliography and archival sources (both authored by Black and Penn State Altoona grad [now Pitt PhD candidate] Marcy Ladson), as well as other resources for researchers and the public alike.

When speaking of his native state, Black notes the appearance of a contradiction in Pennsylvania’s history: “Pennsylvania has this fascinating conservation story—even though we have been an extractive capital, we also have this great heritage of leading conservationists and environmentalists”: among many others, Joseph Rothrock, the “father of forestry,” named as the first commissioner of the state Department of Forestry; Mira Lloyd Dock, who brought the City Beautiful movement to Harrisburg in the early 1900s when hardly any streets were paved and trash was regularly thrown in the streets; Maurice Goddard, who developed the state park system; and Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring., who raised awareness of some of our most serious environmental problems.  “These are national leaders in their fields,” explains Black, “but somehow they all spent formative time here.”

“One of the arguments that I make is that this is something unique about the Commonwealth,” Black says. “We use our nature and that use keeps us close to it. People are aware of the outdoors in PA.” And that awareness, Black says, “has created this passion—we have so many great people of environmental history. And that leads you to ask: ‘Why? How does a state that tears out the resources it needs also produce such strong legislation and leadership?” That and other questions are addressed in the Penn’s Woods video. The people interviewed cover a wide range of historians and environmentalists, such as Allen Dietrich-Ward, professor of history at Shippensburg University; Pete Duncan, former Department of Environmental Resources secretary; Caren Glotfelty, executive director of the Allegheny County Parks Foundation; Joe Kosack of the Pennsylvania Game Commission; former state senator Franklin Kury; and Black himself.

Black has somewhat of a history with environmental studies. “I was fortunate enough to go to school with Don Worster who defined the use of history for this field. Because of my unique position here, Penn State Altoona has the longest running course in environmental history in the Commonwealth. I started teaching this upper-level course in environmental history around 2000, which is a required course for the environmental studies major. No other school in the state has it every year.” He acknowledges the support of his colleagues Carolyn Mahan, professor of biology and environmental studies, and Ian Marshall, professor of English and environmental studies. “What Carolyn and Ian did in creating our unique program in Environmental Studies was to have the foresight to know that we were educating environmental professionals and that they will be better at it if they know the background. Penn State Altoona was first in the country to combine environmental studies and history.  I like to think that this carries on the state’s uniquely balanced approach to managing our natural resources.”

Today, the conditions of our environment are making headlines as never before—larger and more frequent hurricanes, wildfires that burn millions of acres, even fracking-related earthquakes—and Black sees a change in students. “Particularly in these political times, with the rise of interest behind the Green New Deal, we see in our students a younger generation that is outraged.  There is a clear passion for the environment among many of the students in our four-year program in Environmental Studies.  They want to help define the actions of the next generation of conservationists—and I truly think that they will do it!”

Through his and others’ work in the classroom, and groups such as the Pennsylvania Conservation Heritage Project, younger people will learn what has happened in the past and how to deal with what is still to come. As Pennsylvania’s Rachel Carson wrote, “The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.”