On-Air Highlights

A Look at the State's Rich Environmental History

Written by Heather Woolridge | Jan 2, 2019 2:15 PM
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Penn's Woods: Cradle of Conservation premieres on WITF TV January 17 at 8pm

Penn's Woods: Cradle of Conservation--A Look at the State's Rich Environmental History

The commonwealth's abundant natural resources fueled the state's development while generations of Pennsylvanians also found inspiration in its natural beauty. Just as coal, timber, iron and oil transformed the state into an industrial powerhouse and provided great economic growth, those same industries produced toxic air pollution, degraded waterways, contaminated soil and decimated wildlife.

WITF's Pennsylvania Conservation Heritage series explores the state's rich conservation heritage, shining a light on those who've helped protect our resources. Seven original documentaries feature the stories of the state's conservation heroes: Maurice Goddard, Ralph Abele, Mira Lloyd Dock, Gifford Pinchot, Rachel Carson, Ned Smith and Zulene Mayfield. The project is a partnership of WITF, The PA Conservation Heritage Committee and the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

WITF-TV's new documentary Penn's Woods: Cradle of Conservation premieres January 17, 2019 at 8pm. The hour-long program weaves together the state's rich environmental history, highlighting accomplishments and challenges along the way.

When King Charles II granted William Penn his North American colony in 1681, Penn's Woods was lush with trees. According to Mark Madison, historian for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, "The forest canopy was so dense it's been said that a squirrel could travel across Pennsylvania, branch to branch, without ever touching the ground." But by 1900, the state had lost more than 60 percent of its forests. Dr. Joseph Rothrock, the father of Pennsylvania Forestry, called the vast wasteland the "Pennsylvania Desert". 

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By 1900 Pennsylvania had lost more than 60 percent of its forests Photo Credit: PA State Archives

During the height of the Industrial Revolution, coal, iron and steel production voraciously gobbled up resources. Economic booms and revolutions in natural resource extraction came with an environmental price. Pennsylvania found itself poised to become a pioneer in environmental protection. Professor of History & Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona Dr. Brian Black teaches his students about this legacy: "We have used the natural resources with all different kinds of ethics. And just like we can say that we're the cradle of industrialization in the United States, we can also say that we're the cradle of the conservation movement."

Pennsylvanians set about restoring the state's environmental riches and in the process helped shape the national conservation and environmental movements of the twentieth century. "We had great conservationists totally transform how we look at the environment and how we protect it. Gifford Pinchot basically saved the nation's forests. Rachel Carson woke up the whole world to the dangers of toxins and pesticides. Anybody can make a difference," reflects Mark Madison.

Today Pennsylvania's ecosystem is in the midst of transformation. As we grapple with the environmental impact of the Marcellus Shale gas industry and come to grips with the growing challenges of climate change, there are lessons to be learned from the past. According to Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation President Marci Mowery, "Pennsylvania's conservation heritage is important. It defines who we are and defines the places where we grew up. It defines the places where we recreate. We can't be informed citizens if we don't understand and know our history and we can't keep an eye out for any red flags that might be arising because we're going down a similar path."

Explore more information, watch other documentaries in the Pennsylvania Conservation Heritage series and more online at PAConservationHeritage.org.

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