Tree carnage clobbering region's nature centers

At Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, facilities manager Sean Duffy examines a tree. Falling limbs have forced trail closures.
At Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, facilities manager Sean Duffy examines a tree. Falling limbs have forced trail closures. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 26, 2014

Sean Duffy didn't even hear the warning crack! of the tree branch breaking.

But when it fell just behind where he was clearing the snow at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, the facilities manager ran inside for another piece of equipment: A hard hat.

Not long after, the Roxborough center posted a notice on its door and its website: Trails closed.

Even as temperatures warm and snows melt, the region's nature centers and others with big tracts of woods are still dealing with the tree carnage.

They expect to be doing it for quite a while, consuming valuable manpower and ravaging budgets.

"We're reeling. We have years of tree work ahead of us," said the Schuylkill Center's executive director, Mike Weilbacher.

Worse than the fallen limbs are the shaky ones. Another snow or stiff breeze could bring down these "widow-makers," as arborists often call them.

At the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust in Huntingdon Valley, a large limb clobbered a $10,000 birdseed shed. "It's probably a complete loss," said executive director David Robertson.

At the Robbins Park Environmental Education Center in Upper Dublin, a large pine took out the teaching greenhouse where kids start seeds every spring.

Frozen pipes burst at the 12-acre Briar Bush Nature Center in Abington after 20 big trees came down, taking out power lines and just missing a building, said naturalist Mark Fallon.

The staff had to find emergency foster homes for about 30 small animals, including snakes, lizards, rabbits, a tarantula, and a few cockroaches.

Many properties are still so snowbound that staffers haven't been able to get out to assess their trees, let alone estimate the cost to deal with them.

Similarly, "every tree vendor we use is too busy to do something that's not an absolute emergency," Fallon said.

And it's not over. "Trees are still coming down," said Gail Hill, education director at the Peace Valley Nature Center near Doylestown. There, the 14 miles of trails aren't officially closed. But they might as well be. "They're impassable," Hill said.

At least the weather has largely spared nature centers in New Jersey, which were hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy. "We've been lucky," said Erin Kiefer, senior educator at the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford. Other than some ice, "we're open, and we're all right."

Educators at the Rancocas Nature Center even noted a benefit in all the snow. "It has been fabulous for animal tracks," said director Susan Buffalino. "We've been seeing some great turkey tracks."

Some see a grim twist in all this - nature centers being hit hard by the very thing they celebrate. "It's a little bit ironic, isn't it?" said Briar Bush's Fallon.

But that's all part of the lesson they teach - when they're able.

After the Riverbend Environmental Center in Gladwyne went five days without power and two more without Internet access, executive director Laurie Bachman thought they might be able to open Wednesday for a regular visit of some kindergarteners. Then rain, thunder, and lightning moved through, she said. "We had to cancel that as well."

The Natural Lands Trust, which manages 22,000 acres, has begun coordinating workdays where staff from many of its 42 preserves will pitch in at one property.

Still, three of its preserves remain closed because of icy parking lots or downed limbs.

Some preserves have also had illegal dumping of limbs from other areas.

"This means we end up using our preserve staff to clean up all the dumping, which slows down our own preserve cleanups and costs time/money," said spokeswoman Kirsten Werner. If it continues, she said, some parking lots may close.

The woods will likely bear the scars and other ill effects for years.

Pennypack's Robertson said that, when a white pine, which he has plenty of, loses a lot of its limbs, it often dies and can come crashing down.

The loss of so many limbs and trees leaves big openings in the forest canopy, letting in sunlight and allowing invasive plants to "start going berserk," Robertson said. Many are vines that, if not yanked out or otherwise curtailed, can climb into the canopy and kill more trees. "It's sort of a long-term curse."

215-854-5147 @sbauers

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