I thought today we might take a break from talking about Mr. Trump. The past few days have seen him tease a prime-time spectacle about his Supreme Court pick, make some odd, incoherent statements to kick off Black History Month, and have everybody pray for his replacement on The Apprentice because ratings are low. We should not normalize this behavior, but to have words all day every day be about Mr. Trump draws attention away from other noteworthy events.
Instead, I am going to talk about the Black Rock Wildlife Sanctuary in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. People who follow my adventures in photography know that this is a favorite setting of mine. Not only is it very close to my house – two and a quarter miles – but is is a great place to get photographs of a large variety of birds. I have seen wood ducks, mallards, great blue herons, a red-tail hawk, a hooded merganser, a belted kingfisher, red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, mourning doves, robins, Canada geese, eastern bluebirds, various woodpeckers, and many more that I can’t identify. Those are just the birds; a plethora of other animals live there as well. Turtles, fish, frogs, and various insects round out the fauna. Sycamores and other trees surround a grassy meadow, and there is a butterfly garden just off the main parking lot, where flowering plants attract these butterflies, bees, and other pollinating insects.
As you pull into the parking lot, the first thing you see is the meadow, but that’s not the main attraction. A trail leads down from the parking lot into a basin, where the pond that really forms the central basis of the sanctuary lies. The trail, paved and easily accessible, leads down to the pond and loops around it, through a portion of the meadow, and back to the parking lot. All along the trail are information and activity stations for youth, and at just about a mile in length, it is just right for younger kids to hike. It is also a popular location for residents of the housing development just across the street to walk their dogs. For the more adventurous, a non-paved trail branches off and heads through some of the lesser developed areas of the sanctuary. Several small islets exist in the center of the pond, and in the warmer months fisherman can be found along its banks – strictly catch-and-release fishing here, thank you.
One feature of the sanctuary that you might not notice at first, but is impossible to miss, is the high dirt wall surrounding the central basin. It slopes up sharply from the central pond, rises to a height of about twenty feet, is about six feet wide at the top, and then slopes just as sharply downward. A narrow strip of land, perhaps fifteen feet wide, separate this dirt wall from the Schuylkill river just beyond. The paved trail winds its way up to the top and along this wall as it traverses the far side of the pond, but the wall itself encircles the entire basin, from the pond up to the undeveloped areas of the sanctuary upriver.
This wall, clearly man-made, serves as a reminder that this sanctuary only exists because of man’s mistakes and his attempts to remedy those mistakes. As peaceful as it is, the land here is not a natural formation, and speaks both to the past and to the future.
When William Penn first encountered the Schuylkill river, it was pristine and an excellent source of water for his city. However, by the first half of the twentieth century, coal mining in the mountains at the headwaters had severely polluted the river with coal silt and other mining debris. “Too thin to plow and too thick to drink” was a phrase associated with the river, and the amount of silt in it made it nearly unnavigable. In the 1940s, a massive cleanup of the river was begun. Twenty-six sites were chosen to be desilting basins. Large basins were constructed alongside the river. River water was diverted into these basins, where the silt was allowed to settle to the bottom. The water was then reintroduced into the river. The basins were dredged, and the process repeated. The project lasted ten years, but by the time it was finished, the Schuylkill River was rehabilitated; in the decades since, fish and insects have repopulated the river, pressing their way back upstream.
With the project complete, these desilting basins were no longer needed. The land then sat, turned over to various landholders alongside the river. Valley Forge National Historical Park contains one such basin, and other dot the map as the river wends its way through the south-eastern Pennsylvania landscape. Black Rock Wildlife Sanctuary is one such basin. The land was obtained by Chester County, and in 1999 the transformation from abandoned basin to thriving wetlands ecosystem was begun.
This is the story of Black Rock Sanctuary – one of success, but also one of warning. It was human industry that lead to the need to create the basin on which this sanctuary is built. Nature parks and wildlife sanctuaries are an important part of keeping our planet, and the various cycles that sustain it, healthy; however, it should not take an environment clean-up to create such a sanctuary. Preventative maintenance is cheaper than reactive repairs, be they automotive, home, health, or ecological. In other words, it is nice that Black Rock Sanctuary exists and the Schuylkill river was cleaned up, but it shouldn’t have gotten that way in the first place.
This is why it caught my eye that a proposal circulating through Congress, one to repeal an Obama-era regulation that restricts dumping mining debris into streams, caught my eye. This particular rule was enacted late in 2016, so it was not in response to what happened to the Schuylkill river, but it is strongly related. I haven’t looked into the details of the rule – although it seems to provide clarification on a 1977 law – but it is not so much whether this rule directly impacts the Schuylkill river as it is what dismantling these environmental regulations portends. The Schuylkill river caught fire at least once, in 1892. More famously, the Cuyahoga river in Ohio caught fire thirteen separate times, the last instance in 1968 leading to the creation of modern environmental standards. Rolling back this one regulation – one that has not been on the books for very long – might not be a big deal in the long term, but it helps set the mindset that we don’t need environmental standards. That companies will police themselves, or that they will fail on the open market when people boycott them for their defiling of the environment.
We’ve seen this before; it is easy for companies to hide their practices. Assuming they will bend to market forces is not a good approach. Even today, companies hide how their products are made; we know that our smartphones are made with cheap offshore labor under poor working conditions, but that doesn’t stop us from buying them. Companies do not police themselves; there are routine reports of companies facing sanctions for failing to police themselves. Regulations are what make our communities safer, healthier, and more pleasant. Can they be less complex and easier to follow? Certainly. But that does not mean that they should be removed. From environmental regulations to building codes, these regulations exist for reasons.
And so when this one regulation is rescinded, it might not be cause for concern. But when a proposal to eliminate the entire Environmental Protection Agency is also being put forward – and Florida congressman Matt Gaetz has done just that – we should stop and think. Do we want to go back to a time when our rivers caught fire? When smog clogged our major cities? When our land itself was so saturated with chemicals that it would take years – and a super large amount of funds – to clean up? These agencies, with cumbersome rules and regulations, serve a purpose, and it is to make us think before we act. Regulations are regulators on our impulses, and we must stop to think before we act.