Three gents, who care deeply about the place, are taking us on a hike today, into the woodlands of Oregon Ridge Park in Baltimore County. They want us to see what they consider a problem in the hilltop forest: Not enough oaks, too many deer; not enough birds, too many thorns.
Now, you say, that’s fine, and it might even be interesting. But don’t we have much bigger problems?
The big picture — I mean, the really big picture — is that the planet is in trouble, and we, that is, the 8 billion of us who inhabit Earth, are not doing enough to slow climate change. The three main greenhouse gasses (methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide) have hit record levels in the atmosphere, according to the United Nations, and that’s more bad news.
So what difference does it make that, here in Oregon Ridge Park, tulip poplars are growing thick where there should be oaks?
And is the spread of porcelain berry really something to worry about?
I had to weigh those questions as I set out on a hike last Sunday with Marty Brazeau, Ralph Brown and Keith Rosenstiel, good friends of the forest at Oregon Ridge and keen on making us aware of a 20-year master plan being developed for the popular park. The public needs to know and get involved, they say.
Of course, if you’re a pessimist, you think none of this matters. Down here on the ground — that is, where most of us live, work and play — the planet’s big troubles certainly seem way beyond our control.
But we can’t surrender.
Recycling the things we once threw away, driving fuel-efficient cars or going electric or taking the bus or train, eating less red meat, voting only for politicians who support efforts to slow climate change — if we don’t do those things, at the least, then we’re slowly burning the next generation’s future.
So we’re taking a hike to the forested hilltop to see what’s up with the trees of Oregon Ridge.
In doing so, we affirm a belief in the future despite the gloom that rolls in every time the U.N. releases a dire warning about the planet.
We put it aside. We focus on what’s before us.
Oregon Ridge is a treasure, and lots of people obviously care about it. We were there on a soggy, humid day after rain, and the flow of people out for a hike on the park’s badly eroded trails was impressive.
Brazeau is a longtime birder. Brown is a retired pediatrician who serves as president of the Oregon Ridge Nature Center Council. Rosenstiel is a neighbor of the 1,043-acre park and hikes through it frequently.
Their main issue: The ecology of Oregon Ridge — specifically, the forest, the crowning glory of the park — needs to be better managed. “The park needs to hire at least two full-time natural resource managers,” Brazeau says, and then points to numerous reasons why, starting with the trees.
Some logging took place in Oregon Ridge a few years ago. Large trees — white, red, black and chestnut oaks — were cut and hauled away.
After the thinning of the forest, the plan was to let nature take its course — that is, when acorns dropped from the remaining oaks, new oaks would sprout.
Sounds logical. But, says Brazeau, that plan didn’t allow for a significant factor — the large number of deer that visit the park to forage for food. Deer eat acorns. Almost all the acorns.
So, over the last six to seven years, instead of oaks, the forest has become thick with fast-growing tulip poplars — so thick in places that you would need to bushwhack your way through. This happened because deer have no interest in eating the seeds of tulip trees.
“They prefer acorns,” says Brazeau.
Tulip poplars are not the ideal replacement for oaks. Oaks attract all kinds of insect life — dozens of species of caterpillars that provide food for 96% of the songbirds in the Baltimore region, according to Brazeau’s research.
So there are too many deer — even with managed hunts for them — and not enough oaks.
Additionally, our guides point out, with additional sunlight entering the forest after the cutting, invasive plants grew and filled the understory — thorny multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, wineberry, porcelain berry.
In other places, the forest floor is bare from where deer have eaten all the native plants.
If Oregon Ridge is to return to its historic best, with a balanced ecology, then all of these issues need to be addressed and managed by people who understand how one relates to another. “The lessons taught to the public by the restoration of the park’s lands are vitally needed today,” says Brown. “We want the park to serve as an example of responsible land stewardship.”
You can sense the interconnectedness of life in a healthy forest, sense its absence when something is out of whack. It’s not always noticeable, especially if you’re just passing through. In fact, an invasive plant that crowds out or overwhelms natives might look beautiful to the beholder.
But it seems to me that an effort to restore what lived in Oregon Ridge before us, long ago, is a worthwhile one.
We need to fix the planet, the global atmosphere high above us. We should also fix and preserve what’s right before us, all of it.