Three Governor Dick Park board members presented a report to the Lebanon County Commissioners on Wednesday, Aug. 16, that was based on questions posed by the Friends of Governor Dick organization at a public meeting before the commissioners last April.

Read More: Environmental group airs concerns about Gov. Dick Park to county commissioners

During the workshop session with the county commissioners and before a packed meeting room, park board members Raymond Bender, who is also board president; Dr. Douglas Becker, who is also a Lebanon Valley College assistant professor of biology; and David “Chip” Brightbill each covered portions of their presentation to the commissioners during the nearly two-hour meeting.

Bender offered opening comments in response to some of the group’s questions and concerns, Becker gave a PowerPoint presentation highlighting current park management practices, and Brightill covered the park’s history. Brightbill also provided a 43-page report highlighting the park’s history to both the commissioners and the press. A fourth board member in attendance, Tom Harlan, did not offer any comments.

Bender led the discussion by referring to a comment by Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz at the April meeting that she believed some of the issues presented by the Friends fell outside the scope of the park board’s jurisdiction. Bender confirmed those prior suspicions as being accurate.

“Some of the requests would require, most likely, action by the Lebanon County Court to implement them,” said Bender. “Those would include a conservation easement, some kind of conservancy dedication, possibly old-growth forest designation and term limits on the board.”

Other issues regarding budgetary or policy issues that the commissioners could address concerned the creation of a county parks and recreation department.

“It could have broad-ranging aspects for the county if you would decide to move in that direction,” said Bender. “I would note that, as someone who was with the county for over 40 years, that experiment was tried in the late ’60s, early ’70s.”

Bender added there was a city/county recreation board with joint funding to pay professional staff. However, the county ended the relationship two years later since it had a greater financial responsibility than the city, according to Bender. He also noted the county is permitted to create a parks recreation board but not required as part of commonwealth law in the county codes. 

Litz responded by questioning past actions versus what’s acting in the best interest of the future. 

“To bring up there was a board and it wasn’t cost-effective, what year was it that the board also said the rail trail was also unnecessary, so they sold a piece of the rail?,” asked Litz. “Sometimes, decisions of the past are not what we would like to see in the future. I personally support a parks and rec board is what I am getting at. I just think it needs more exploration.”

Bender told Litz he wasn’t speaking to the positives or negatives of a county-administered parks and recreation board, just giving a reminder that there are significant policy and budgetary concerns that accompany having one.

Bender also addressed board terms, saying the friends’ presentation last April would lead one to believe that those elected to it are given terms that are “moribund.”

“In fact, there are only two of the six board members that remain from the original board appointed by the court, and that’s Tom Harlan and Dave Eichler,” said Bender. “All of the other seats have turned over once and at least in one case, twice. Two of the seats are very recent: Dr. Becker and Mr. Brightbill.” 

Bender added the commissioners control the terms, which are set at three-year intervals.

“If you would decide somebody has been on the board too long, you could easily move them aside in favor of someone else or if you feel somebody else deserves to be on the board because of the work they’re doing there, you have the ability now to do it. Term limits take that control out of your hands, and I really don’t see the advantage with you already having the ability if you felt you wanted to limit terms, to do it administratively,” added Bender.

The county commissioners, however, do not, as a general practice, vet board appointments or reappointments for this board or any others under its jurisdiction. 

At its June 1 meeting, LebTown asked the commissioners – when Bender and Harrison “Harry” Diehl were recommended by the park board and approved for reappointment with new three-year terms by the commissioners – who makes the decision concerning reappointment. Chairman Bob Phillips said the park board forwards its recommendation to the commissioners who then vote on that particular recommendation. 

Commissioner Mike Kuhn noted at that same meeting that’s the process by which all boards within Lebanon County function.

Bender said the reappointment of board members works differently than the appointment process. Interviews are conducted to fill vacancies, with about seven or eight people being interviewed for the board vacancy filled by Becker.

The names of those wishing to be reappointed, however, are forwarded to the commissioners for a vote, meaning any individual wishing to serve on the board will only be considered once a vacancy becomes available.

Brightbill said the commissioners could decide to add board members to the current configuration of six.

“They could add one to make it seven or two or three or whatever they want. The second thing is they can say no. When my term ends and it comes up, they could say, ‘No, let’s push Brightbill aside and the (park) board will do that,’” added Brightbill.

Bender said during the last two officer terms the board has taken it upon itself to do all of the interviewing, to which Phillips responded that’s how the county’s relationship with all other county boards works as well. 

Asked by another member of the press if they were opposed to expanding the park board, Bender said he opposes expansion, adding the larger a board gets, the more likely you are to have “mixed quorums.” 

Another topic of concern involved questions about the installation of a security system around the base of the tower.

“That was not conceived by the board,” said Bender. “It was conceived by first responders as led by retired Chief Bruce Harris of the Cornwall Borough Police Department. Chief Harris went out of his way and talked to legislative people and political people and came up with $250,000 of a budget-line (item) out of the state house.”

Bender and Brightbill explained that Harris worked with a security firm and other entities and approached former state Senator Frank Ryan about funding. Harris had concerns about trespassers at night, vandalism and the use of the park as a place to consume illicit drugs that, in at least one incident, led to an overdose. Bender noted the county’s new 911 center, when operational, will monitor activities at the park via the security cameras that were installed around the park’s tower.

“I gave you the article from 1955 and Clarence rails about the lack of security. It’s been a problem since the very beginning,” said Brightbill. “In getting the state funding, Senator Ryan did something that no other prior legislator has done, ever: and that is he not only got us a $250,000 grant but when we needed extra money, he got us the extra money and he threw in $5,000 of his own.”

During his slide presentation, Becker said the park board is charged with not only the present health of the 1,105 acres at Governor Dick but also ensuring it for perpetuity. He noted that climate change, invasive species, and an abundance of deer currently risk the long-term vitality of the forest.  

“If you look at the park, we have too many deer,” said Becker. “I’ve seen them browse at things that are unpalatable. When they’re hungry, they’re going to eat everything. That’s why you don’t see a lot of green in the understory and when you do, it is a lot of things they won’t eat.”

While saying that it is “unfortunate that we can’t have hunting on the property,” Becker also acknowledged that it would be “the primary way to sort of keep the deer population in check.”

Although he didn’t express why the board can’t have a hunt, hunting has been permitted in the park in the past – and even encouraged by Harlan, who told Lancaster Newspapers in 2005 that “knocking down the deer population is absolutely critical in the long run because there is no understory.”

Becker also addressed a previous comment by Friends about efforts to cull the deer. 

“The question is you cull the deer, you’re only culling here, and there are deer all around the park, so they’re just going to come back in,” said Becker. “I mean, long-term, deer are a problem that just sort of has – they’re there, I don’t see any real solution. So, we’re trying to find ways to regenerate…” 

Becker said that while the health of the forest is currently considered to be good, a plethora of environmental changes dictate a need for certain management practices to occur. He noted tree diseases, the arrival of invasive species and drought conditions caused by climate change as being detrimental to the forest.

“As I mentioned, the present-day forest is relatively healthy – there are some concerns, there are diseases, but the current forest is in pretty good shape,” said Becker. “The question, though, what about the future forest, and I think that’s where we get into the forest not being healthy. While the overstory is great right now, it originated in conditions that no longer exist.”

Those changing conditions are impacting the ability of the forest to regenerate, added Becker.

“As you look at the understory, we simply don’t have enough of an understory to sustain the present forest and its diversity,” said Becker. “So we not only want a forest, but we want a diverse forest.”

A lack of a healthy understory has contributed to the emergence of invasive species, the presence of unwanted shrubs and trees and less diversity with tree seedlings – specifically too few conifers and oaks.

“One of our goals is to reintroduce some type of conifer to provide some shelter, some food sources and think about the winter and how that can provide shelter for wildlife, so we are trying to reintroduce conifers,” said Becker, “and sustain and keep oaks in the park.”     

Becker rhetorically asked what would happen if the park board choose to do no management of the forest.

“There’s going to be a slow and gradual decline in both the health and the diversity of the structure of the forest,” said Becker. “Lightning strikes, wind storms, disease. Eventually, those older trees are going to die one at a time, and what’s there to replace them? So we’re going to lose species composition, we’re going to lose structure, and there’s not going to be a replacement in the overstory.”

No matter how long that process would take, the end result is a less-healthy forest because the forest would be less resilient to climate change and disease, Becker added.

“There’s a greater risk that something comes in and wipes out a large swath of it,” said Becker. “All of the trees are the same age and same species and when the disease comes in, well, now it is going to wipe out a lot of the trees versus if you have a lot of different trees and you might lose this tree but you have a lot of other species that are there.”

He added that these factors are why he believes it is not in the best interest of the long-term health of the forest to do nothing.

That led to an overview of current forest management as written in the park’s 10-year stewardship plan, which is set to expire in two years. Current management goals include: 

  1. Selective tree harvesting
  2. Use of herbicides to suppress invasive plants
  3. Fencing of harvested areas
  4. Planting desirable tree seedlings
  5. Removing the fencing once the understory is established and tall enough to avoid deer herbivory
  6. Treating invasive species as needed

Becker highlighted the last three harvests that occurred over the past 18 years, totaling 180 acres. He said the only clear-cut was the 6.4-acre Tower View Harvest that was conducted adjacent to the tower to improve the view. The goal was to establish a meadow that contains shrubs and plant life that’s conducive to creating a “different kind of environment” to preserve in perpetuity the views from the top of the tower.

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Concerning park management, the use of herbicides and Round-Up within the park is one of the friends’ major concerns since wells in the park supply water to Mount Gretna Borough. Becker said two ounces of the herbicide called Terbicil and two quarts of Round-Up are generally what’s used to control invasive plants.

“You only need them in larger quantities across the forest during the first two years and then by localized areas with what is known as the hot spot approach,” said Becker. “Once regeneration is established and they’ve taken to light, you don’t need herbicides any longer. At that point, the established generation will exclude invasives from that stand.”

Brightbill said there were three points he wanted to make. 

“I believe the issue here is not what anyone of us personally wants for Governor Dick, rather what Clarence Schock wanted,” said Brightbill. “That was one of the big changes when we were appointed trustee is that the prior trustee, Donegal (school district), didn’t care what Clarence Schock wanted.”

Brightbill added what Schock wanted: “a playground and a park in a forest setting, and I really think it is that simple. There’s nothing in his writings where he talks about conservation, habitat, ecological diversity, the kinds of things that are addressed here that we have to address to keep a forest.”

Brightbill’s next comment raised the eyebrows of a number of attendees who were sitting in the back of the room.

“If you decide, ‘gee, we don’t want to be a trustee, we don’t want this room full of people again, we don’t want to have to put up with this, you know, we’re tired of this,’” said Brightbill. “I would suggest, then, that you resign as trustee, which you can do by going down to the prothonotary’s office and signing a paper and then let the court decide who they’re going to appoint as a new trustee.”

He added he hoped that they would choose to remain as park trustees, but it was ultimately their decision. 

He said the third point was the most important one. 

“If the board is no longer in existence, that money does not go to Governor Dick, that money goes back to Lancaster to fund scholarships…” said Brightbill. “So that money would be lost in terms in providing benefit. Changing this now would be complex and there are risks associated with it.”  

After giving the highlights of the park’s history, Brightbill further expressed his desire for the county to continue its role as trustee. “I’d like to see the county continue as a board, the board needs to continue in order to receive the benefit of that trust fund, but I believe that’s what Clarence wanted,” said Brightbill. 

During public comment, Ryan Fretz, president of the Friends of Governor Dick, presented a copy of a book titled, Finding the Mother Tree, which highlights the interconnectivity of the forest ecosystem, adding that the leading edge of scientific research has demonstrated that trees share information and resources with one another.

Fretz also informed the commissioners that his group is not asking for the forest to remain unmanaged, but does question harvesting trees since the person who wrote the stewardship plan is compensated when trees are harvested. 

A few other public comments were also presented the next morning at the bi-weekly meeting of the commissioners and can be read here

Read More: Commissioners conduct county business while also listening to local concerns

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...