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Help the Schuylkill Center Restore Pine Grove

Natural Selections: Help the Schuylkill Center Restore Pine Grove

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On June 3, a derecho - a supercell thunderstorm and a kind of storm we have only recently been experiencing - plowed through Roxborough and the Schuylkill Center. It downed trees and wires everywhere, blacking out a big section of our community (and the region), and even tragically killing a Roxborough woman when a tree fell on her car on Belmont Avenue.

It really creamed the Schuylkill Center. Trees and branches in our 340-acre campus fell everywhere, luckily avoiding most buildings with the exception of our crushed greenhouse. We were forced to close our trails for about two weeks as we made sure they were safe, that no hikers would be hurt by falling limbs.

But we only opened Pine Grove last week, as that area took a horrible beating, and it took our beleaguered facilities staff six weeks to ensure the site’s safety.

Pine Grove is easily one of the most beloved features in our forest, a densely shaded grove of white and Virgina pines planted in the 1970s. Now fully grown, these mature trees in close quarters provide a soft cushion of pine needles underfoot, and the dark evergreen forest is simply magical-- and cooler. Especially in this heat wave. Kids love to climb in the trees’ many branches and build forts from fallen limbs, while their parents just love to inhale the calming scent.

Sadly, that derecho sliced through Pine Grove like a knife cutting butter, a straight-line of trunks tumbling to the ground, more than 20 trunks snapping off and piled unceremoniously on the ground– and each other. One fell on a young pine we planted only two springs ago, squashing it like a bug. It looked as though a giant was playing pick-up-sticks with our grove. The giant won; our trees lost.

In the time since, our staff has been trying to make order out of this incredible chaos, piling up the trunks over here, and two huge collections of branches over there. Meanwhile, they have wrapped caution tape around these piles to exhort our visitors not to play on the dangerously unstable piles. The soft rug of pine needles is now buried beneath a layer of thousands of twigs and branches, as the trees were really rocked by the storm.

Walking through the grove, I want to cry.

But you can help. The Schuylkill Center has started a fund to restore the grove, as we have so much work to do removing branches and trunks while planting new trees in the canopy gaps now present there. On our organization's website,, you can find in the rotating photographs on our home page a link to the Pine Grove Fund. Please consider donating to the grove’s restoration to help us bring back this unique feature of our campus.

Interestingly, the grove was planted in the 1970s by our founding executive director, Dick James, who many people still remember fondly, though he retired almost 30 years ago after more than 30 years of service. Dick planted the grove as a fundraising experiment; could he harvest the grove and sell the trees as a way to earn the capital every nonprofit needs to function? Some pine weevils had other thoughts; they ate the terminal buds that allow pines to grow straight and true, so many of our trees became multi-stemmed and misshapen, at least from a lumberman’s point of view. Never harvested, the trees became the most beloved part of our trail system.

If you’ve not been to Pine Grove, and you know you’d like to now, it’s easy to find. Though our main driveway is still closed-- we look to open soon-- visitors are welcome to park in the Hagy’s Mill Road lot just off that street, between Port Royal and our main entrance. Park in that small lot, and walk into the trails past our large trail map sign. The grove will be only a few yards down the trail on the right. Can’t miss it.

And studies do confirm that the scent that gives pine its distinctive odor, a chemical named pinene, lowers the blood pressure of people who smell it. In fact, in one study, Japanese newborn infants were allowed to breathe pine scent in their hospital nursery. Though they had not yet ever been outside, the pinene worked, calming them-- they chilled out; we are hard-wired to respond to pine. So in these COVID-addled stressful days, take a walk in our Pine Grove. Then donate to our campaign to restore the grove. Love to have your help.

And we’d love to restore it to what it once looked like. But that will take years.

Oh, about that derecho: It’s a line of intense, widespread, and fast-moving windstorms, often thunderstorms, that moves a great distance. That one rolled 250 miles from midstate to the Jersey shore, where a gust was clocked at 92 mph, hurricane force. As I wrote back in June, while no one storm event can be pinned on climate change, a warming climate increases the chances for large storm events. And if you remember, that same night brought an intense thunderstorm featuring at least an hour of continuous rolling thunder, as if hundreds of planes were buzzing overhead. I don’t remember ever hearing a storm like that before. So TWO weather oddities in only one day.

What we saw that day was weird, excessive, and pointed to large amounts of heat in the atmosphere in what was then early June, before this heat wave. For me, that derecho was spawned by climate change, a stark reminder that, with power outages, people killed, and houses, cars, and trees damaged, the price tag for ignoring the climate crisis is steep..

... And only rising.

Given that any tree we plant in Pine Grove will capture carbon for years to come, any contribution you make to the fund will play a very small role in combating the climate scourge. Hope you’ll contribute - and thank you if you do.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at


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