Environmental Challenges

We must preserve a critical refuge among changing climate forces.

Photo: Courtesy Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Climate Change

Natural systems that are functioning at high levels provide greater protection against climate change. The ability of healthy forests to absorb carbon, reduce temperatures, or absorb storm water can help communities avoid extreme impacts. Climate plays a significant role in local conditions, such as growing seasons, habitat quality, energy costs, tourism and recreational activities.

Increased frequency of wildfires, blowdowns, and other natural disturbances will create challenges for public safety operations. A longer recreational season will result in increased visitor impact on natural resources and increased stress on ecosystem components. Extremely hot days during the summer may result in some parks exceeding visitor capacity, turning visitors away or closing. Milder winters will lead to less winter recreation activities such as ice fishing, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing.

Very heavy precipitation and flooding have increased significantly in Pennsylvania and that is expected to continue. Infrastructure at risk includes dams, roads and bridges, historic and cultural resources, and buildings. Extreme rain events can also affect groundwater supply and reduce water quality below public thresholds for recreation use. Flooding may also lead to closing of recreational facilities, cause lakeshore and streambank erosion and sedimentation, and increased water treatment costs.

The effects of climate change—influenced by land management activities, forest health, and tree productivity—are reducing the ability of forest ecosystems to absorb and sequester carbon emissions, which can diminish air quality in the future.

Land Use

Land use has a significant impact on environmental and economic health. Flooding, impaired water quality, and biological diversity decline are tied to decisions that promote or permit sprawl, development in riparian areas, and forest fragmentation.

Pennsylvanians have consumed more land per person than any other state. Sprawl accelerates the fragmentation and depletion of forests, wetlands, and other open areas where cost-free natural system services occur and this contributes to the loss of critical habitat. Commercial and industrial development, farms, and open land generate more revenue than they require in services. In a review of 98 communities across 21 states, researchers found that, for every dollar received from residential development revenues, an average of $1.08 was spent to provide services like roads and schools.


Water is an invaluable resource that provides numerous benefits. It is critically connected to natural system services and recreation activities and provides some of the highest value to the community. Water supply and quality are highly dependent on local environmental conditions. Under natural conditions, services are provided with minimal costs.

Water resources—consisting of groundwater, surface water, headwaters, wetlands, and riparian areas—contribute to the quality of life and local economy by:

  • Providing quality water supplies for residents and business operations.
  • Supporting local ecosystems and wildlife habitats.
  • Absorbing and channeling precipitation to reduce safety hazards and property damage.
  • Providing water from natural sources that are cost effective and reliable compared to centralized systems (US EPA, 2012).

By relying on nature to provide these valuable services, communities can avoid significant financial impact from development, tourism, water treatment, water supply, flood remediation, infestations, air pollution removal, erosion control, outdoor recreation, and healthcare costs (US EPA, 2012). The benefits attributed to water are easily susceptible to degradation due to climate change, overuse, contamination, and other land use-related activities. Without adequate water management, problems arise that can be hazardous, very disruptive and expensive to resolve.


Forests and understory areas are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biological diversity. Forests and woodlands provide significant natural system benefits:

  • Supporting diverse wildlife habitats.
  • Absorbing storm water and nutrients.
  • Buffering winds and climate extremes.
  • Capturing air and water pollutants.
  • Supporting numerous recreation activities.

Finding ways to protect or expand the forests, and interconnect them with riparian corridors or upland corridors, is essential for ensuring a healthy environment.

As with other natural resources, forests and woodlands are susceptible to impacts that can reduce the benefits or values they provide. While past concerns, such as over-harvesting from logging, have improved with conservation practices, additional concerns remain. Encroachments have increased—fragmenting forested areas. Healthy forests also are threatened by the introduction of invasive species and disease. Conservation opportunities exist to help maintain forests and preserve their ecological benefits.


Pennsylvania as a region is getting wetter and warmer. In the last century, the temperature in Pennsylvania has increased 1.8°F and is expected to warm another 5.4°F by 2050 (PA DCNR, 2018). Residents will see many more days above 90°F by mid-century compared to 2000. Temperature increases may result in lower lake levels due to increased evapotranspiration, the potential for drought conditions, and a reduction in available outdoor water-based recreation. Higher water temperatures can also lead to changes in water composition, potentially resulting in a reduction or shift of keystone species. Milder winters can also lead to fewer winter recreation activities, such as ice fishing, snowmobiling, and skiing.

Air Quality

Forest ecosystems absorb and sequester a significant portion of U.S. carbon emissions, but that capability is influenced by land management activities, forest health, tree productivity, and the ability of forests to adapt to climate change.

Biodiversity and Wildlife

Open space is where the major natural system processes exist. Native plants control local biological diversity and are the foundation for all life. They help drive natural system services like photosynthesis, pest control, pollination, erosion control, soil formation, water purification, and the generation of oxygen and clean air. Biological diversity helps buffer extreme weather events such as droughts and floods. It recycles nutrients, chemicals, and garbage. Biological diversity even maintains the base flow, width, water quality, and temperature of streams. It also removes carbon from the air and sequesters it, which helps mitigate climate change (Nowak, 2006). Tallamy (2007) points out that native plants support 29 times more biological diversity than non-native plants.

Since 1970, over 29% of the bird population of North America has decreased due to habitat loss and forest fragmentation. Birds are a good indicator of ecological health. As bird populations decline, so does the health of the ecosystem and the natural system services it provides. Biodiversity loss and disruption of natural wildlife habitat are among the United States and Pennsylvania’s greatest conservation challenges.

Threats to habitat involve land use change, introduction of invasive species (such as the Emerald Ash Borer), and effects of climate change that can remove, fragment, isolate, or stress healthy ecosystems. Native species composition is expected to change—as some decline, increase, hybridize, and move up from the south—which will alter native ecosystems, diminish resilience to change, reduce species diversity, and increase the potential for species decline (PA DCNR, 2018). To confront these changes, it will be important to develop effective conservation strategies using information on habitat conditions, types of threats, and ways to mitigate negative impacts.


Several studies show that outdoor recreation plays a significant role in the lives of Americans. It provides physical challenges and a sense of well-being, helps develop lifelong skills, provokes interest and inquiry, inspires wonder and awe of the natural world, and provides an alternative to daily routines. Recreation contributes greatly to the physical, mental, and spiritual health of individuals while bonding family and friends.

Howard Frumkin and Richard Louv’s research on contact with nature suggests that children and adults benefit so much from contact with nature that land conservation can now be viewed as a public health strategy. Health care providers are increasingly advising patients and the public to increase outdoor physical activity to improve and maintain health.

According to the latest Pennsylvania’s Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, demand for outdoor recreation has been increasing by at least 3.1% per year for the past several years (PA DCNR, 2021). A 2019 poll indicates that nine out of 10 Pennsylvanians participated in at least some outdoor recreation activity in the past year.

As the outdoor recreation industry grows, so too do the demands on recreation facilities and operations. And, as temperature increases, hotter summers may increase demand for water-based recreation and at the same time, result in lower lake levels due to increased evapotranspiration and the potential for drought conditions. The potential inability to sustain normal water levels during the peak recreation season could impact boating, swimming, fishing, marinas, and white-water rafting.

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