Nature from a cage
A rambling by Tom Knapp,
August 1994

One of the greatest treasures of city and suburban dwellers is the proximity of public lands that preserve and provide access to natural settings.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems like the public should under no circumstances be allowed to use them. A prime example can be seen at Governor Dick in Pennsylvania's Mount Gretna woodlands.

Gov. Dick is a 66-foot-high tower standing above more than 1,000 acres of woodland. The land was deeded to the former Mount Joy School District, now Donegal, in 1954 to be "maintained and preserved forever as a playground and public park."

It's a great place for hiking -- just one mile to the tower on a rocky, winding trail, with several steeper side trails for explorers seeking a more challenging walk. On a clear day, the view from the tower includes parts of Lancaster, Lebanon, York, Dauphin and Berks counties above the forest's leafy canopy.

Donegal superintendent Woodrow Sites said the park is enjoyed by at least 300 people each week. The number is probably much higher, he said, but the district has no way to keep an accurate count.

Sadly, a heartless few are doing their best to ruin it for everyone else.

The bottom 10 feet or so of the tower's concrete exterior and almost every inch of the interior is covered in graffiti. For some reason, people -- particularly couples -- feel a need to record for posterity their presence there.

Although Sites said district personnel work to keep the site clear of litter, it is rare to visit the tower and not see heaps of trash around its base. There are several wastecans in the clearing, but some people just can't carry their empty bottles, cans, wrappers and, yes, even condoms that far.

Oddly, the rules hung on trees throughout the park include a "no smoking" mandate, presumably to prevent forest fires, but there is no posted ban against alcohol. Perhaps such a sanction would cut down on the beer cans and broken bottles that litter the site. Then again, whose to say anyone would listen to the rules anyway?

Perhaps the final insult to people who grew up with Gov. Dick is its new hat: a large, round cage completely enclosing the top. Sites said the cage was added for liability reasons, largely to stop people from rappelling from the tower and to prevent people from falling or jumping.

Lancaster County officials in 1990 ordered a fence built at nearby Chickies Rock, outside Columbia, to reduce the risk of falling from the popular promontory, but that barricade was built low so that it would not obstruct the view. The tower's cage is glaringly obtrusive.

If you want to know how it feels to be an animal in a zoo, by all means climb the tower. Look at the world through the bars of a cage, and see the scenery marred by black, vertical stripes.

One observer said the "birdcage" is almost as much a Mount Gretna tragedy as the recent collapse of the old Chautauqua Playhouse -- a historical and architectural treasure -- under tons of snow.

Then again, perhaps it is all too appropriate that people who come to Gov. Dick must look at nature from the inside of a cage. At least from in there, they can do little harm.

[ by Tom Knapp ]