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Retired teacher’s book aims to preserve a snapshot of Westmoreland’s natural areas

Patrick Varine
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Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Dick Byers of Stahlstown uses his binoculars to observe birds with the Bushy Run bird count circle on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016 along the Beaver Run Reservoir.
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Dick Byers of Stahlstown loves nature.

The 81-year-old retired biology teacher has been enjoying the natural areas of Westmoreland County and the surrounding region for decades. And while there are plenty of publications exploring the trails that crisscross the area, Byers was more interested in preserving a snapshot of what nature looks like at this particular point in time.

“As the climate changes, so will the vegetation and animal life,” Byers said. “Every natural area is different. A record of what the area looked like before the changes yet to be, is worth keeping.”

Questions about the early history of the county’s natural areas remain unanswered, “because our early settlers were too busy making a living in the wilderness to take note of the composition of the forests and the extent of the fauna and flora,” he said.

Alongside a group of volunteers, Byers set out to document the natural areas within a 35-mile radius of the city of Greensburg, encompassing 98 distinct locations.

“We tried to describe what the casual visitor most likely would see and listed the more common species, plus a few rare ones for interest,” Byers said.

The authors are primarily self-educated naturalists, and Byers asked them to return to each area a minimum of four times per year.

“Once in every season,” he said, “to note the changes, the lay of the land and the best time of year to visit.”

Byers’ desire is also to preserve a slice of what natural life is currently like.

“These enormous (climate-related) changes in the past 150 years are being called the beginning of a new era, the Anthropocene era, or ‘age of humanity,’” he said, referring to the ongoing debate among scientists as to whether humanity’s impact on the planet has brought Earth in to a new geologic age.

According to the International Union of Geological Sciences , the Earth is currently in the Holocene era, which covers the past 11,700 years.

But regardless of how that debate is ultimately resolved, “humans are causing the extinction of hundreds of animals, upsetting the ecology with animal and plant introductions, polluting the ocean and changing the natural landscape with artificial urban environments,” Byers said. “This book attempts to give the general public some idea of what the woods and fields were like in the early 21st Century.”

It is not intended as a comprehensive scientific survey, he said, but rather as “a general record of what previously lived here before climate change erases the record.”

Byers said he is waiting on a second printing before acquiring a book number and making the book available more widely. A copy can be purchased for $30 by emailing Byers at [email protected] .

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.