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A Significant Milestone for the Lehigh River and Its Watershed, By Tom Kerr, Wildlands Conservancy

On 5 February 2005, the Lehigh River was placed on the Pennsylvania Rivers Conservation Registry. Surely one of the river’s most significant milestones, this achievement has great implications for its future.

The process began with three years of intensive and detailed research and analysis to create a comprehensive, 600-page guidebook entitled the Lehigh River Watershed Conservation Management Plan.

Wildlands Conservancy completed the study, and then petitioned the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to place the river on the state’s registry of rivers.

The purpose of the Lehigh River Watershed Conservation Management Plan is to: identify the cultural, natural, biological, historical, and recreational resources of the watershed; identify problems; seek solutions; and list recommendations for the preservation, protection, and enhancement of the Lehigh River and its watershed.

The listing of the entire 1,345-square-mile watershed on the state’s registry makes improvement, acquisition, and planning projects enumerated in the management plan eligible for funding from the state.

Of course, many more dollars than the state alone can provide will be needed to complete these projects. When the state invests in its resources, the decision makers like to do so in a planful manner, and it’s often done on a watershed basis.

The management plan creates a watershed-based course of action. As such, it is the lens through which the state and others look when making funding decisions. The completion of the plan and the placement of the river on the registry proclaim the Lehigh Rivers’ readiness for engagement.

The Lehigh River Watershed Conservation Management Plan lists eight broad goals:

· Protect and preserve cultural and historical resources;

· Improve water quality in the watershed;

· Protect significant and valuable land components;

· Protect biological resources;

· Increase and enhance watershed recreational opportunities;

· Promote municipal watershed stewardship;

· Promote environmental awareness, knowledge, skills, support, and stewardship commitment; and

· Monitor and update watershed resource information on a continuing basis.

Wildlands Conservancy is also ready for engagement. Following the progression from planning to action, Wildlands Conservancy’s board of directors recently adopted a five-year strategic plan that includes these seven general goals.

In addition to these goals, the organization will continue its existing programs, as well as be selectively responsive to ideas and energies that emerge from whatever source.

· Shelter 7,750 acres of high-priority lands within the Lehigh Valley, Lehigh River watershed, and beyond.

· Reduce abandoned mine drainage impacts to the Lehigh River by 50 percent.

· Restore, preserve, and enhance five miles of stream corridors on the Monocacy, Little Lehigh, and Jordan creeks, as well as other high-priority watersheds.

· Make environmental-education opportunities available to every K-12 student in the Lehigh Valley and the Lehigh River watershed. Engage 75,000 students in our education programming over the next five years.

· Implement ten projects utilizing Best Management Practices (BMPs), native plants, and educational signage that promote environmental stewardship on the Conservancy’s sanctuaries and preserves.

· Expand the recreational open spaces in the region by establishing two linking trails, one greenway, four river accesses, and multiple programs.

· Work to inform the residents of the region about the organization’s mission, its breadth of programs, and the services it can provide to the community. Motivate them to support the organization and to utilize those services.

The Conservancy has already begun and/or completed a number of “early-implementation” projects listed in the management plan and our strategic plan. Below are just a few of our most recent projects. There are many more in process.

· Produced the State of the Lehigh River Report – Functioning largely as the “executive summary” of the much larger Lehigh River Watershed Conservation Management Plan, this attractive and highly readable report summarizes the findings and recommendations of the larger plan. It has been distributed freely throughout the region.

· Established the Lehigh River Water Trail – Twenty officially designated access points along 72 miles of the Lehigh River from White Haven to Easton were identified, mapped, photographed, and marked with signs. With the help of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, two physical maps were created depicting the river. The maps are tied to an interactive website that reveals substantial detail about access points, directions, dams, rapids, restrooms, and much more.

· Completed the Lausanne Tunnel Abandoned Mine Drainage Remediation Project – Last summer, we completed the construction of a special wetland at the mouth of the 24,000-foot Lausanne Tunnel on the Nesquehoning Creek near Jim Thorpe. The 1½-acre wetland consists of two ponds that passively treat about 4,000 gallons per minute of contaminated mine water emanating from the tunnel before it flows into the Lehigh River. When the process is fully functional (it needs another growing season for the plants to mature), it will substantially reduce the effect of a daily load of approximately 300 pounds of aluminum, 300 pounds of manganese, 40,000 pounds of sulfate, and 500 pounds of iron.

· Opened the Lehigh River Watershed Exhibit Center – Housed in the Conservancy’s Trexler Environmental Education Center at the Pool Wildlife Sanctuary in Emmaus, this state-of-the-art exhibit is comprised of a dozen displays and hands-on activities depicting and demonstrating the diversity of the Lehigh River watershed. The focus of the exhibits is to foster knowledge about the properties of water and the importance of sound watershed-management practices.

· Sheltered 829 acres of natural areas in the watershed – Nearly 780 acres located in Nesquehoning Township, Carbon County lies next to other land protected through the Carbon County Agricultural Land Preservation Program. It is also in close proximity to the Lehigh River, State Gamelands #141, Glen Onoko Falls, Lehigh Gorge State Park, Carbon County’s Mauch Chunk Lake Park, and Nesquehoning Mountain. Another tract is comprised of four contiguous parcels totaling nearly 49 acres, which includes several hundred feet of Lehigh River shoreline. Both parcels have high conservation values.

For most of its 32 years, Wildlands Conservancy has been seen as the principal environmental organization of the Lehigh Valley. The organization’s proactive and progressive agenda has spawned significant accomplishments. The Conservancy and its many collaborative partners have a clear understanding of what is needed to protect the quality of place in the Lehigh Valley and the Lehigh River watershed. The Conservancy will continue to work with others in the state and in the nation in the preservation, protection, and enhancement of our land, water, ecological, and recreation resources.

Here are a few of the Lehigh River’s most significant milestones:

· the transfer of ownership and control of the river to the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company by the state in 1827 in exchange for the company’s agreement to build the famous navigation system along the river’s shoreline;

· the destruction of the Upper Grand Section of the Lehigh Navigation in the Flood of 1862;

· the construction, in 1961, of the Francis E. Walter Dam to prevent flooding in the Lehigh Valley;

· the return of the river to public ownership in 1966 advanced in the Pennsylvania Legislature by Representative Samuel W. Frank of Allentown;

· the creation of Lehigh Gorge State Park in 1980;

· the designation of a 64-mile section of the upper river as a Pennsylvania State Scenic River in 1982;

· the establishment, in 1988, of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor; and

· placement of the river on the Pennsylvania Rivers Conservation Registry in 2005.

Tom Kerr is President of the Wildlands Conservancy.


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