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Feature - Western Pennsylvania Land: A Legacy for Future Generations
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Southern Clarion River

In its first 75 years, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy left an important legacy for Western Pennsylvania by permanently protecting some of our most cherished natural places.

In January 2008, WPC heralded its next 75 years with a set of land acquisitions that are the largest in a decade. The 75th Anniversary Acquisitions include several parcels in five counties and permanently protecting 11,300 acres.

The purchases were made possible through a $14 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and $6.5 million from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

They reflect the organization’s steadfast commitment to land conservation – and our belief that this work is more critical than ever in an era confronted by the challenges of poorly planned development and habitat loss for native plants and animals.

The purchases were completed by WPC’s Land Conservation and Stewardship team, which was formed under a new associate vice president, Greg Socha, in late 2007 to focus exclusively on land conservation.

A central operation of WPC since the organization’s founding, land conservation activities have enabled WPC to protect nearly 225,000 acres of natural lands throughout Western Pennsylvania. Many of these acquisitions have become parks, public forests and gamelands, set aside for the enjoyment of people and the protection of natural resources, for all time.

The Land Conservation and Stewardship team is focused on maximizing WPC’s impact in this area – to help safeguard our drinking water sources, provide havens for endangered wildlife, and provide beautiful recreational areas for those who visit the region or call it home.

The Spring issue of Conserve Magazine focuses on WPCs work in land conservation – the latest acquisitions, the most noteworthy projects over the years, and the critical roles that volunteers and partners play in the organization’s success.

Southern Clarion River/Laurel Hill Creek Forest

From the Seneca Point overlook, the Clarion River cuts through a steep-sided valley that is blanketed with trees and continues as far as the eye can see. A walk through the valley’s dense woods reveals oaks, maples, hemlocks, white pines, and occasional chestnuts.

Overhead, a bald eagle may even make a star appearance. The river below is home to trout and smallmouth bass, a boon to anglers and a reflection of the health of this treasured waterway.

This 3,300-acre stretch of secluded land along the Clarion River south of Cooksburg, Pa., called the Southern Clarion River Forest, was further protected in January 2008 by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy as part of our 75th Anniversary Acquisitions. The WPC purchase includes 1,600 acres of land and 1,700 acres of timber rights. Previously a mix of public and private ownership, the land is now completely publicly owned for a variety of recreational uses. It had been identified as a high priority by WPC due to its significant conservation value as well as its scenic beauty.

Also purchased in the first phase of the 75th Anniversary Acquisitions is the Laurel Hill Creek Forest – a 2,300-acre parcel in Somerset County known for its stunning views as well as its conservation significance.

Laurel Hill Creek Forest includes more than three miles of frontage on Laurel Hill Creek, a high-quality fishery and tributary to the Youghiogheny River. Now permanently protected, this land connects to a large forest block, creating a broad swath of uninterrupted forest that shelters native plants and animals. It includes a state-designated exceptional-value stream, Sandy Run.

After the purchase, WPC transferred the majority of acres it protected in this first phase of the 75th Anniversary Acquisitions to The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry. The Southern Clarion River Forest became a part of Clear Creek State Forest, while Laurel Hill Creek Forest has been added to Forbes State Forest. The transfer to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources ensures that these lands will be permanently conserved and available to the public for hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and other outdoor activities.

The purchases are also expected to result in economic benefits – both through boosts to local tourism industries and through increased payments to impacted counties and townships, due to legislatively increased payments in lieu of taxes on lands owned by the Commonwealth.

Bennett Branch Forest

In Elk and Clearfield counties, a 5,300-acre hardwood oak forest presented the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy with a rare conservation opportunity.

This forest, characterized by steep slopes that descend from a high plateau, serves as home to elk, bears, turkey and deer. A network of streams there feeds into the Bennett Branch, an important tributary of Sinnemahoning Creek that has been impacted by acid mine drainage. Once a favorite hunting and recreation area, this property has been closed to the public for more than a decade.

WPC acquired this parcel in February 2008 in the second phase of its 75th Anniversary Acquisitions and named it the Bennett Branch Forest. The purchase gives WPC the chance to restore and sustainably manage this high-priority forest corridor in order to improve water quality, better support native plants and animals – and open the land to the public once again.

“We have the opportunity to conserve this great forest and play a role in improving the watershed in order to protect a complete system,” said Greg Socha, WPC’s associate vice president of land conservation and stewardship.

The Bennett Branch Forest has been a priority conservation target for WPC because of the importance of its watershed, as well its large tracts of forestland and its protected habitats for native animals and plants. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy intends to retain ownership of a portion of this land, 1,470 acres, in order to carry out numerous environmental improvements there.

“We’ve been involved in efforts to restore the Bennett Branch watershed for several years. As a result of the purchase of Bennett Branch Forest, we can launch a multifaceted plan for improvement,” said Socha. Projects there will improve water quality, address land problems related to past mining practices, as well as support reforestation and habitat improvement.

The majority of acres purchased by WPC in this second phase of the 75th Anniversary Acquisitions will be transferred to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry to become part of Moshannon State Forest. DCNR intends to permit a variety of recreational activities there, including hiking, camping and hunting.

In addition, an 80-acre parcel in Clearfield County will be transferred from the owner to the Department of Environmental Protection, which will build an acid mine drainage treatment plant to improve the Bennett Branch Creek.

This second phase of WPC’s 75th Anniversary Acquisitions is expected to result in economic benefits to area counties and townships, due to increases in area tourism and to legislatively increased payments in lieu of taxes on state lands.

Link: 75 Years of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy Land Conservation


3/21/2008

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