Amazingly, the stretch of the Susquehanna River from Holtwood Dam to the Conowingo Dam looks nearly as wild as it did when Native Americans paddled these waters in hollowed-out wooden canoes. Half a dozen bald eagles soar and fish its waters. It is undeveloped, with very little wastewater discharge.
Upstream and downstream, it is a different story, but this 21.5-mile section of the mainstem of the Susquehanna River is exquisite.
Historical and recreational components sites highlight this stretch. Shenk's Ferry Wildflower Preserve, Otter Creek, Lock 12 Historic Area, two campgrounds, two boat launches and multiple picnic areas have been used by the public for decades. Yet few realize that these valuable lands are not permanently protected.
But that is all about to change. When one of the region's largest land deals is completed, it will transfer 3,500 acres of open space from the Pennsylvania Power & Light Corp. to the Lancaster County Nature Conservancy.
"As a corporation, PPL has a strong commitment to the environment and to the communities where we do business," said William Spence, PPL's executive vice president and chief operating office. "We're pleased to play a key role in making sure this beautiful land will be preserved and will always be available for public use and enjoyment."
The land transaction, in a single stroke, will nearly double the holdings of the Lancaster County Conservancy, which was started 39 years ago by a group of hunters and anglers who were worried about development encroaching on the county's remaining wild lands.
"The PP&L land deal is taking a relatively small organization and transforming them into one of the 'big players,'" said the Lancaster County Conservancy's president, Ralph Goodno.
Since the conservancy acquired its first property in 1973, it has protected 25 preserves totaling 3,340 acres. The conservancy also manages 800 acres in 23 conservation easements on privately owned land.
Including the PPL lands, Goodno said the conservancy expects to save more than 4,000 acres this year-properties worth a total of about $9 million.
The crown jewel is the PPL lands near Holtwood Dam, which were assessed at $20 million but are being sold for $5 million. Under the terms of the deal, the funds will come from the Community Conservation Partnerships grant program administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, as well as from York and Lancaster counties and other partners.
After management changes hands, though, PPL will donate the $5 million back. It will be used by the conservancy as an endowment fund to maintain and enhance the land for public enjoyment-and possibly buy more land for protection. PPL will also contribute an additional $200,000 annually to the fund for 22 years.
This is significant for both the conservancy and the public as all of the partners are looking at how they can expand recreational uses on the land as well as develop heritage sites. Because PP&L is in the energy distribution business not the land recreational business, the conservancy is in a much better position to manage the wild lands and provide recreational opportunities.
Lancaster Conservancy and other partners are looking beyond the PPL deal to the whole river corridor. A land management plan is in the works where they are identifying other large tracts of land that could also be secured and protected in the future.
The deregulation of electric utilities has led many companies to reduce costs by selling land they don't need for power production.
Just last year, for instance, the Safe Harbor Water Power Corp. gave about 1,000 acres of undeveloped land along the Susquehanna to The Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit conservation organization.
One potential acquisition could be the wild lands that are connected to the Conowingo Dam, the next dam downriver. It is scheduled to be re-licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2014 and its owners may also be in the market to unload a chunk of prime, riverfront land.
The Lancaster County Conservancy hopes to be in a financial position to be able to secure and protect yet another gorgeous stretch of the Susquehanna River corridor.
"This recent land deal in building the Susquehanna Greenway is just the start of protecting the Susquehanna River corridor," Goodno said. "It is the beginning of great things for our river."
The Susquehanna land purchase is not the only significant area the conservancy has preserved.
Tucquan Glen Preserve in Martic Township, which lies in the River Hills, is the site of uncharacteristically steep and wild glens, where streams cut their way through the Wissahickon Schist, then tumble to the river. Tucquan, one of 10 such glens, is the conservancy's flagship property and is considered the most pristine and scenic of the ravines.
The upper glen contains stands of old growth. The lower glen is rugged and crowded with pounding waterfalls and jumbled, mammoth boulders. About one mile from the Susquehanna is Devil's Hole-a streamside spot for sitting amongst gorgeous stands of mountain laurel.
Ferncliff Nature Preserve, in Drumore Township, PA, has been recognized as a National Natural Landmark because of the exceptional old growth forest that has been maintained there. The mile-long dirt road that intersects the wooded ravine of Barnes Run and takes visitors past giant beech, hemlocks and white oak. Profuse amounts of ferns and spring wildflowers that carpet this natural cathedral.
Henry Huffnagle, a Lancaster urologist, spent his summers at Ferncliff while he was growing up. Owned by his family since the 1940s, his father used the 75-acre property to teach young Henry all of the common and Latin names of the plants, flowers and trees found there. This made a huge impact on Huffnagle's life and fostered his appreciation of wild places, particularly the Susquehanna River hills. When his father died, Huffnagle wanted to preserve the property and decided to donate it to the Lancaster County Conservancy. It has been under the group's care since the 1970s.
Huffnagle is the process of donating two more plots, equaling 70 acres, to the conservancy, in the Fishing Creek watershed.
"It is a pleasure to know someone is taking care of this land," Huffnagle said. "There are great educational benefits to be found on the property and I want the youth to be able to go there and enjoy it like I did."
The conservancy is also engaged in outreach to build appreciation for the wild lands.
It offers a program to area schools that uses the preserves as outdoor classrooms. Hands-on activities teach students about the water cycle, watershed functions and the relationship between humans, animals and natural surroundings, as well as how to protect the environment from pollution. College students are invited to use the preserves to conduct research projects.
A suburban stewardship program is being developed to help landowners manage their land for habitat.
As open space everywhere is paved over to create malls and shopping centers and forests are cut down to create developments, construction in southern Lancaster County is taking place at an especially rapid rate. Since the Norman Wood Bridge was built across the Susquehanna River three decades ago, housing developers and country estates are gobbling up land in the river hills.
Absentee landowners who have purchased the open space for investment are timbering the forests for quick money according to Christine and Jeffery Stauffer, who have a 5-acre parcel in a conservation easement with the conservancy.
On many properties, "all that is growing up is choking honeysuckle, poison ivy and multiflora rose, she said. "In my opinion, the conservancy can't protect the land fast enough. I only wish I had more land to put into the program."
The Stauffer's land remains under their deed, but there are stipulations in managing it. The public is free to enjoy the land, which is forever protected.
In addition to easements, the conservancy also acquires land by donation. Donated property with no natural qualities is sold, and the money used to purchase wild tracts. Most of their preserves, however, are purchased, including some that are considered "bargain sales."
"The conservancy does have fairly strict criteria for acquiring land," Goodno said. "It can't be a building lot in the middle of a development, unless it has critical environmental aspects. We once targeted a 1-acre parcel that contained a black night heron rookery. But we aim for parcels large enough that can support wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities for the public."
The conservancy has a rating system and typically looks for 40-50 acre parcels unless they are adjacent to already created preserves or other protected lands.
The conservancy offers guidance to property owners who are considering contributing their land.
"Seven generations" is the thought behind protecting preserving these natural areas. Native Americans believed that all generations are connected, and one must take them into account when deciding how to protect and manage the land.
Less than 19 percent of land in Lancaster County is still in woodlands and other natural habitat, and hundreds of acres are lost every year. The need to protect wildlife habitat and improve the streams and rivers, along with providing valuable recreational opportunities demands that the conservancy move faster and more intelligently to secure these lands.
One of the Lancaster County Conservancy's goals is to create a network of wild preserves so that every resident will live within an easy distance to one. An impressive goal...for the next seven generations.
To contact or learn more about the Lancaster County Conservancy, call 717-392-7891 or visit www.lancasterconservancy.org