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Citizens seek alternatives to PSU ownership of canyon

by Bob Leonard

On Wednesday, July 30, more than 130 concerned citizens crammed into the Patton Township Municipal Building to seek alternatives to Pa. Senate Bill 740, sponsored by Jake Corman, R-Benner Township. The bill was recently amended by Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, to include the transfer of 1,124 acres of Rockview state prison land to Penn State for use by its College of Agriculture and an additional 400 acres along Spring Creek to Benner Township.

Sponsored by the Spring Creek Canyon Alliance, a grassroots organization that represents more than 150,000 Pennsylvanians, the meeting featured a panel of respondents who explained their opposition to the bill, which includes provisions for conservation easements. The easements, to be negotiated and administered by ClearWater Conservancy and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, are intended to provide protection for the property’s natural resources.

Conservation easements are only necessary when the landowner cannot be trusted,” warned Ed Perry, a retired aquatic biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and founder of the alliance. Perry emphasized the importance of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s recommendation that the land be reforested and revegetated.

A major step in sustaining a viable forest ecosystem over time is to increase the size of the forest block in the canyon by revegetating the uplands.”

Penn State and Benner Township have challenged the validity of the conservancy’s recommendations and now sit on the steering committee for a master plan study commissioned by Benner Township and funded by the DCNR.

Agriculture, while very important, is not a benign activity,” cautioned Bill Brusse, president of the Spring Creek chapter of Trout Unlimited. “Under the best of intentions and circumstances, fertilizer and pesticide runoff, erosion and stream sediment cannot help but threaten the future of this world-class trout fishery.”

Author and conservationist Dwight Landis expressed concern about the possibility of rows of research and farm buildings being built on the property.

Nothing in the legislation would prevent that from happening,” Landis said. “Despite language about conservation easements and master planning, these safeguards would be negotiated after the transfer of ownership, thereby effectively eliminating all negotiating power.”

Many attendees, including Brusse and ClearWater President Jeff Sturniolo, agreed that transferring ownership before a master plan for the land is complete would be a mistake.

What’s the hurry?” asked one citizen. “The land has been sitting there for over a hundred years. Why the big rush to sell it to Penn State?”

Perry—along with panel members Rick Spencer, of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, and Gary Thornbloom, chairman of the Sierra Club Moshannon Group—strongly supported the Pennsylvania Game Commission as the only viable owner.

Perry outlined the criteria that an owner must meet.

It must have the resources, the expertise and the mandate to keep and hold the land in its natural state, and can never sell or develop it. It must have conservation at the core of its mission. The Game Commission not only meets these standards, but it also wants the land and has offered to pay twice as much as Penn State.”

Loud and long applause suggested that many in the audience supported Game Commission ownership. A number asked why the legislature has never given serious consideration to this alternative.

Why should anyone question the Game Commission’s ability to manage this land?” insisted one speaker. “They already own millions of acres in the state that have been successfully managed for many years and that have always been open to the public.”

One audience member proposed turning the land into a natural area that would be donated by a citizen-funded conservancy; guided by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy recommendations; overseen by ClearWater and the Moshannon Group; and funded with Growing Greener, DCNR and county grants. While such a collective endeavor seemed an ideal solution, and received a warm response from the audience, questions were raised about the time it would take to initiate such an effort.

The panel warned that timing is critical. Once the legislature returns to session in September, SB 740 could be put to a vote immediately, thereby effectively ending the debate.

While Corman has asked the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee to sit on the bill until further notice, Penn State has announced that it will ask Corman for approval of the bill next month. Meanwhile, Corman has promised to hold a public meeting in the near future to hear further arguments from the citizenry.

The panel members encouraged the audience to contact Corman to express opposition to the bill and to urge that consideration be given to the Game Commission as the future owner.

Gary Thornbloom summed up the prevailing opinion and urged the group to action.

This land is owned by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. That means us. We do not have to raise money to protect it from development. All we need is for our elected officials to do the right thing. It is up to each of us to make sure our voices are not only heard, but that our voices are heeded. Your silence insures that what is best for Spring Creek Canyon will not occur. The canyon and the surrounding uplands need your help.”

Bob Leonard is an organizer for the Spring Creek Canyon Alliance. He is a retired Penn State theater professor and an avid kayaker.

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