Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Bay Journal: Susquehanna Greenways Deliver Recreation, Eco-Tourism For River Towns In PA

Back in the late 1990s, when the term “greenway” was fairly new, Pennsylvania environmental and transportation officials resolved to come up with a plan to create linked open spaces that were valued as vital contributions to the state’s ecological and human communities.

For land along the Susquehanna River, two large public-private greenway efforts emerged, aimed at protecting, revitalizing and promoting a 500-mile stretch of land and water trails, mostly along the river’s main and west branches.

Revitalizing nearly 70 river towns forged during now-played-out industrial eras was another main goal.

The first initiative formally coalesced as the nonprofit Susquehanna Greenway Partnership in 2006.

A second, the Susquehanna Riverlands Conservation Landscape, grew to focus on the lowest reaches of the Susquehanna where, unlike most rivers, the waterway’s steepest fall is created at the end of its journey. 

There, the river carved an impressive gorge through flanking forested hills with no room for roads at river’s edge.

Since 2008, the Riverlands group has concentrated on protecting this unique geology on both sides of the river and promoting sustainable tourism through recreation and the considerable cultural and historical gems in growing Lancaster and York counties.

The partnership of public officials and businesses from the two counties, along with the state and National Park Service, received a boost in 2019 when Congress designated the Susquehanna National Heritage Area as the nation’s 50th national heritage area. 

The area was already one of four visitor centers on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

So far, 6,300 acres of wooded riversides have been protected, including 1,100 acres in York County in April. 

Most of the preservation has come from the sale of utility lands to the Lancaster Conservancy, which then works to provide access to them.

“You have protected viewsheds, pristine streams and real access opportunities for everyone,” said Fritz Schroder of the conservancy.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has awarded millions of dollars in grants for land-preservation projects through the years. 

Its secretary, Cindy Adams Dunn, said that initiatives along the Susquehanna are proof that “greenways are powerful tools to achieve sustainable growth and livable communities.”

Greenway Partnership

Although the greenway is not yet complete, the partnership has preserved large strips of the river corridor and helped to instill in its residents a new sense of river-bound pride, livability and accompanying ecotourism.

The partnership oversees the 240-mile West Branch Susquehanna River Water Trail and helps link and promote several hundred miles of land trails and parks in a narrow strip on both sides of the river. 

A rule of thumb is if you can see the river, you are in the Susquehanna Greenway.

To date, 16 river towns up and down the Susquehanna have formally joined the greenway partnership, meaning they have created planning groups that work on ways to connect residents and visitors with the river.

The signs of momentum are seen in both subtle and dramatic ways. 

For example, in March 2021, The Nature Conservancy announced the purchase of 1,200 acres where the Kittatinny Ridge crosses the Susquehanna, a well-known landmark only a short distance north of the state capital in Harrisburg. The preserve protects the viewshed for hikers on the famed Appalachian Trail.

In a more subtle event in May 2022, hundreds of residents and volunteers from businesses in 12 river towns collected hundreds of tons of trash from the river, streams and parks as part of Susquehanna Greenway Cleanup Week

The number of participating towns doubled from the year before, when the cleanup was first launched.

“We are in our teen years,” said Corey Ellison, executive director of the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership. “What needs to happen is [that] we are all united under this vision of connected corridors. We all need to embrace the value of open space and quality of life.”

Susquehanna Riverlands

“We’re happy. Business is booming.”

That’s Leo Lutz, longtime mayor of Columbia Borough, a Susquehanna River town in Lancaster County that was once considered as a site for the nation’s capital. The town has mostly languished for the last century.

That began to change when the Columbia Crossing River Trails Center was built along the river in 2016. It serves as a starting point and information nexus for exploring several land and river trails, the national heritage designation and boat tours that shuttle visitors between historical and recreational attractions on both sides of the river. 

Prodded in part by COVID-19 restlessness, more than 200,000 people came to the visitor center in 2021.

Lutz excitedly ticked off a list of new local assets: a paddling outfitter, a new café in the old rail station across from the trail center, antique shops, industrial buildings repurposed for apartments and an overall new vibe. 

All are the result, he said, of the Susquehanna Riverlands initiative.

“The work being done is second to none,” said DCNR’s Dunn “There have been so many impressive projects that have expanded outdoor recreation opportunities, while also protecting the region’s rich historic and cultural resources. The result has been sustainable economic development and an incredible opportunity to connect visitors to nature in a meaningful and lasting way.”

Mark Platts, president of the Susquehanna National Heritage Area, used to worry people who didn’t have a boat couldn’t get to the river easily. And aside from nice views, there wasn’t much to do.

But now, he said, “core groups have put the river on the map as a place you can spend time at and experience, not just look at. There is this energy and accessibility and variety of experiences that weren’t here 20 years ago.” 

(Reprinted from Chesapeake Bay Journal.)

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[Posted: June 29, 2022]  PA Environment Digest

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