Monday, November 20, 2023

Bay Journal: PA Residents Rally Again To Save Beloved Montour Preserve In Montour County

By Ad Crable, 
Chesapeake Bay Journal

For the third time in nine years, residents and public officials in a rural area of central Pennsylvania have rallied to save a beloved nature preserve created by a power plant 51 years ago.

“It is without doubt the most important place for outdoor education for generations of kids,” said Bob Stoudt, director of the Montour Area Recreation Commission.

The preserve is a 640-acre trove of woods, open land and hiking trails, with a 165-acre lake for fishing and boating, and an environmental center offering environmental education programs that have inspired generations of children to care about nature.

The preserve also has a significant stand of “sugarbush,” maple trees that have been tapped in 51 sugaring seasons. 

And one corner of the preserve holds the Montour Fossil Pit — about an acre of exposed shale thought to be hundreds of millions of years old, where visitors can collect Devonian Period fossils ranging from bivalves and snails to trilobites and corals.

Stoudt has a photo that captures one of his earliest childhood memories. It shows him at age 5, in a catcher’s crouch next to a bucket, staring at a fishing pole on the shore of the preserve’s Lake Chillisquaque. 

The lake was created in 1971 by damming a creek of the same name — to provide cooling water for the nearby coal-powered power plant, then owned by Pennsylvania Power and Light, now widely known as PPL.

“Without exaggeration, it put me on a course to a career in outdoor recreation,” said Stoudt of the lifelong love that developed with the Montour Preserve. His wedding reception and family reunions took place there. 

“The same is true for virtually every family in our area,” he said.

The Montour Area Recreation Commission has overseen the preserve since 2015, when Talen Energy Corp., a PPL spinoff and the new owner of the property, agreed to lease it to the commission for free.

But keeping the land open to the public was only part of the challenge. 

After PPL transferred its vast land holdings in the surrounding area to Talen Energy — about 6,000 acres altogether — the company laid off staff and pulled the plug on scores of year-round educational programs and naturalist-led field trips that had drawn about 110,000 visitors to the preserve annually, including about 5,000 students.

For decades, power companies in the state had been required by their federal licenses to provide public recreation in exchange for locking up vast acres of land when they created power plants and hydroelectric facilities. 

But with the deregulation of Pennsylvania’s energy market in 1996, those requirements relaxed.

Residents and officials from Montour County and adjacent Columbia County, where a portion of the 6,000 acres were located, mounted a grassroots effort to save both the preserve and surrounding land for public use.

There were strategy sessions and rallies. A Save the Montour Preserve Facebook page quickly drummed up support. 

The Montour County Commissioners and Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau stepped in and allocated a portion of a hotel tax annually for the preserve.

About 2,000 acres of the power company land — formerly open to hiking, hunting, birding and camping have been sold since Talen took possession, mostly to farmers.

The company also plans to build a 1,000-acre solar array near the plant, capable of powering 16,400 homes. 

But the 640-acre preserve has remained intact, leased for free to the recreation commission.

The commission managed to keep programs running for a while, but by 2019 it was running out of money for maintenance and staffing.

Meanwhile, a coal ash controversy emerged in 2018. Elevated levels of lithium and cobalt were found in a groundwater monitoring well near the power plant. 

The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, along with the Sierra Club and Environmental Integrity Project, alleged that the pollutants were coming from a circa-1972 unlined coal ash pit. 

Talen maintains that the ash pit is not the source of the toxins.

In 2021, Talen signed an out-of-court agreement with the riverkeeper association to cease the use of coal at the power plant by the end of 2025. 

The plant is being converted to run on natural gas. The company also agreed to seal the ash pit when it is no longer needed and to monitor groundwater and local creeks.

The agreement also requires Talen to ensure that Lake Chillisquaque will not dry up when water is no longer pumped to it from the Susquehanna by way of a 10-mile pipeline. 

Engineering studies confirmed that, without withdrawals for the coal plant, the flow from Chillisquaque Creek would still be enough to keep the lake full.

Perhaps best of all for the Montour Preserve, Talen agreed that within two years of no longer needing the lake, the entire preserve would be offered for free to a nonprofit, along with $1 million.

“I can’t stress enough that [the recreation commission] is extremely grateful to both PPL and Talen to give us the opportunity to run it. The easier path was they could have gotten rid of it,” Stoudt said.

The donation of land and cash to a nonprofit could still be years away, but there have already been discussions with conservancies, land trusts and conservation groups in the area. 

Some have even suggested that the preserve could become a state park. 

This was all favorable news to the preserve’s legions of fans. But then the preserve saw record use during COVID-19, paired with a corresponding decrease in donations for upkeep. 

The commission soon found itself in another financial crisis and earlier this year was on the verge of giving Talen the required one-year notice that it would no longer run the preserve.

But the cavalry, so to speak, arrived again in the nick of time. 

Over the summer, a broad and robust partnership coalesced to not just save the preserve but greatly expand its educational offerings — with help from a $300,00 donation from the Charles B. Degenstein Foundation, founded by a local business owner.

Collectively dubbed the Vernal School and headed by Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky, the new slate of educational offerings will come from a variety of regional institutions with a strong STEM focus (science, technology, engineering and math).   [Read more here.]

Among the other partners in the effort are Bucknell University, Pennsylvania Master Naturalists, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Boy Scouts of America, Bloomsburg University, and Central Pennsylvania Rock and Mineral Club.

Details were announced in October. Montour County commissioners added their own support by allocating a higher percentage of the hotel tax for maintaining the preserve. They also earmarked $25,000 annually from funds the county receives for a statewide excise tax on fracking natural gas.

“We would like to add meaningful watershed experiences,” said Vernal School partner Tanya Dynda, an instructional and technology STEM specialist with the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, an educational agency that serves 17 school districts in the region.

“[Students] can actually go out and get their hands wet and dirty with true exposure to something that is in their own back yard. They just become more passionate about their environment and what they can do,” Dynda observed.

Matt Wilson, who runs Susquehanna University’s Freshwater Research Institute, is eager for his environmental education students to lead programs at the preserve.

Five years ago, Wilson obtained funding to buy aquatic insect boxes and sorting trays, magnifying glasses, field guides and other tools for nonprofits to borrow. Since COVID-19, though, they have been gathering dust on shelves.

“We want to get the kids to think about a healthy watershed in general,” he said, adding that local residents need to experience nature if they are to grow to love and protect it.

“It’s tough to love what you haven’t seen,” he said.

Putting together an environmental education program is outside the normal realm of Riverkeeper Zaktansky‘s duties. But he said he believes an intimate connection to nature is necessary to ignite more local stewardship for the environment.

“Environmental education is still a key aspect in a rural area. Not everyone is born with a fishing pole in their hands,” said Zaktansky, who spent much of his youth on power plant lands as a Boy Scout camper and hunting with his dad.

“Education is at the core of understanding pollution. It’s so valuable on many different levels. It’s not just saving a frog in a pool. It goes way beyond that.”

(Reprinted from Chesapeake Bay Journal.)

Related Articles:

-- Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper, Partners Establish ‘Vernal School’ To Support The Montour Preserve In Montour County  [PaEN]

-- Middle Susquehanna RiverKeeper Blog: Partnership Can Foster New Opportunities At Montour Preserve For Those Willing To Get Creative

[Posted: November 20, 2023]  PA Environment Digest

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