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As drivers make their way through winding tree-lined roads in Landenberg, Pa., they’re greeted by green fields, roaming horses, and Amish buggies.
Anteia Consorto said she enjoys the peace and quiet of the rural Chester County community, where she has lived for more than 30 years. Deer, foxes, and rabbits frequently visit her backyard, which borders onto rolling hills and valleys, farm fields with corn, soybeans, and grains.
“You always see something different. I had a bald eagle in my backyard the other day. It was beautiful,” Consorto said. “You don’t get that living in other areas.”
But she’s concerned the serenity might be in jeopardy.
Three years ago, the state purchased more than 1,700 acres of land in the area, and opened it to the public last year as Big Elk Creek State Park. The land adjoins Consorto’s and her neighbor’s backyards, and residents have since placed signs on their fences to indicate where the park ends, and their private property begins.
Consorto said she’s not bothered that the public can enjoy the natural wonders of her surroundings. However, she said she’s angered by a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources proposal to place a campsite, which may allow RVs and electrical hookups, on a portion of the land.
DCNR said the proposal was sparked by public demand for more camping opportunities in the state — almost half of state parks in Pennsylvania offer camping. However, residents such as Consorto worry about environmental impacts and quality of life issues.
She has distributed a written petition, which has garnered more than 500 signatures from residents across the region. An online petition posted by Consorto has received more than a thousand signatures.
Locals who signed the petitions say when the land was purchased, they believed it would be protected from heavy foot traffic.
“We’re happy to have people come and visit,” Consorto said. “We’re just trying to protect the environment and use it in such a way that it’s low impact.”
DCNR spokesman Wesley Robinson said the state wants to be as minimally invasive as possible. The proposed campsite would only be about 5% of the entire state park, he said.
“A lot of what we do is species protection and making sure that their habitats are safe, so we’re not coming in and creating some sort of resort-style park,” Robinson said. He added that nothing has been finalized. “We’re not looking to build up the entire park and add hundreds and thousands of campsites.”
Camping in our backyard
A point of contention for residents is the proposed campsite location — currently, an open field on a hill that looms over neighborhoods, including Consorto’s. The hill lines up against a narrow road, and some homes on the opposite side directly face the site. Residents say the current number of trees around the piece of land would not add enough privacy.
“I love the state park system. I’m a huge advocate. We use them all the time. My family benefits,” said resident Ryan Kelley. “I don’t recall any state park I’ve ever camped in where it was within line of sight of a community, or a neighborhood, or residents.”
Residents worry they will be burdened by noise, lights, and traffic. Consorto said she’s also concerned that campfires on the hill could contribute to air pollution.
“The wind always blows off the field toward our neighborhood,” she said. “So, all of the smoke from the campfires will inevitably end up in our neighborhood, causing a problem for air quality.”
Residents say they’re also concerned about impacts to habitats and waterways. Big Elk Creek State Park is home to 15 endangered or rare plants, including three varieties of orchids, as well as rare species, such as the short-eared owl. A part of Big Elk Creek, which is a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, also wraps around the park, and the hill.
Jeff Marion, a research biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, has studied visitor impacts to protected natural areas. When campsites are constructed, vegetation loss can occur when roads are paved and campsite pads are created, he said. Other potential impacts include erosion of soils into water bodies if visitors create their own trails for walking, biking, or all-terrain vehicle riding, Marion said.
However, these impacts can be minimized if visitors use sustainable trails, and if campsites are built in areas with fewer sensitive habitats, he said.
Marion said parks must regulate campers and educate them on low-impact practices, such as avoiding wildlife, keeping fires small, not interfering with nature, and hiking in designated areas.
“Our research shows that you can sustainably design trail systems so that you can have more use with less resource impact. You can sustainably design camping,” he said.
Marion, who also camps, added that most people who enjoy outdoor recreation such as camping respect the ground they’re sleeping and walking on.
“Most outdoor visitors are pretty well-educated, and they love these places that they’re visiting. So, they tend to be an easy sell on low-impact practices,” he said. “They love to share these places with their kids. And they want them to be there for their grandkids to enjoy.”
Residents such as Jim Noland say they’re not opposed to primitive camping at Big Elk Creek State Park. However, they believe allowing RV access, parking lots, and buildings such as shower houses would be a step too far.
“I knew they were talking about camping and I figured, ‘It’s probably going to be a nice camping area or two for the scouts to pitch some tents and enjoy the preserve.’ And I would have been in support of that,” Noland said.
But when he saw RVs and electrical hookups in DCNR’s PowerPoint presentation during a Nov. 6 meeting, he was shocked.
“I didn’t meet a single person that wasn’t as outraged as I was,” Noland said.
DCNR’s Robinson said the plans are still conceptual, and the style of campsite has not been chosen. The state is open to a variety of options, he said.
Meeting a demand
The demand for camping has increased nationwide since the pandemic — campsites and RV rental companies have reported their businesses are booming.
In 2020, the state announced a plan to increase outdoor recreation, and meet residents’ desires for greater camping access. Currently, 46% of Pennsylvania state parks offer camping, and three quarters of those sites accept RVs. These vehicles make the outdoors more accessible for people with physical limitations, said Mark Johnson of Asbury, New Jersey, who has back problems.
Johnson has camped for about 15 years, including in Pennsylvania. He runs a Meetup group for adults who enjoy a variety of outdoor recreational activities. State park campsites are popular, Johnson said, because they’re more affordable, and larger than private sites.
“There’s challenges to get reservations. They are extremely crowded. You need to make reservations probably months in advance if you want to get good sites,” he said.
Johnson said he doesn’t have an opinion on the current proposal and added that he doesn’t believe one or two additional campsites would ease the demand.
A campsite at Big Elk Creek State Park would provide more outdoor recreational opportunities in southeastern Pennsylvania, DCNR’s Robinson said. The nearest Pennsylvania state park, French Creek State Park, is 38 miles away from Landenberg.
“The goal is to make sure that we’re giving people access to outdoor recreation publicly on the state level so they can enjoy nature,” Robinson said.
Dispute over park vs. preserve
About a dozen residents told WHYY News that when the land was first purchased by the state, they believed the park would be designated as a preserve with low-intensity, daytime-only recreation.
In 2020, some DCNR staff said the newly purchased land would be managed similarly to the nearby White Clay Creek Preserve, which restricts activity to daytime-only use. However, DCNR had not yet announced any official plans for the land at that time.
State Rep. John Lawrence, a lifelong resident, has drafted legislation aiming to “better define” a preserve in state law. He said he doesn’t agree with DCNR’s decision to designate the land as a state park —- which allows for camping.
“DCNR said themselves that it would be a non-developed park, and that a non-developed park brings benefits for folks who are wishing to explore nature without the development typically associated with a day use or overnight park,” Lawrence asserted.
During a Nov. 15 public meeting, Franklin Township chairman David Gerstenhaber said he was “blindsided” by what he labeled a “change in designation” of the area.
DCNR’s Robinson said the agency’s goal has and always will be to protect the land from development and ensure the protection of the wildlife there. He added that the state has never broken any contracts or agreements.
State park officials plan to meet with resident and township officials in January to answer questions.
Until then, Consorto said she hopes the state will consider a more scaled-back plan for the park.
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