A proposal for Pennsylvania’s third wildlife refuge will do more than protect endangered animals.
Pennsylvania is poised to get its third national wildlife refuge. But like much of the northeast, farms and people already exist there. Conservationists and the government say – that’s precisely how they want to keep it. WHYY’s health and science reporter Kerry Grens visited the area and filed this report.
On a chilly autumn day, Nels Johnson swings his SUV along a curvy road, down from the headwaters of the Cherry Creek into Cherry Valley, a fifteen-mile strip near Delaware Water Gap.
Johnson: Along the way we’re going to pass through a mosaic of forest habitats along Kittatinny ridge, wetland habitats that are in the valley bottom, the Cherry Creek itself.
Johnson is the director of conservation programs for The Nature Conservancy in Pennsylvania. As we pull off into a hayfield, the Kittatinny Ridge rises behind us 1300 feet, covered with leafless trees.
Johnson: One of the things that’s really special about this area is along the ridge every species of hawk and eagle that migrates through eastern North America comes right through the valley here and hunts in the valley so even things like golden eagles, which normally you almost never see in the eastern United States, actually are occasionally seen here.
This day, a solitary red tail hawk circles slowly overhead. The ridge is a lone wrinkle of the Appalachians, pushing wind called thermals upward to buoy raptors during their bi-annual journeys. hay fields like the one we’re standing in provide habitat for rodents, which the birds eat.
But perhaps the most special features of the Cherry Valley are its wetlands, says Mike Horne, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Horne: There’s 3 or 4 of them just down slope of this field. We’re walking up to one now. But there are several in series and they all intercept Cherry creek down below. And what happens is because they’re so closely associated it really provides a lot of habitat in a very small space for our turtle friends.
Those turtles Horne’s referring to are the endangered bog turtle, a small reptile with a flashy orange neck stripe. Their biggest threats are development, reforestation of the wetlands, and poachers, who sell the animals for pets.
Horne: I think what you see here in the Cherry Valley is that there’s a lot of bog turtle habitat that’s still existing and in a relatively non-degraded state, whereas in other areas the wetlands have been developed close up to them or the hydrology that supports the wetlands has dried up.
The turtle and its wetlands are what has attracted US Fish and Wildlife to consider designating 20,000 acres of Cherry Valley as a National Wildlife Refuge. That designation would allow the government to buy land from willing sellers and prevent development. About 9,000 people live within the proposed boundaries of the refuge, including Anne Fetherman, whose husband owns a Christmas tree farm.
Fetherman: These are blue spruce, Serbian spruce. Way in the back there are Fraser firs and Concolor firs.
Fetherman is the former president of the Friends of Cherry Valley, a group urging the government to establish the refuge. She grew up over the ridge, but lived in the Midwest as an adult. When she returned to Cherry Valley a few years ago, she found it had changed relatively little.
Fetherman: The people loved their farms and didn’t want to sell them. The other thing was that the terrain was not very friendly to building. The infrastructure is nonexistent as far as water and sewage, which used to be quite a barrier to people that were not rural by nature.
Used to be a barrier. Now, giant homes with spectacular views and manicured lawns dot the valley, and Fetherman says she and other residents don’t want new developments to take over the culture and ecosystem of the area. The response to the refuge proposal has been remarkable, says Carl Melberg, Fish and Wildlife’s senior refuge planner.
Melberg: The thing that sets this apart is the overwhelming support for the project. Our regional director and our director have said they’ve never seen anything like it. The kind of support you get when you have home builders associations, civic groups and town supervisors and people like that all supporting.
Fetherman says that overwhelming support is because the plan would preserve the farms and culture as well as the wildlife.
Fetherman: One of the things I like about this plan is it calls for 50% of it to be easements. And I think that’s much more palatable to people who want to keep the ownership.
Nels Johnson from The Nature Conservancy says plans like the Cherry Valley refuge are the future of conservation.
Johnson: This is the kind of place where we’ve got to be able to make conservation work. Because if we can’t do it in places like Cherry Valley, then the future for conservation is not real hopeful in much of the eastern United States. So this has got to be one of the best places we could choose to try and do this kind of conservation. That’s why I think this is a really great place.
The plan still has to be approved. The public can weigh in during meetings Wednesday and Thursday this week, and the public comment period ends December fifth.