The windy updrafts of a bright fall day ease the flight of the hawks, turkey vultures and kestrels migrating south along the Kittatinny Ridge.
At the world-famous Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the raptors are on public parade as they glide by nature enthusiasts who gather daily this time of year at the rock outcroppings.
A spotter with a high-powered telescope calls out the approach of birds flying in from the east using natural landmarks as guideposts – a mountain straight ahead with five bumps, a geologic formation to the south known as the Pinnacles”Â¦Hunters’ Field in a valley below.
These landmarks are in the viewshed – the bird’s eye view that encompasses the skyline, the peaks and slopes of the ridge and the valleys with dotted with farm fields, small towns and, increasingly, new housing developments.
Kittattiny Ridge faces a variety of threats from houses being built indiscriminately on slopes, illegal dumping of trash to overgrazing by deer and contamination of headwaters, say conservationists.
The development pressures are felt all along the Ridge, a 185-mile undeveloped forest highland extending from the Delaware Water Gap, Susquehanna Water Gap to the Mason-Dixon line. They include a proposed motor sports track in Eldred Township in the Poconos, a proposal by Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed to put large windmills atop the ridge at the city-owned DeHart Reservoir, a proposed 900-house subdivision on Cove Mountain in Perry County and sand-and-gravel mining along South Mountain.
“The threat is real,” said Paul Zeph, the newly appointed highlands action coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “We are trying to get ahead of the curve before the best places are gone.” Concerned that development will encroach upon the viewshed, and ultimately the Hawk Mountain ecosystem, sanctuary officials are creating maps showing which surrounding areas should be preserved so as not to spoil the view.
Two-lane Route 895 along the north side of Hawk Mountain is turning into a busy road, the result of new homes being built to accommodate people commuting to jobs in Reading and the Lehigh Valley. A developer recently purchased a 24-acre tract to put in a new subdivision not far from Little Schuylkill Creek, a gathering spot for hawks at the base of the mountain.
“The area along the base of the mountain is very important to birds for feeding and nesting,” said Laurie Goodrich, a sanctuary biologist. “Having housing developments right up to the mountain is not great for the habitat.” Pennsylvania is just starting to pay attention to its ridges and highlands as important natural areas, sources of drinking water and, in a world seeking alternative energy, generators of wind power.
Kittatinny Ridge is at the forefront of a conservation effort aimed at preserving its character as a wilderness corridor; the effort will be adapted to other areas such as the Northcentral Highlands and Laurel Highlands where the Appalachian Mountains run their course. There are plenty such places in Pennsylvania with its alternating terrain of ridges and valleys.
Kittatinny Ridge or Blue Mountains was Pennsylvania’s first frontier: to the north were Delaware and Shawnee villages and to the south settlements of German and English settlers. Moravian missionaries wrote the first descriptions of the Ridge in the 18th century as they journeyed from Bethlehem to Shamokin, an important Indian village at the forks of the Susquehanna River. During the 19th century, the Ridge was exploited for its natural resources: timber, sand and gravel, water power.
Even today the Ridge marks a cultural division between the anthracite region where descendants of Welsh, Slavic and Italian miners live and the Dutch Country region of Berks, Lebanon and Lehigh Counties.
For a place that plays such a major role in Pennsylvania’s history, there are large swaths of the Ridge that are largely undisturbed. That’s because two-thirds of its acreage is in private hands. The Appalachian Trail that runs along the ridge top, state game land and water authority holdings make up the bulk of publicly owned lands.
Having such a large concentration of land in private ownership necessitates a carefully considered strategy on the part of conservationists. No one is talking about exercising eminent domain or creating a new state or federal park.
Instead, the focus is on working with local landowners to keep tracts from being sold for development and urging local officials to adopt ordinances to regulate stormwater runoff and construction on slopes and to protect watersheds.
At strategy meetings conducted this fall with state officials, county planners and members of area conservancies, the focus was on identifying important areas in peril due to development and areas that are relatively unprotected due to an absence of local zoning.
One major priority is creating a buffer zone along the Appalachian Trail to keep scenic vistas from being obscured by development.
North of the Ridge in Monroe County, conservationists welcome the recent passage of a congressional bill authorizing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to evaluate whether Cherry Valley, a habitat for endangered species, should be designated a national wildlife refuge. They keep a wary eye on plans for the Alpine Rose Motor sports track and Blue Mountain ski resort in Ross Township, said Ellen Lott of the Nature Conservancy.
South of the Ridge in Northampton County, conservationists say more needs to be done to protect the 100 or more vernal pools in the Minsi Lake-Bear Swamp County Park. These springtime pools are breeding grounds for amphibians.
As is the case with much of Pennsylvania’s forests, large swaths of forested land along the Ridge are split in small parcels owned by private landowners.
“It’s difficult for forest landowners to keep land in forest because of taxes,” said DEP’s Zeph. “It’s not a piece of land you can get a yearly income from. You can only harvest the tree crop every 60 years. We’re looking for ways to help landowners keep forests intact without having to sell it for development.”
Municipalities along the Ridge are tapping into state money through the Growing Greener II program to pay for ordinance work, and in some cases, pay landowners easements to keep parcels from being sold for development.
If there’s a particular sore spot for conservationists, it’s the trend for homeowners to build white “McMansions” in new clear-cuts on the ridge, oversize dwellings that are visible from miles away.
Audubon Pennsylvania and other groups urge local officials to adopt steep-slope ordinances to minimize the way dwellings stand out in the landscape.
North Coventry Township in Chester County is cited as an example with its “ridgeline protection district” ordinance.
The ordinance sets ground rules for building with an emphasis on clearing no more than 25 percent of the woodland at a building site, avoiding grading or earthmoving on the ridge and keeping the rooftop of a new structure below the height of the backdrop vegetation.
Many rural municipalities that straddle the Ridge lack zoning; therefore, they are a target of the Kittatinny conservation effort.
But it’s not uncommon for municipalities that practice zoning to have slope ordinances.
Township supervisors are concerned about maintaining access roads on slopes and ensuring that landscaping doesn’t lead to unstable soil, said Elam Herr, lobbyist for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.
The Pennsylvania Builders Association hasn’t taken a formal position on slope ordinances, but the lobby is concerned about the prospect of additional restrictions on where homes can be built.
“Land already is hard to find to build on,” said PBA spokesman Scott Elliott.
“If you keep restricting where homes can go, it will eventually drive up the cost of homes.”
He said state policy should be aimed at maintaining Pennsylvania’s status as a state where housing is affordable and home ownership rates are high.
Pennsylvania is not alone in highland conservation efforts.
New Jersey is developing a master plan to protect its Highlands in the northwest corner of the state, a 1,250 square mile area that holds forests and wetlands and serves as a major source of drinking water for urban areas.
A federal law enacted two years ago established a Highlands Stewardship Area, stretching from Reading through northern New Jersey, southern New York and western Connecticut.
The act authorizes $100 million over 10 years to purchase open space and pay for land conservation projects.
It’s only natural that conservationists would start to look skyward, says Zeph.
The major conservation efforts in recent decades have targeted lowland areas “” the agricultural farmland, wetlands and river greenways “” leaving the highlands somewhat neglected.
By Robert B. Swift
The Daily Item
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