You might know the Lehigh River as the whitewater that rushes through picturesque Lehigh Gorge State Park in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. But the gushing river actually starts as a series of tiny, pristine streams in what's known as headwaters.

The Wildlands Conservancy just bought 500 acres of land containing those headwaters to help protect the river's source.

"This is a really important headwaters piece to protect the quality and quantity of clean water in the Lehigh," said Dawn Gorham, director of land preservation at the Emmaus-based conservancy.  "It's kind of a mix of protected lands and big development nearby."

Gorham called the parcel, known as the Klondike Property, "critical" and said it was immediately turned over to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.  It is the highest-rated property for preservation in the Upper Lehigh River.

Gorham said the $2.5 million purchase from private landowners, Tighe and Neil Scott, took about four years to complete. It was funded with help from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the state Game Commission, the Palmerton Natural Resource Trustee Council, the Open Space Institute, and the William Penn Foundation, among others.

The state will use the land to expand Game Lands 312, roughly 3,962 acres that sprawl across Lackawanna, Monroe, and Wayne Counties. The terrain contains other headwaters of the Lehigh River and is noted for its wildlife, including deer, turkey, grouse, and waterfowl. Game Lands 312 will now total nearly 4,500 acres. The game lands are also adjacent to the Pinchot State Forest.

"It's all there with the Klondike tract acquisition: increased protection of the Lehigh River, its adjoining wetlands, and the diverse natural world both support," said Cindy Adams Dunn, secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "All coupled with public access to more than 500 acres and miles of river."

The area is known for having some of the region's most crystalline trout streams — all fed by the headwaters.

Ultimately, the new purchase will also benefit Philadelphia because the Lehigh River is part of the Delaware River Watershed.  The Lehigh flows 130 miles from the Pocono Plateau and into the Delaware River near Easton.  That water flows south toward Philadelphia.

The Wildlands Conservancy was chosen by the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation to spearhead an effort to protect the Upper Lehigh in the Delaware River Watershed Initiative.  The watershed provides drinking water for more than 15 million people in four states.

Over the last few decades, the Lehigh's water quality has improved dramatically.

The Wildlands Conservancy says it is targeting up to 5,000 acres for protection within the next three to six years in collaboration with its partners.