HOWARD, Pa. - The chief steward of the state parks stood against a stunning backdrop last month at Bald Eagle State Park to break ground for Pennsylvania's first nature inn.

Against a sparkling lake and a mountain ridge awash with fall hues, he used the moment to make his case for taking nature conservation in a new direction.

"We want to deepen our connection to the people of the state," said Michael DiBerardinis, a former Philadelphia neighborhood activist, "and drive the message of conservation to everyone."

Moments later, the local Republican senator remembered thinking at his first meeting with DiBerardinis that a Philadelphia guy running the state park system would be "a disaster."

"I could not have been more wrong," Jake Corman said. "There has been no better advocate for state parks than Mike DiBerardinis."

So began DiBerardinis' latest visit to the region he and his agency call the "Pennsylvania Wilds" - that beyond-cell-phone-reach swath of green stretching across the top of the state that is expected to draw around 4 million visitors this year.

The nature inn, scheduled to open in late 2009, will offer comfortable accommodations for the baby boomer set and others who enjoy nature but who don't care to pitch tents.

With nationally recognized elk herds and dark skies for stargazers, the Wilds are a far cry from Fishtown and Kensington in Philadelphia, where DiBerardinis has lived for 34 years in rowhouses with postage-stamp backyards.

Now, the onetime community activist who fought drug dealers and slumlords is in charge of 2.4 million acres of state forest and parkland.

But DiBerardinis doesn't see it as such a stretch, having embarked five years ago on a mission to "pivot" the agency away from its traditional focus of conserving state parkland toward a more holistic role helping neighboring towns become ecotourist destinations.

"The dynamics are the same: It's about organizing communities," said DiBerardinis, who traveled 2,000 miles in his first year in office to get feedback from Pennsylvanians about parks and their communities. "You have to listen to people because they care about where they live. Whether you're in Philadelphia or the tiniest town in the mountains, the challenge is the same."

In a recent whirlwind 13-hour tour of departmental outposts and towns now working with the agency, DiBerardinis began by wading into the trout stream in Lock Haven and casting his line. Then he took a bike tour along a new rail trail in Sinnamahoning State Park, helped game wardens tag a black bear, and reviewed plans for an elk conservation center.

He wrapped up the day by meeting with local officials in Ridgway, an old logging town on the Clarion River 75 miles northwest of State College.

The town now boasts bed-and-breakfasts, shops and a museum along a main street that 15 years ago was nearly deserted. There are bike trails along the river, and canoeing out on the water.

Civic leaders in Ridgway, still working to make the once-blighted riverfront more people-friendly, said the guidance, funding and marketing assistance they received from DiBerardinis' department have brought in business and tourists and helped turn around the town.

"We have based the idea of economic development on using our heritage resources," said Dale Fox, who owns the Towers Victorian Inn in Ridgway. "We were five years along trying to save the town, but we couldn't have accomplished what we did without them."

Ask DiBerardinis, 59, what book most influenced his life and he will say

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

.

These days, though, he finds himself drawing inspiration from the turn-of-the-20th-century conservationist Gifford Pinchot, father of the U.S. Forest Service, Pennsylvania governor, and populist who believed the wilderness was society's great leveler.

"The Clarion River was a mud hole; it had no life," said DiBerardinis, describing conditions as recently as the 1970s on the scenic waterway that flows through Ridgway. "We are responding just like [Pinchot] did to a collapsed ecosystem 100 years ago."

Going back to his days as a neighborhood activist in Philadelphia in the 1980s, DiBerardinis has never shied away from controversy. He butted heads with city officials regularly as a leader of the Kensington Joint Action Council in the 1980s. One protest, over the city's refusal to auction rental houses of tax-delinquent owners, disrupted traffic in Center City and led to his arrest on a charge of disorderly conduct.

DiBerardinis was raised in Downingtown, and his Italian immigrant father worked in a paper mill. After graduating from Bishop Shanahan High School in West Chester in 1967, DiBerardinis helped pay his way through St. Joseph's University by working summers in the mill. After a stint on an Indian reservation in South Dakota and building houses in Cuba, he met his future wife, Joan Reilly, now a senior director at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and settled in Fishtown.

DiBerardinis was chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Tom Foglietta (D., Pa.) and then ran the city recreation department for eight years in Mayor Ed Rendell's administration. Gov. Rendell appointed him to his current cabinet post in 2003.

"He is smart and can engage people, but his roots remain in the rowhouses of Kensington," said Joe Grace, executive director of CeaseFire PA, a group working to reduce gun violence.

DiBerardinis is particularly proud that under his direction his department has protected 120,000 additional acres of wild land, more than at any other time in the last 30 years. He said Pennsylvania was one of four states recognized internationally for sustainable land management, an approach that balances industries such as timber, oil and gas with recreation and conservation. He also feels strongly that the agency needs to respond to climate change.

The Pennsylvania Wilds initiative encompasses 1.6 million acres in 12 counties, including 29 state parks. Within the boundaries are two big tourist grabbers: a free-roaming elk herd touted as the largest in the Northeast, and the stargazers' paradise Cherry Springs State Park, 120 miles north of Harrisburg.

The agency has helped deliver close to $250,000 in state investment in Elk County, much of it targeted toward Ridgway.

Environmentalists praise DiBerardinis for expanding state parklands, but they say his efforts to promote tourism in parks have sometimes collided with their conservation ethic.

"It's a mixed bag," said Jeff Schmidt, executive director of the Sierra Club's Pennsylvania chapter, citing two instances in which the agency sought to develop a nature inn on the last section of undeveloped Lake Erie shoreline. "They backed off development when local opposition was too strong," he said.

Environmentalists also opposed DiBerardinis' decision earlier this year to lift a moratorium and allow gas drilling in state parks.

DiBerardinis said he undertook what he believed was a "thoughtful approach" to limited drilling in open consultation with legislators, industry and environmental groups, with his department maintaining control over the permitting process. Under his plan, only 74,000 acres are subject to drilling - far fewer than the 500,000 acres on which drilling was possible under his Republican predecessor.

In 2007 DiBerardinis was the subject of a State Ethics Commission probe into his role in the awarding of state grants to his wife's organization. But Commonwealth Court found no conflict.

Though he is now heading into his sixth year commuting on weekends to Philadelphia, he said he had no plans to leave the administration.

There's work ahead, he said. "We haven't left the land; we just changed the way we behave as an organization. We have to look at social and economic values as well. If we elevate that and the stewardship message, then we've done our job."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.