A new national wildlife refuge - the third in Pennsylvania - has been approved for scenic Cherry Valley in the Pocono Mountains.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service yesterday announced the designation and established a boundary that encompasses 20,466 acres of forests, wetlands, farm pastures and private homes.

Within that area, mainly in Monroe County, the service can purchase land from willing sellers, or protect it through conservation easements or similar measures.

Cherry Valley, just 75 miles from both Philadelphia and Manhattan, is the first national wildlife refuge to be designated in the Northeast in nearly a decade.

One has not been designated in Pennsylvania since 1972, when the Tinicum National Environmental Center - now the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum - was named. The state's other refuge is in Erie.

Bud Cook first saw Cherry Valley about 20 years ago.

The Nature Conservancy's senior project manager for the Poconos region, he was headed home from a meeting in Stroudsburg, Pa., and decided to take a back road.

It was dusk. He drove over a ridge, and there before him was "this spectacular valley spread out."

He said it was like a lot of other Pennsylvania valleys, a mix of fields and forests and small communities, but prettier. And "with this solidly forested ridge in the background, the Kittatinny," Cook recalled.

"It took my breath away. Trite but true."

Much of the valley "has remained untouched," Debra Schuler, president of the Friends of Cherry Valley, said in a statement. "Now we can move forward with protecting the environment, the animals that inhabit it, and its rich history."

Bill Kunze, Pennsylvania state director for the Nature Conservancy, which has worked to protect the region for more than 15 years, said he was happy for the people of Cherry Valley, "who have loved this land for generations and have worked hard to bring this refuge to life."

Conservancy biologists started documenting important rare species there in the early to mid-1980s.

Stretching west from the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the valley is home to six federally endangered species, including the bog turtle and a sedge plant called the northeastern bulrush.

A rare buttercup and the white-flowered grass-of-Parnassus grow there.

Bald eagles and thousands of other raptors pass through every fall, hunting in the valley during their migration south. Cerulean warblers and other songbirds nest along the valley's Kittatinny Ridge.

The conservancy's Cook began meeting with landowners about a decade ago.

Eventually, the Friends formed. About four years ago, U.S. Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D., Pa.) began pushing for the designation. He and U.S. Rep. Charles W. Dent (R., Pa.) sponsored a bill in 2005 to consider the valley as a prospective refuge. Congress approved a study act a year later.

"What is really extraordinary about Cherry Valley is how engaged many of the landowners have been in trying to conserve it," said the conservancy's Nels Johnson, state conservation director.

During a public-comment period in December, the Fish and Wildlife Service received 107 comments, of which 98 were favorable. Seven expressed no preference and two were opposed.

The National Wildlife Refuge system got its start in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida's Pelican Island.

There are now 548 refuges and 37 wetlands-management districts in the system, encompassing more than 96 million acres.

New Jersey has five refuges: Cape May, Edwin B. Forsythe, Great Swamp, Supawna Meadows, and Wallkill River.

Refuges are often described as cousins to national parks. Parks are scenic, often pristine. Refuges are where the wildlife is, and are sometimes - particularly in the case of Tinicum, which encompasses a Superfund site - highly developed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's goal in Cherry Valley will be to work with landowners to identify parcels with high "resource value" and work to protect them.

The result within the proscribed boundary could be a patchwork - albeit with many connections and shared borders - of habitats and rural landscapes.

"There are places where wildlife comes first," said spokeswoman Terri Edwards. "But that doesn't mean we don't make a strong effort to allow certain public uses of these lands when they complement our wildlife-management purposes."

No funds have been appropriated to purchase land. And part of the deal is that there are no restrictions on land, so development - perhaps even industry - could come to the valley. But the goal is to preserve as much of the valley as possible.

The refuge has a good start, Johnson said, because about 6,000 acres have been protected by the conservancy or other programs.

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.