CHERRY VALLEY, Pa. - Natural beauty soars here even in a downpour.

Amid yesterday's slush in the newly approved Cherry Valley Wildlife Refuge - Pennsylvania's first such federal preserve in 36 years - a red-tail hawk swooped out of a treetop to assert itself despite the rain.

If this week's designation of 20,466 acres of Poconos real estate works, the broad-winged hawk and other beasts of this valley will have space to roam for a long time to come.

Sprawling development is not much farther away than the forested ridges - Kittatinny to the south, Godfrey to the north - that enclose this valley 90 minutes north of Philadelphia, but between the highlands remains a place of horse pastures, front-yard wells, hulking barns, and marshes along winding streams. Houses speckle the hillsides and cluster around the lakes; about 9,000 residents share the valley, as do a half-dozen species of endangered wildlife.

Although designating the valley's least-populated areas a refuge does not forbid development, it does offer residents something they have sought for nearly a decade: official support for preserving the valley's balance of people and nature.

"People in Cherry Valley no longer just assume that it's going to stay the way it is now," said Bud Cook, a senior project manager for the Nature Conservancy, which owns 500 acres in Cherry Valley and which drove the effort for the federal designation.

Mary Sorrenti, owner of Cherry Valley Vineyards, shouted with joy when she learned that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had approved the plan. She said foxes, bears and coyotes preyed on the ducks that roam near her winery.

"We've got it all," she said.

The designation began in talks over protecting the valley's native population of bog turtles, an endangered, swamp-favoring species now in hibernation. The valley also has rare plants and populations of trout that have endured human encroachment.

Though the valley is not wilderness, it is often wild - a pair of bears wandered near sangria-sipping visitors to Sorrenti's one summer day.

"Most of my customers, they've probably never seen a bear before like that," Sorrenti said.

The Poconos' history of development, conservation and federal management is long and tangled, as exemplified by the decades-long fight over the withdrawn Tocks Island Dam Project. But formal opposition to the proposal for the Cherry Valley Wildlife Refuge was scarce, perhaps in part because the plan intentionally cuts around the valley's most densely populated areas.

"It's not a simple matter of going out and buying 20,000 acres," Cook said, "because there are people living there, farming there."

Instead, the mixed-growth forests with their clusters of Northern maples and Southern oaks, and the houses scattered among them, will now have federal authorities seeking ways to preserve Cherry Valley's rural balance.

Mike Horne, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who lives near the valley, marveled at its thriving population of brook trout, a species easily threatened when development warms and dirties streams, rendering them uninhabitable for the fish. Between the ridges, Horne said, a visitor could well bring along a fly rod and prosper, something unlikely in the sprawl a few miles away.

"The valley," Horne said, "is more or less a continuous block of habitat sandwiched between a lot of development."

Contact staff writer Derrick Nunnally at 610-313-8212 or dnunnally@phillynews.com.