Amid panoramic vistas and sultry air thick with the scent of honeysuckle, officials Wednesday celebrated three projects related to the preservation of the Schuylkill Highlands, a premier Southeastern Pennsylvania landscape.
The addition of nearly 300 acres to French Creek State Park will facilitate the construction of a hiking and biking trail that connects to the Schuylkill River Trail, ultimately linking Philadelphia to Berks County and beyond.
Calling the Highlands area "a jewel," Molly K. Morrison, president of Natural Lands Trust, said the acquisition of two farms, one of which had been slated for development, would not have occurred without multiple state and local agencies "pulling at the oars."
The Schuylkill Highlands Conservation Landscape Initiative, a consortium of government, private, and nonprofit agencies run by the trust, is committed to protecting an area that played a pivotal role in the history of American industries such as iron, steel, coal, and foundry, officials said.
The 926,689 acres that make up the Highlands - spanning Berks, Bucks, Chester, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, and Montgomery Counties - contain the largest unbroken forest (73,000 acres) in the eastern corridor between Washington and New York City and supply 1.75 million people with drinking water, Morrison said at a ceremony at French Creek State Park.
The area, 8.5 percent of which is protected, also contains three national parks, five state parks, five significant bird habitats, and a host of endangered wildlife, Morrison said.
John Quigley, secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and National Resources, said he was thrilled that the state could work with so many groups that shared his passion for "helping communities connect with key assets."
The second project expanded on the connections theme: the construction of a 3.5-mile section of the Schuylkill River Trail from Cromby to Parkerford in Chester County, linking the trail from Phoenixville to Pottstown. When completed, the Schuylkill River Trail is expected to provide a seamless path from Philadelphia to Pottsville.
Finally, officials dedicated a new fish ladder at the Black Rock Sanctuary in Phoenixville and a 0.8-mile trail with interactive stations around the river basin, a joint venture of Chester County and Exelon Power.
The ladder, which took about a year and a half to complete, was designed to assist American shad and other species with their upstream migration during springtime spawning on the Schuylkill, said Chuck Campbell, the project manager.
He said most people were familiar with the image of salmon jumping upstream to spawn.
"American shad are lazy by comparison. They don't jump," he said, explaining that the water flow was engineered to attract fish into a channel that bypassed the dam.
Cameras were installed so the fish, which are expected to include carp and bass, can be monitored and counted, Campbell said.
"These fish will have an easier time going up the Schuylkill than our residents have going down the Schuylkill," joked State Rep. Andrew E. Dinniman (D., Chester), applauding the initiative.
Quigley said Southeastern Pennsylvania "really gets it" and had been at the forefront of conservation efforts, recognizing that preserving resources and creating recreational areas pays economic dividends.
"Birdsboro is going to be a trail town, which will attract sustainable businesses," he said.
But Quigley also sounded an alarm that other preservationists have voiced in recent weeks, suggesting that "unprecedented" budget strains could make funding for these projects as endangered as some of the wildlife.
"We're at a perilous time if we want to continue this work," Quigley said, urging people to demand that Harrisburg continues to fund programs such as Growing Greener II, which ends in December.
Eric Brown, the manager of French Creek State Park, said plans for the trail to connect the park with the Schuylkill River Trail and the Horse-Shoe and Boars Back Trails in Chester County were moving forward. However, he estimated that the timing of its completion - from two to five years - would depend on funding sources.
"It will happen," he said. "We're just not sure when."
State Rep. David R. Kessler (D., Berks) said conservation programs must be funded.
"Without clean water, clean air and farmland, we don't survive," he said.
At a meeting in Chester County last week, conservation advocates urged the commissioners to look beyond dire budget constraints and continue their aggressive support of preservation, noting that land prices are low and the benefits of purchasing it - such as preventing the hike in services that new developments demand - remain high.
"It's a permanent benefit," said Morrison, who organized that meeting.
No one, she said, has ever said, " 'We saved too much; we went too far.' The opportunity to save open space has never been better."