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ClearWater Conservancy: Restoration in Practice

By Jennifer Chesworth

In Central Pennsylvania, a local grassroots organization has made restoration the centerpiece of watershed protection.

The ridges, valleys, farms and forests of Centre County, Pennsylvania share a truly unique “karst” topography of limestone and shale, underground streams, numerous caves, springs, and sinkholes, and a rare outcropping of quartz crystal that cuts across the center of the state. Famous as a destination for fly fishermen (even president Jimmy Carter used to frequent the local waters of Spring Creek), the county sits atop a hydro-geological divide, with most of its watersheds feeding the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay, while some flow across the Allegheny Plateau to join the Ohio River and the Mississippi. The region’s water resources include the second largest spring in the state, Big Spring in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, which flows at 14 and a half million gallons per day, supplying water to a Coca-Cola bottling plant, among other users. Farming, especially dairy farming, is still the traditional way of life in the mostly rural areas of Centre and surrounding Counties.

The karst topography of the region means that the ground is very porous, with groundwater that’s especially susceptible to contamination from surface activities, impacting the quality of water far beyond the boundaries of county lines and jurisdictions.

That’s why ClearWater Conservancy, a regional land trust and natural resource conservation organization founded in 1980, has built a strong network of local volunteers and landowners working to restore critical, natural buffers that protect local springs, streams, and groundwater resources. With dozens of riparian restoration projects already under its belt and about 10 local property owners contacting the organization each year to participate in the restoration program, ClearWater’s success — and the long-term effectiveness of restoration — has depended to a great extent on keeping local volunteers engaged and glad to be involved.

Annual events, such as the Watershed Clean-up Day held every spring to honor Earth Day, the Spring Creek Clean-up Day each autumn, and the locally-popular winter fundraiser “For the Love of Art and Chocolate,” help reinforce friendships among volunteers and sustain enthusiasm in the broader community. Who doesn’t love chocolate?

“We’ve learned a lot over time,” says Katie Ombalski, a conservation biologist who has worked at the organization for ten years, one of five staff members at ClearWater. “Outreach is important, but you’ve also got to carefully select appropriate tasks so you have happy volunteers who successfully complete the work.”

Much of the work that goes into restoration — preparing ground for planting trees, moving rock, picking appliances that may have been there for 50 years out of a sinkhole — is hard labor.

“A riparian restoration site will need regular maintenance for 3 to 5 years, until tree seedlings can establish a strong enough root ball. People may show up for a day of hard labor, but if they go home tired and sore, they justifiably feel like they’ve made a significant contribution. We’ve learned that they’re not as likely to show up for on-going work parties,” Katie explains. “Now we use contractors to come in and prepare the sites and plant large numbers of trees and shrubs. Jobs like small tree planting and installing tree tubes are better suited for most volunteers.”

Site preparation conducted by contractors, usually professional arborists, typically begins with application of a glyphosate herbicide and pre-emergence treatments. But in the case of ClearWater’s largest and most successful project, restoration of a riparian strip nearly 3/4 of a mile long on an agricultural property long-used as a sheep farm owned by Penn State University, chemical applications were not an option. The site is within close proximity to a wellhead used as the university’s drinking water supply. As property owner, the university chose to apply a zero-risk policy rather than chemical treatments.

“Preparing the site was done entirely by hand, which was extremely difficult as we found those agricultural grasses are incredibly thick-rooted and tenacious,” says Katie. “We could not have accomplished all that prep work and hand-weeding maintenance in subsequent years on such a large site without the university as landowner. The university has a farm manager and staff who are regularly able to contribute time to the Sheep Farm Restoration Project.”

With $25,000 in private funding from the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, ClearWater partnered with the university and with the local Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited to improve in-stream habitat and to plant and maintain a riparian buffer along the creek on the Sheep Farm. Stream-side fencing to keep the sheep from walking into the creek bed was moved away from the bank on both sides of the stream, back into the pasture to an average 52 feet width. Chemical-free site preparation included using a mower deck with a tiller to clear an 8 by 8 feet area for every tree to be planted, and auguring 24 inch holes at each point to completely remove all of the root mass from grasses before planting trees. After planting, black plastic weed barriers covered the ground around each tree, along with hardwood mulch brought in from the university’s composting facility. Mulch was spread 4 inches thick on the entire 8 by 8 feet area for every tree. Grasses and other weeds, if left in the ground, can easily out-compete tree seedlings for water. As part of regular, ongoing maintenance, volunteers go in each year and hand-weed, shore up the protective tubes around the seedlings, and reapply mulch.

“We even had two Eagle Scouts who earned their wings by participating in the Sheep Farm Restoration Project,” says Katie. “They helped with planning, ordering, and volunteer coordination, as well as pitching in on work days. The project required a lot of administrative work. It was a good education for them, and something fun that they’ll never forget.”

Partnerships have been as critical to ClearWater’s success as is its ability to retain volunteers. When a local farm property adjacent to state forest lands recently became available, ClearWater stepped in to purchase the farm from a private developer and placed it in trust, then transferred the property to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry. The transfer increased Rothrock State Forest by 423 acres. Called Musser Gap, the site includes an old dam and reservoir that at one time supplied water to the university, several miles away. This month, with the help of the Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited and Pennsylvania DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry, ClearWater is initiating a new project to remove the dam and restore the natural stream bed through the gap.

“The dam no longer has any functional use and is in a tremendous state of disrepair,” says Katie. “Now that it’s no longer private property and the public can access the dam area, it’s a real liability. Musser Gap is a popular hiking destination and home to one of five remaining Brook Trout populations in our region, so people do go up there. Restoring the stream bed is a good idea any way you look at it.”

Hauling and removing stone and concrete from the site would damage the forest on the way down the gap and out. Fortunately, concrete on the dam’s large walled basin was applied like plaster, with native stones underneath. The walls will be broken apart and used to fill in the basin, then covered with as much additional native stone as needed, with stepped pools built above the dam for grade control and amphibian habitat.

With so many local landowners turning to ClearWater for help and advice on restoring native habitat and protecting the watershed, the organization decided it was important to set a good example. Its own offices, in what was once a Township municipal building still owned by the local government, are located in what Katie calls “a sea of asphalt.” With the help of their landlord, Patton Township, and with volunteer Master Gardeners who keep an eye on the place, ClearWater installed rain barrels and a rain garden, widened planting space, reduced impervious surface further still by getting rid of one driveway altogether, and created a native meadow including plants to draw birds and butterflies. Interpretive panels explain landscaping choices to visitors, with the site serving as a demonstration for ClearWater’s educational “Watershed-Wise Techniques for Backyards and Businesses” program. The building is pictured here before and after installation of the rain garden.

“It’s hard to tell people what to do when they can see you’re not doing it yourself,” says Katie. “We wanted to give people ideas, and to show that you can do all this at home, even on less than a half-acre.”

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The good people of ClearWater Conservancy can be reached at (814) 237-0400 and found on the web here.

“We’re All in the Same Bathtub” copyright Jim McClure, all rights reserved for ClearWater Conservancy.

Jennifer Chesworth is editor of Ecological Landscape Alliance’s e-news and is a native Central Pennsylvanian.