The protection of the Hellam Hills Conservation Area has been, and continues to be, one of the largest undertakings in the history of the Lancaster Conservancy. Phil Wenger, Conservancy President, and Brandon Tennis, Senior VP of Stewardship, share their unique perspectives on the importance of this conservation area and the planning taking place around it, the role it will play in the ecosystem and the community, and the role we can all play in the planning process.
Can you give us a brief overview of the Hellam Hills Conservation Area – what was it historically, and how did the Conservancy come to protect it?
PHIL WENGER: Hellam Hills is the largest contiguous forest inside the York, Lancaster, Harrisburg triangle. Most of this forested land was owned by private families for timbering and a water company for old unused reservoirs. Because of the proximity to large urban areas, these parcels were at high risk for development.
Historically, the Hellam Hills always attracted visitors seeking solace in nature. Native Americans occupied these hills for millennium using the forests, springs, and river for food and water. The groves of Paw Paw trees are a testament to this important food source for early inhabitants. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Wild Cat Falls and Wild Cat Run were an attraction for people escaping the heat of our cities. Inns were built and a ferry operated across the river, bringing visitors to enjoy these wild places. These hills provided cool waters and forests for visitors seeking to escape the heat of our cities. In the last 100 years, the land has been timbered and water infrastructure was built to capture the abundant springs and streams.
The Conservancy’s journey to acquire these lands began when the Marietta Gravity Water Company (MGWC) posted 600 acres for sale. They placed a high value on the land, claiming multiple development potential uses on the banks of the Susquehanna River. MGWC also took an additional 100 acres on Furnace Road and secured a subdivision plan for 23 lots. In 2015, with new leadership at the helm, the Conservancy met again with MGWC to pursue purchase of both the undeveloped and the subdivided lands that were ready for development totaling 680 acres. After years of conversations with MGWC the Conservancy was able to broker an agreement to purchase the properties at prices supported by appraisals. Partnering with the Kinsley family and The Conservation Fund, we acquired these 680 acres in 2018 and 2019.
Over subsequent years, we came to purchase several additional parcels ranging from 6 to 248 acres. In the last five years, we’ve invested approximately $8 million to purchase and protect over 1,000 acres in the Hellam Hills and we aren’t done yet. We are in negotiation with several adjacent property owners to further expand conservation in this area.
How does the Hellam Hills Conservation Area fit in the overall strategic goals of the Conservancy?
PHIL WENGER: In 2010, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) formed Conservation Landscapes (CL’s) across Pennsylvania. These are designated areas created to focus on the natural resources, encouraging investment in protecting those resources for public benefit. The Susquehanna Riverlands CL (SRCL) was formed, and the Conservancy was appointed to lead it.
The Conservancy Board made a strategic decision to protect and manage lands along the Susquehanna in York for a variety of reasons. Both forested slopes are in the same bioregion – our plants and animals don’t recognize man’s municipal boundaries. In addition, viewsheds on both sides of the river are critical to creating natural areas for hiking and recreation.
Why is it important for the Conservancy to go through a master planning process for the Hellam Hills Conservation Area?
BRANDON TENNIS: A Conservation Area is a new management strategy for the Conservancy. This strategy groups together nature preserves that are adjacent and/or near one another into larger management units (or Conservation Areas) that were otherwise separated by property boundaries; this allows us the opportunity to manage large landscapes, for both ecosystem health and passive recreation opportunities, more holistically. The master planning process has consisted of thorough ecological assessment, partner and community engagement, and transparent, mission-driven decision-making.
Can you tell us a little bit about the priorities that have been identified during the Master Plan process?
BRANDON TENNIS: The priority has always been to find the balance between managing for habitat/ecosystem health and visitor access/passive recreation opportunities. The master planning process identified ecological restoration, ecosystem resiliency, and passive reaction as priorities based upon site assessment and analysis as well as resource inventorying and public participation. The restoration needs of Wizard Ranch Nature Preserve are great in addressing failing streambanks, eroded streambeds, encroached-upon wetlands, degraded woodlands, and habitat-poor hay fields. Hellam Hills Nature Preserve, while consisting largely of intact forest, needs support in its ability to regenerate its next generation of canopy and understory trees. Management strategies prescribed to address these ecological needs have influenced the character and design of proposed trail systems. While trails at Wizard Ranch will be shorter and multi-looped to accommodate interpretive programming, the trails at Hellam Hills (such as the Mason-Dixon Trail) will be longer and with fewer junctions to provide a more cross-country experience.
How are partnerships and collaboration a key part of the creation and implementation of this master plan?
BRANDON TENNIS: In 2020, the Conservancy led an initiative funded by PA DCNR to develop an Integrated Land Management Plan (ILMP) for the Susquehanna Riverlands Conservation Landscape (SRCL) as defined as the Lancaster and York municipalities directly adjacent to the Susquehanna River. Our ILMP partners consist of the landowners and land managers of publicly-accessible natural lands within the SRCL working together to manage the region’s natural landscape more collaboratively and wholistically. The Hellam Hills Conservation Area master plan, as funded by the National Park Service and The Conservation Fund, was the first project within the SRCL to utilize the ILMP framework with each partner lending its technical expertise to management prescriptions and identifying available resources for implementing the plan. This collaboration ensures that the plan is grounded, appropriate, and doable.
What part of the master plan are you most excited about implementing in the HHMP?
BRANDON TENNIS: People have lived within the Susquehanna River Valley for thousands of years and, tending this region’s natural landscapes as working lands for producing food, medicine, and materials for clothes and shelter in sustainable and regenerative ways that not only served human needs but increased the carrying-capacity for many other species as well. Honoring the heritage of our natural lands through active management and applying agroforestry to our restoration efforts on Wizard Ranch Nature Preserve is what excites me the most about the outcomes of the master plan. Managing Wizard Ranch Nature Preserve in similar ways will increase biodiversity, carrying-capacity, and resiliency while providing a hands-on approach for visitors to connect to the heritage of our natural lands. With our success in establishing the Falmouth Forest Garden at Conoy Wetlands Nature Preserve and the black locust coppice groves at Wilton Meadows Nature Preserve, we feel confident in applying agroforestry as a public lands management strategy on Conservancy nature preserves that also provides for unique destinations and experiences for visitors.
What do you think will be the most challenging aspect of implementing the HHMP?
BRANDON TENNIS: Managing expectations is always a challenge. Addressing all the ecological needs of the conservation area followed by improving access for passive recreation from basic to universal accessible trails will take phasing across a duration of many years. To help expediate the process, however, the Conservancy designated a Regional Preserves Manager to the Hellam Hills Conservation Area as well as committed to establishing a Stewardship hub on the Wizard Ranch Nature Preserve to serve daily operations and project implementation.
What do you feel is the most exciting part of the Hellam Hills Master Plan for the community?
PHIL WENGER: For me the most exciting part is the 10 plus miles of trails that are planned and the amazing views of the river that will be available from Buzzard’s Roost and Wildcat Bluff for the recreational hikers in this community. We have nearly 2 million people that live within 20 miles of these nature preserves who will benefit from the numerous positive outcomes of spending time in nature.
What is your favorite feature of the Hellam Hills Conservation Area?
PHIL WENGER: My favorite feature is the stream trails at Dugans Run and especially at Wildcat Run. These are wild places with lots of water emerging from rock formations – forming waterfalls, seeps and springs. Walking the trails along these streams allows an immersion in nature second to none.
BRANDON TENNIS: Habitat. The conservation area consists of three sub-watersheds that drain directly to the Susquehanna River as well as a landscape mosaic of forest, woodland patches, hedges, and meadows. Combined, these landscape features equate to prime habitat when managed effectively to be both resilient and regenerative.
How can community members get involved in the process as it goes through its final stages and then through implementation?
PHIL WENGER: Over the next year, we are still in the planning stages as we phase in trails, parking and infrastructure called out for by the public in our process. We set a high priority to build a network of volunteers, under our Community Engagement Coordinator, Keith Williams. We plan to have a local advisory board help guide our continuing decisions and then once our trail and habitat work begins in earnest in 2023, we will set more volunteer work days to work together to build and support restoration of these properties.
BRANDON TENNIS: The public still has the opportunity to review and provide feedback on the draft master plan by visiting lancasterconservancy.org. The final plan will then be presented at a public meeting on March 30th. And although the management plan is prescriptive, certain elements of the plan (such as a comprehensive stream and wetland restoration plan) will need further development and implementation. Your donations will help the Conservancy breathe life into the plan and bring it to fruition. Lastly, implementation will necessitate volunteer assistance through our Volunteer Land Steward program as well as volunteer workdays.