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Susquehanna Life

Outdoor Recreation - Saving Montour Preserve

Aug 29, 2015 05:07PM ● By Erica Shames

Montour Preserve looks and feels like a state park. There’s a boat launch at Lake Chillisquaque, with a ring of hiking trails, a fossil pit for young visitors to sift through and a maple sugar shack that ushers in the start of spring for school children and the public who visit and learn how maple syrup is made. Although available for public use, the preserve was owned by PPL Electric Utilities, with the lake serving as a backup water source for the nearby Montour Power Plant.

And it wasn’t until PPL announced in September 2014 that it could no longer afford to maintain the preserve that the public learned what they could miss.

“So many people had no idea that PPL maintained the preserve at their sole expense,” said Bob Stoudt, director of the Montour Area Recreation Commission (MARC), an organization created in 2005 to promote and enhance recreation throughout the county.  “They deserve a great deal of credit for doing this for 40 years.

Stoudt grew up near Turbotville, so saving the preserve became a personal mission, as well as one to achieve for the public. “I spent many days of my childhood fishing in Lake Chillisquaque with my dad and my friends and we spent a great deal of time looking for fossils at the fossil pit, hiking the trails, picnicking in the pavilions or exploring the visitors’ center.  It means a great deal to my family, friends and community and it’s important to me that my kids have the opportunity to enjoy and learn from the Preserve as I have.”

MARC’s mission, to “make and promote Montour County, PA, as a healthy place to live, work and play,” is a goal that’s been worked toward for more than ten years.  “We recognize the Montour Preserve as the premier outdoor recreation destination in Montour County, providing healthy, family-friendly outdoor recreation opportunities for regional residents while also promoting the travel and tourism economy in Montour County,” said Stoudt. 

Faced with the prospect of losing a key piece of its outdoor space, the Montour Area Recreation Commission sprung into action. Less than a year after PPL announced it would cut park maintenance, MARC set a goal to raise more than $100,000 to keep the park open.

The outpouring of public support was swift on the Save the Montour Preserve Facebook page that Stoudt created, filled with stories of fundraising efforts, from children collecting coins and individuals posting pleas for donations to full-blown corporate fundraising strategies. A request for photos to populate the site resulted in a virtual storybook of the many ways the public enjoys spending time at the site—from picnicking and fishing to hiking and bird-watching.

In just over six months, the $100,000 goal was reached and MARC and officials from Talen Energy—which now owns the Montour plant—reached an agreement for the recreation commission to maintain the park and offer public programs.

Faced with a changing landscape for electrical generation, including increased competition from natural gas, Talen Energy was forced to find ways to cut costs at the coal-fired Montour plant.

“The preserve is one of the difficult decisions the plant has had to make,” said George Lewis, spokesman for Talen Energy, of the decision to stop funding the preserve.

Talen is thankful MARC found a new model for keeping the preserve open, and keeping the full complement of activities the community has come to enjoy, Lewis said.

“We saw the vision that MARC had, and what they wanted to do,” he said. “We were interested in helping to get something done.”

As part of the agreement, MARC will maintain the trail system and keep the visitors and environmental education centers open. The commission will also pay for liability insurance, take care of snow plowing and also pay a portion of the real estate taxes on the 650-acre preserve. Talen will keep the site open to the public, care for the dam at the lake and operate a sewage treatment plant at the preserve.

To date, more than 118,000 has been raised. Now, the Montour Area Recreation Commission is tackling its most ambitious project to date.

“We have always known the preserve was the gem in Montour County for outdoor recreation,” Stoudt said. “It was the gold standard we aspired to.”

News that the Montour Preserve will be remain open comes as welcome relief to Bloomsburg resident Ruth Youmans, who takes weekly hikes at the preserve.

Youmans started walking there when she moved to the region in the 1980s. Now, at the age of 72, Youmans’ weekly hikes are part of her exercise regime. But along with being a good source of physical exercise, the chance to be outside in nature is good for the soul, Youmans said.

“When I walk around the lake, each spot has a different meaning,” she said. “It also is a reminder that life is always changing.”

Steve Patton, president of Watsontown Trucking, has traveled with his family throughout the country, and to Africa, to take part in various outdoor recreational activities. But over time he’s come to appreciate, all over again, the Montour Preserve and the fantastic wilderness retreat that it offers. He donated $25,000 to help keep the facility open.

“Sometimes, crisis builds awareness,” he said. “Everyone who helped keep the preserve open deserves a ton of credit.”

While MARC was able to raise enough money to fund maintenance for a year, commission officials estimate they will still need about $115,000 annually to pay for ongoing operations. That means MARC faces the ongoing fundraising challenges to keep the preserve open.

“If we had to go every year and raise that money, I am confident that we will not be able to do it,” Stoudt said. “People will lose that sense of urgency.

Instead, MARC is striving to raise upwards of $500,000 to maintain the preserve while trying to find ways to generate a profit from its use. Some options include the addition of concessionaires that could rent bicycles or sell picnic items, Stoudt said.

“We need to go from a park used freely to being able to make money at the site, without jeopardizing people’s ability to use it,” he said.

Most importantly, the preserve will stay open for the popular outdoor recreation that people have come to love. The preserve has one of the few boating options in the county, and the fossil pit is a unique feature. One bird watcher counted 10 different species on a recent visit. And there are a lot of memories attached to the preserve, Stoudt said.

“It's personal for me, and a lot of people in the area. The thought of it going away is more than a lot of people could bear,” he said. “The Montour Preserve means so much to so many people." 

Written by Darrin Youker, an outdoors enthusiast living outside Philadelphia. 

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