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Susquehanna Life

Conservation: Keeping Susquehanna River Lands Wild

The conservancy’s Kelly’s Run Pinnacle Preserve now encompasses Kelly’s Run Trails, the former PPL Pinnacle Preserve and the former PPL Holtwood Nature Preserve.

By Michael Garrigan

Lancaster County’s population is projected to reach 550,000 over the next two years, squeezing the landscape and threatening natural places. Is it possible to achieve a sustainable balance between land development and preservation?

Keeping Susquehanna River Lands Wild

The Susquehanna River takes a sharp bend through Lancaster and York counties before making its last run to the Chesapeake Bay. The water grows deep as it slows behind Safe Harbor Dam, pooling to create Lake Clarke. This area is not only a merging of water, but of people as well.

Lancaster County is projected to reach a population of 550,000 over the next two years, as the region’s burgeoning opportunities and quality of life are discovered. Yet, with this growth comes a squeeze on the landscape and natural places. Wooded, protected areas along Susquehanna River lands are being threatened.

Achieving a sustainable balance between land development and preservation is the mission of the Lancaster Conservancy, which works to preserve “open-space areas for continuing public recreation and educational use, as well as providing methods and assistance by which concerned citizens can help protect these precious community conservation tools.”

The Lancaster Conservancy, founded in 1969, has preserved thousands of acres. Though originally centralized in Lancaster County, the conservancy has expanded its vision to include land on both sides of the Susquehanna River in Lancaster and York counties. A total of 46 preserves offer opportunities for hiking, fishing, hunting, bird watching and easy access to the last remaining wild places in these counties.  

Land donors

Land donors are critical to the conservancy’s goal of preserving wild places. Over the years, the conservancy has received land from large utility companies such as PPL, Bookfield and Talen Energy. Local citizens have generously donated their land to the mission and vision of Lancaster Conservancy, including Steve and Sharon Rannels’s family, who donated 91 acres that now make up the diverse and vibrant Rannels-Kettle Run Preserve in the Furnace Hills of northern Lancaster County. This preserve, according to director of stewardship Brandon Tennis, contains a mature hardwood forest along the Kettle Run stream corridor. This bottomland forest habitat has been a rookery for the Great Blue Heron and adjoins over 1,000 acres of State Game lands #156 to the west and north.

The Rannels explored these woods as young kids and “learned a deep respect for the natural world, watching birds, studying insects, trees and plants and playing in the creek. It was our own natural park,” said Steve. Eventually, Steve became very interested in insect life and started collecting and later photographing moths native to the land. “I recently presented a poster of the Rannels-Kettle Run moths to the conservancy,” he added. “This lifelong project represents only one small part of the vast natural diversity represented within the preserve. Every property is unique and full of wonders—and must be protected from the rapid changes brought on by human population and development.”

It was through this love of moths and insects that Steve “developed a strong desire to protect for everyone what I experienced as a young boy and as an adult—forever. We wanted to create a place where things will change in a natural way, and make it available for others to have a similar experience and hopefully a similar respect for the natural land around us. It wasn’t because we thought our land was particularly special; it was because we decided that all land is special.”

Land acquisition

The White Cliffs of Conoy in Lancaster

Often, it is through the tireless work of local government officials that land evolves from private to public property. One such case is a new preserve in Conoy Township. The Conoy Wetlands includes the Falmouth Forest Garden. Township supervisor Stephen Mohr helped steer the land from private to public preserve. The township’s “preservation mentality is absent the term ‘giving up,’” says Mohr. “Here in Conoy we have much to sing about. Some ask us, ‘What’s the hurry?’ Simple,” Mohr says. “Tomorrow may be too late. Tomorrow this land may be posted with ‘Keep Out’ signs.”

Mohr hopes to maintain land access for the people of Conoy to show the rest of the county what it has to offer. The biggest satisfaction, he says, is “seeing it being used by people of all ages. Our thanks is knowing that others are enjoying the benefits of our time. People are talking about The Northwest Lancaster County Rail-Trail, the river, the White Cliffs of Conoy and the history of Conoy.”

Land users

Welsh Mountain

The natural places of Lancaster and York counties the conservancy has preserved offer a variety of outdoor activities. For example, over the past few years, Climbers Run Nature Preserve has evolved to also function as the conservancy's environmental education center. People of all ages visit to learn about the ecosystems of the river lands. Through a partnership with NorthBay Adventure Camp, the School District of Lancaster is inviting seventh and eighth grade students to participate in ongoing field studies at Climbers Run to demonstrate the connection between human actions and watersheds.

Matthew Fuddy, seventh grade science teacher at Wheatland Middle School, hopes to bridge the gap between curriculum and experience. “In order to take care of nature and become stewards of our watersheds we need to provide our youth with experiences in it,” Matthew says. He wants his students to create a personal connection [with nature] which helps them see nature as a part of us, not just a thing that happens out there. That connection builds stewardship and a drive to take care of our natural world.”

Lincoln Middle School students engaged in field studies at Climber’s Run with NorthBay

Others venture into these vestiges of wilderness to draw closer to native species. Brian Leszkowicz, a Lancaster County native, says that each time he steps onto a preserve, he is “reminded that these places will not only last for my lifetime, but will be enjoyed by many future generations. I’m particularly fond of the Susquehanna River lands. I have hiked many miles under the canopy of old growth forests and climbed to the top of some truly spectacular boulders and rock formations. I have fished many miles of protected wild trout streams and uncovered their hidden gems. I have seen views of the river that are so magnificent that no picture would ever be able to do it the justice it deserves.”

As a result of the conservancy’s work, people of Central Pennsylvania are able to venture up a stream in search of native brook trout, hike out to Pinnacle Overlook to watch Bald Eagles and Osprey, stalk deer with a muzzleloader in one of the preserves that allows hunting or meander through Welsh Mountain, the last piece of wilderness in eastern Lancaster. Whatever your outdoor inclination, take some time to connect with wilderness through opportunities created by Lancaster Conservancy.  

If you Go

In partnership with Millersville University, the Lancaster Conservancy will host a BioBlitz event at Welsh Mountain Nature Preserve, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 14-15, during which scientists and field experts inventory flora and fauna. Come for an hour to see a botanist identify plants or for multiple educational opportunities with scientists, from entomologists to herpetologists, throughout the free event. More information is at

Michael Garrigan lives along the banks of the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County where he writes, teaches, and explores the riverlands with a fly rod.

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