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“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leopold

A river does not simply flow over the land, it experiences the land: its chemistry reflects geology, its currents churn from runoff; its constitution feels the land’s sickness. Clean water requires healthy landscapes.

As a land trust, Berks Nature realized our work was as much about the land as it was the water and in the 1990s our strategic priorities expanded to acknowledge this vital connection.

This story was originally published in the Spring 2024 50th Anniversary Issue of Ecotones, Berks Nature’s newsletter. Throughout 2024, Berks Nature will be adapting and republishing these anniversary stories to reminisce and celebrate 50 years of serving nature in Berks County.

The same realization was unfolding concurrently on a regional scale, as the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) and PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (PA DCNR) launched new funding to support watershed planning.

Berks Nature eagerly put these funds to work, developing protection plans for Berks County’s major watersheds, orchestrating $5.9 million in federal funds for the Tulpehocken Creek watershed, and joining local resistance to protect the Oley Hills’ pristine Pine Creek.

Hidden among swaths of furrowed forests, 60 miles of pristine rivers spill over the Oley Hills’ rocky terrain. Six of the Hills’ streams have earned Exceptional Value designation, an esteemed moniker granted to just 4% of all Pennsylvania streams. Taken together, these waterways represent the region’s most valuable watersheds.

One such Exceptional Value stream is the Pine Creek.

But the Pine Creek watershed faced disaster when its notoriety caught the gaze of the Wissahickon Water Company’s commercial interests.

In the 1990s, the Wissahickon Water Company sought to purchase the Lobachsville Trout Hatchery – a 44-acre tract of land on the border of the Pike and Oley Townships in the Pine Creek Watershed – to build a water bottling plant.

The plant would extract as much as 288,000 gallons a day from the pure groundwater below, to ship and sell as luxurious bottled water.

For over three years, the Pine Creek Watershed Association and the Pike Oley District Preservation Coalition battled against the Wissahickon Water Company’s proposal on the Federal, State, and township levels.

The basis for their defense was two-fold: first, trucking this bottled commodity would place undue strain on local roadways and second, a commercial withdrawal of this scale jeopardized the functionality of the Pine Creek’s wetland nexus, which are phenomenal both in their water quality and biodiversity.

It was this latter point that ultimately championed a legal victory for the Pine Creek.

The Lobachsville Trout Hatchery battle and subsequent easement galvanized community support for watershed protection and paved the way for Berks Nature to establish several other conservation easements across the Oley Hills.

Four years later, in 2004, Berks Nature would establish a conservation easement in partnership with Albright College on the Lobachsville Wetland property, 23 acres of exceptional value wetlands acquired by the Pine Creek Watershed Association immediately adjacent to the Lobachsville Trout Hatchery.

These wetlands harbor an extraordinary community of threatened flora and sensitive fauna, which have and continue to attract botanists and student researchers seeking to monitor and study an increasingly rare aquatic ecosystem.

Just upstream of the two Lobachsville easements, the Muhlenberg Wetlands, including 19 acres of upland pasture and 7 acres of Pine Creek’s pristine wetland nexus would be preserved in perpetuity under a conservation easement of its own in 2011.

In establishing this easement, Berks Nature also gained management responsibility of the Muhlenberg Wetland, and were tasked with conserving and reinforcing its ecological integrity. Woody and reedy invasive plants that were interfering with the functionality of the wetland were removed and Texas Longhorns (that’s right, the bovine) were brought in by the tenant farmer to graze on and suppress the return of new shoots.

Texas Longhorn grazing in the Muhlenberg Wetland as part of this sensitive ecosystem’s long-term management.

Despite the integral role that wetlands play in our lives – as water purifiers, as flood defenders, as wildlife nurseries and homes – these unique ecosystems are declining. Since European settlement, the United States has lost over half of its original wetlands. Even now, we continue to drain, dredge, and dam wetlands to better suit our perceived needs; an estimated 60,000-70,000 acres of wetland disappear each year.

Consequently, many of the plants and animals that rely wholly on wetlands to live also face extinction.

The Federal and State-level regulations protecting wetlands and their sensitive denizens from disturbance and destruction shielded these wetlands of the Pine Creek from the Wissahickon Water Company’s proposed exploitation.

The Wissahickon Water Company’s permit was defeated, but the war was not over.

Berks Nature, the Pine Creek Watershed Association, and the Pike Oley District Preservation Coalition set to work fundraising $200,000 to purchase the development rights for the trout hatchery. Finally in October 2000, Berks Nature established a conservation easement for the Lobachsville Trout Hatchery, protecting the land from development in perpetuity.

Though the Wissahickon Water Company’s plans had been successfully deflected, the battle exposed the Oley community to an unnerving reality: their precious home, though ecologically resilient, was vulnerable to commercial and development interests.

At the close of the 20th century, Pennsylvania had one of the highest rates of land development in the United States, ranking 5th in the country. Much of this suburban sprawl claimed prime farmland and forest, well removed from traditional urban centers, threatening the historic, rural landscapes of the Commonwealth.

Whereas the Oley Valley is underlain by limestone, gifting the basin with superior farmland, the Reading Prong formation sustains the Oley Hills. Contrasting the farms of the valley, 27,000 acres of forest blanket 75% of the region’s rugged slopes, making the Oley Hills one of the largest intact swaths of woodland in Berks County.

But unlike the Oley Valley, which had enjoyed success protecting its agricultural heritage through the Berks County Agricultural Land Preservation (BCALP) easement program, there were no Federal, State, or County-sponsored initiatives to protect the rugged woodlands and pristine waters of the Oley Hills.

In a truly grassroots movement, protection of the Oley Hills stemmed entirely from the community’s own resources, propelled by a deeply rooted land ethic; a belief that this land was a special part of the community’s lives, heritage, and future, deserving of respect and protection in perpetuity.

From there, Berks Nature stepped in, leveraging support from the William Penn Foundation and utilizing our expertise as a charitable land trust to hold the conservation easements.

With so much common ground to share, enthusiasm for conservation easements spread readily across the Hills: neighbors helping neighbors, easements among friends.

The first 104 acres came in 2003, then another 56 acres a year later in 2004. In that same year Berks Nature placed a conservation easement on the 23-acre Lobachsville Wetland; 184 acres of the Oley Hills protected in one short year.

On the national stage, 2004 marked the passing of the Highlands Conservation Act, which formally recognized the conservation value of the Pennsylvania Highlands region and explicitly acknowledged the Oley Hills as a conservation focal area for its exceptional natural, recreational, and cultural resources.

But this recognition came with a warning: the Oley Hills drew national attention both for its ecological and cultural value as well as its vulnerability, as an area lacking permanent protection of its critical natural assets.

Fortunately, the passing of the Highlands Conservation Act established new funding to support the stewardship and protection of the entire Highlands region and with new funding came new opportunities for Oley.

Thanks to the Pine Creek Watershed Association’s networking, Berks Nature already had a queue of 50 Oley Hills residents eager to ease their land and take advantage of these new financial resources. In 2011 Berks Nature and the Oley Hills became the first Pennsylvania-based recipients of the Highlands Conservation Fund grant, using this award to secure three more conservation easements totaling 290 acres.

During this time, the Oley Hills began garnering local attention as well, funneling additional funding for land protection into the region. Using the Pike Township Municipal Land Preservation program, a joint effort between Pike Township and the County to split the cost of purchasing easements, Berks Nature established six new conservation easements in the Oley Hills in 2011.

Since 1989, Berks Nature has helped place approximately 3,200 acres of the Oley Hills under conservation easements, protecting these properties from development in perpetuity.

These conservation victories represent Berks Nature’s first campaign to intentionally prioritize a geographic region for focused conservation, a community-based strategy that continues to guide Berks Nature today, and are a testament to the power of community united by purpose.

As Margaret Mead so aptly stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Phoebe Hopkins (middle), President of Berks Nature 1991-1999 and active member of the Pine Creek Watershed Association, alongside volunteers installing stream bank stabilization measures.

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