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Land trusts in Southwestern Pennsylvania preserve green spaces

| Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010

In two years of operation, the Westmoreland Land Trust has preserved more than 100 acres of green space in four communities.

It continues to look for land that people would be willing to donate or sell to be preserved for future generations.

"I think that's a pretty good start," said trust chairman Charles Duritsa. "We're very pleased with that, and we hope to move on from here."

The Westmoreland Land Trust is one of the newest entries into the region's land conservation efforts.

Twenty land trusts operating in Southwestern Pennsylvania have protected more than 231,000 acres. While most of that has been transferred to government entities to manage, many trusts own and manage the properties they are conserving.

Across Pennsylvania, land trusts own or hold easements to about 4.3 percent of property dedicated to conservation and recreation, according to the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.

The Allegheny Land Trust, founded in 1993, has preserved 1,500 acres in Allegheny and Washington counties. The group has targeted holdings that help to address problems such as flooding, loss of scenic character and loss of biological diversity, said Roy Kraynyk, executive director.

"We need to identify the lands that provide the greatest public benefits," Kraynyk said. "Our premise is that there are lands out there that are more valuable to the community from an environmental, economic and public safety and welfare perspective being in a natural condition."

Though their group is relatively young, Westmoreland Land Trust officials hope to significantly impact the quality of life in the county.

Duritsa said the land trust came about after the county drafted a comprehensive plan. Residents suggested creation of the land trust.

"The one thing that was heard very loudly was people like Westmoreland County because of its open space. It's agricultural, and people wanted to see it stay that way as much as possible," Duritsa said.

The Westmoreland Conservation District and the county planning department took the lead in creating the trust through a series of meetings in 2007. A year later, the land trust was formally created as a private, nonprofit organization.

The trust launched with a $260,000 state grant county officials had set aside for conservation. The money was used to purchase two properties with two donated properties used as a required match.

Those properties are:

• The Otto and Magdalene Ackermann Nature Preserve, a 59-acre tract near Ardara in North Huntingdon, a wooded area with primitive trails and a creek, which is owned by the county and managed by the land trust;

• The Peter and Victoria Skena Nature Reserve, 22 acres on North Hills Road in Murrysville, woodlands with a small pond that is now owned by the municipality. It is adjacent to an established nature reserve.

• The Budd Parcel at Cedar Creek Park, a 21-acre tract in Rostraver that is now part of the county park.

• The Cabin Hill Property, 3.5 acres of mature woodlands in Greensburg owned by the county and managed by the land trust.

Trust officials are using a new $166,000 state grant to purchase property near Duff Park in Murrysville with another property donated as a match. If the deal goes through, the trust will have preserved more than 200 acres.

"We understand there is a need for development, but there's also a need for open space," Duritsa said. "We don't try to compete with development in any way, shape or form. Properties that have been donated to us, those folks do want it preserved. That's what they want done with the property they've held onto for many years."

The Cedar Creek property, which has unique wildflowers, provides a buffer around the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail and the Youghiogheny River, said Malcolm Sias of Westmoreland County Parks and Recreation.

"It's right within the viewshed on the trail of the river," he said. "When you're riding, you like to have that great, wide-open feeling."

Murrysville has about 1,200 acres of park land and open space through the efforts of the municipality, the Westmoreland Land Trust and the Westmoreland Conservancy, said the municipality's chief administrator, Jim Morrison.

"Murrysville views the preservation of open space as something it holds very dearly," Morrison said.

While Murrysville land conservation has long been the domain of the Westmoreland Conservancy, that group's president said the more groups involved in preservation, the better.

"All of our groups need to work together, because we're all working toward the same goal. That's to preserve open space — not just for people, but for the animals and the plant life and everything else," said conservancy President Shelly Tichy.

The conservancy, launched in 1991 by a group trying to save a large farm from development, has preserved 265 acres of green space. Next year, they'll open a community trail that will enable people to walk about six to seven miles across Murrysville, Tichy said.

"You can't preserve what you don't have," Tichy said. "They're not making more land, and it gets eaten up really quickly. Once it's gone, it's gone."

That was the thought of the founders of the Hollow Oak Land Trust, established in 1991 to preserve land around Pittsburgh International Airport.

"There was a tremendous amount of development pressure being brought to bear on the airport area. The founders of our organization said we have to balance that, we have to have green space, we have to have clean air and clean water and birds and animals around," said Executive Director Janet Thorne.

"We did not want to see concrete and asphalt over everything," she said.

The trust owns a little more than 400 acres with another 100 conserved through easement agreements in five municipalities.

"All of our properties are open free to the public for low-impact, nonmotorized use," Thorne said. "They are essentially the back yard of a lot of these (housing) developments."

In Armstrong County, two organizations have preserved 1,747 acres for recreational and green space uses.

The Armstrong County Conservancy Charitable Trust and its offshoot, the Allegheny Valley Land Trust, work to provide hunting lands and bike trails, and to "help Mother Nature to try to heal itself," said Ron Steffey, executive director of the land trust.

The conservancy, founded in 1983, set out to preserve priority lands. In 1991, the conservancy set up the Allegheny Valley Land Trust to secure railroad corridors to build a hiking and biking trail.

One large tract of land the conservancy purchased was given to the Pennsylvania Game Commission and is now part of state game lands. But purchasing the land isn't enough. The conservancy's volunteers work on streambank stabilization projects and trying to clean up mine drainage.

Thorne said, while developers provide brick-and-mortar infrastructure, land trusts provide a "green infrastructure."

"It's the plants that produce clean air for us, and the soil that produces our plants," she said. "We have to have the open space to be able to survive. Particularly as our population gets larger and larger, it becomes more critical to preserve green space that's necessary to keep us going."

Additional Information:

If you're interested

The Westmoreland Land Trust is looking for people interested in donating or selling their property for preservation. The trust is a nonprofit organization and any land donations are tax deductible. For more information, call the land trust at 724-309-0411 or visit its website .

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