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Group protects Donegal Township nature reserve

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By Amy Crawford
Saturday, June 18, 2011
 

Cerulean warblers, sharp-shinned hawks, bobcats and brown bears can continue to make their homes in the dense forest along Four Mile Run in Donegal Township, thanks to a new conservation easement arranged by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Randall Reserve, a 272-acre parcel next to Donegal Lake, will be preserved as a natural habitat in perpetuity, the conservancy's Laurel Highlands program director, Mike Kuzemchak, said this week.

"To have 272 acres that are essentially uninterrupted is fairly unique," he said.

The land will continue to be owned by the Randall Reserve Foundation, which has managed it since the mid-1990s. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy purchased a conservation easement for $41,000, using a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The money, which covers a reduction in the property's value because its uses are now limited, will be used by Randall Reserve to maintain the land.

"It's a really effective tool," said Kuzemchak, whose group has preserved nearly 77,900 acres in the Laurel Highlands, including 8,300 acres in the Ligonier Valley.

Kuzemchak said it was important to maintain continuous tracts of heavily forested land, because some animals, including threatened bird species, can thrive only away from humans. Dividing the land with roads or housing, he said, creates "edge habitat," which is more suitable for a different range of species.

"You start getting animals like raccoons and skunks that will eat birds," he explained. "You have a scrubby area where they can take shelter and venture out to get to garbage cans. There's nothing wrong with those animals, but you want others too."

This particular tract of land is home to nine bird species that are especially vulnerable to changes in their habitat, Kuzemchak said. They include the cerulean warbler, osprey and Louisiana waterthrush.

Kuzemchak said the land would be open to humans only for low-impact activities, such as hiking. In addition to prohibiting development, the easement also will restrict gas drilling to sub-surface only, meaning that horizonal drilling under the land might happen, but surface wells are not allowed.

"At this point, we're comfortable allowing that," Kuzemchak said, noting that the effect of deep drilling on ground water has not yet been determined.

Though there are several Marcellus shale gas wells in the Laurel Highlands, Eric Ross, a spokesman for the conservancy, said the group has not stepped up conservation efforts because of the industry's expansion. But he added that its vice president of government and community relations, Cynthia Carrow, was on the governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.

"We're heavily involved in the conversation," Ross said.

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