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Conservationists protect state park along Lake Erie shore

| Sunday, June 15, 2008

Eco-tourism was starting to gain traction 10 years ago when a friend called Tom Fuhrman, concerned about the stretch of forested Lake Erie wilderness shoreline where they'd hunted for years.

The massive trees -- tulip poplars, wild black cherry, oak, maple and hemlock -- on the old Coho site, the last stretch of undeveloped Great Lakes shoreline in Pennsylvania, had been marked with orange spray paint.

"It was 1998 on the first day of hunting season," Fuhrman recalled. "I called the state, and they said (it) was marked for clear cutting."

Thus began the fight to save what eventually would become Pennsylvania's newest and, for now, one of its most pristine state parks.

Thanks to a campaign that enlisted the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and birthed the Lake Erie Regional Conservancy, the 540-acre lakefront site has been preserved as an uncut gem. It is eco-tourism at its most basic, a place for great views and rare Pennsylvania lake shore wilderness for those willing to pull on hiking boots and a day pack.

A decade ago, that seemed unlikely, when Fuhrman learned the site adjoining his family's summer retreat had changed hands.

When a multinational corporation acquired the site from a power company, the new owners were looking to divest assets, including the timber on Erie Bluffs. The prospect of a denuded forest tract, subdivided for McMansions and closed forever to public access, spurred Fuhrman to action.

Fuhrman, a 59-year-old manufacturer's representative who had spent summers at the lake, never imagined development would encroach on the rocky shores that give way to deep forest.

During the next six years, Fuhrman's campaign to preserve the site morphed into the Lake Erie Regional Conservancy. The organization, headquartered at Mercyhurst College, enlisted the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in an effort that culminated with acquisition of the site in 2004, when it became Pennsylvania's 117th state park.

Four years later, the park remains one best suited for hard-core outdoor enthusiasts.

It's easy to miss Erie Bluffs. There are no signs identifying it, no campgrounds, no ranger stations, no marked trails -- just woods and lake shore.

Rangers at Presque Isle, the commonwealth's only Great Lakes beach, share responsibility for Erie Bluffs.

Jerry McWilliams, assistant curator at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center at Presque Isle State Park, says Erie Bluffs offers visitors a different perspective of the lake from the one they get at Presque Isle.

Given the proximity of the parks, it's possible to take in both perspectives on a single day.

Presque Isle, a sandy peninsula, features 21 miles of recreational trails that attract cyclists and skaters, as well as 11 sandy surf beaches that are open for swimming every summer. It is Pennsylvania's busiest state park, with about 4 million visitors a year.

On a brisk spring afternoon, several days before the official start of the beach season, Don Masso walked along the Presque Isle beach with his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.

Masso, who lives in Kenya, just outside Nairobi, grew up on the east side of Erie. His family moved away in 1957 when he was a sophomore in high school.

They returned on this occasion for a memorial service for his late father.

Masso recalled how seaweed washed up on the shore of the grossly polluted lake during the 1950s, leaving a terrible stench.

Gazing out on the blue-green waves whipped to shore by a brisk wind, Masso doffed his shoes, shirt and pants and took a dive into the icy water, swimming 50 yards out along the shoreline.

"Cold," but not too cold to swim, he announced walking back to the shore.

"It's nice to see (the lake) back again," he says.

Masso was pleased to hear Erie Bluffs had become a state park.

No one knows exactly how many visitors have trekked through the wilds of Erie Bluffs during the past four years. But aside from local Audubon Society bird treks each spring, it's a small handful.

"If people want to get away from crowds, Erie Bluffs is certainly the place to go. There are trails there where you can wander around. You've got second-growth forest, primary forest and the bluffs," McWilliams says.

Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, director of land protection for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, says Erie Bluffs was a natural project for the Pittsburgh-based organization, which had negotiated the acquisition for the public of another tract of wilderness several miles away on the Ohio border.

That tract, originally bought by Andrew Carnegie, now is the David Roderick Game Lands.

Like Erie Bluffs, it was a site many assumed would birth industry.

"At one point, Andrew Carnegie had a plan to put a steel mill on the Roderick site," Naccarati-Chapkis says.

Reliant, an energy giant that operates power plants throughout the Northeast, owned Erie Bluffs when the Conservancy began negotiations that culminated in purchase of the land for $2.3 million in December 2003. The Conservancy bought the site with a combination of state grants and its own money, and then deeded it over to the state for $1.5 million.

Shortly before the site was turned over to the state, a team of 140 scientists and volunteers descended upon the tract for a two-day bio-blitz that cataloged the wonders of Erie Bluffs.

Charles Bier, senior director of conservation science for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, helped map the fauna and flora. He sees great potential for interpretative presentations on the unique site.

Among the findings at Erie Bluffs: 80 species of birds; 19 mammals; four species of bats; more than 300 plants; 94 species of fungi; almost 500 land-dwelling insects; land and aquatic snails; and more than a dozen species of reptiles and amphibians.

Add the site's unique geology and a history that includes six Paleolithic agricultural sites, and the potential for interpretive hikes begins to take shape.

"You have a forest on top of 90-foot bluffs overlooking the lake. At one time, the lake was much higher, and the shore was farther south. So when you're walking through the forest you see large, smooth, water-tossed stones," Bier says.

Farther inland, there is a fossil sand dune ridge, another reminder of a much higher waterline.

Bier says the dune, which is pure sand, is referred to as a fossil dune because it's a remnant of a long-ago period. The delicate dune ridge atop the bluffs provides a unique habitat for the black oak, Bier says.

For now, the easiest access to Erie Bluffs is from Elk Creek. The stream, a tributary of Lake Erie, is considered one of the region's premier steelhead trout streams. The state recently acquired the Elk Creek Access Area, an 80-acre site in Girard adjacent to Erie Bluffs. It includes a parking lot, paved access road and boat launch at Elk Creek several hundred yards south of the lake.

On a sunny morning, as birds call out while anglers cast their lines in Elk Creek, Fuhrman offers a guided tour along the rough forest trails that crisscross the park.

"There's a blue heron rookery here," Fuhrman says, gesturing to the flats around the stream.

The trailheads are obscured on the hillside above Elk Creek. Although the trails aren't marked, it's obvious hikers trek through the woods regularly.

Fading trillium decorates the hill on one side, with a tract of May apples at the top.

Fuhrman, who left Western Pennsylvania briefly for a stint in San Diego during the late 1970s, navigates the trails effortlessly. Sunlight filters through trees that form green cathedral arches as Fuhrman talks of his battle to keep the area wild.

"This is what brought me back from California," he says, the woods giving way to rocky lakeshore.

"This is what it should be. We're all drawn to water. It's part of what makes us human," Fuhrman says, surveying the rocky shore from his perch on the limb of a bleached gray tree that had washed ashore near the trail.

Farther down the shoreline is Duck Run, a forest stream that cuts through a deep ravine to the lake. The ravine would be an ideal site for an elevated forest trail, Fuhrman says while surveying the steep, forested valley.

At the mouth of Duck Run, the lake -- once declared dead as a result of industrial pollution -- laps the shore as birds circle overhead.

Now that it's in the public domain, keeping Erie Bluffs as pristine as possible is a priority, Fuhrman says.

When state officials unveiled a master plan for the park that called for the construction of a 20-room nature lodge, Fuhrman was among the most vocal critics.

Faced with local opposition and tight funds, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources scaled back plans and decided to move slowly at the site.

A DCNR spokeswoman says the state plans to seek bids to develop an access road, small parking lot and signage for the park this summer.

"I think it shows the state realizes this is a sensitive property, and it may take time to implement plans properly," Bier says.

Fuhrman hopes he's right. Limiting development and keeping the area wild for another generation would be a gift to the future, he says.

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