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Land acquired for Somerset state park

| Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011

About four years ago, Mike Mumau, operations manager of Laurel Hill State Park, and Mike Kuzemchak, Laurel Hill program director for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, hiked to the top of a ridge in Somerset County to see whether a 137-acre property would be a good addition to the park.

"We turned a corner and we were standing looking out over this view, and I said, 'What are we even looking for• This is fabulous. Let's go full steam ahead,'" Mumau said on Tuesday. "The conservation value is incredible. As my grandfather always said, 'They're not making any more of it.'"

The Somerset County property -- fields of wildflowers, with mountains and trees in the background -- was a scenic location for the announcement that the property was purchased for Laurel Hill State Park. The property includes 2,000 feet of frontage along Laurel Hill Creek.

"Just look at this site," said Richard J. Allan, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources secretary. "It's phenomenal -- I can't describe it. This is a fabulous addition to Laurel Hill State Park."

The late Guy and Mary Countryman owned the property, which didn't sell at auction or under contract.

DCNR invested $250,000 through its Community Conservation Partnerships Program to acquire the land through the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The funds were matched with $465,000 in private donations from the family of B. Kenneth Simon and the Colcom Foundation of Pittsburgh. It took two years to complete the transaction.

"All it took was our land conservation staff walking the trail along Laurel Hill Creek, and hiking up the ridge to see the view back toward the existing state park, and we knew this was a property to be protected," said Tom Saunders, president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

"This is one of my favorite acquisitions of the past three or four years," he said. "I'm glad it's going to be added to the park."

One aspect of the property that Saunders said he likes is that motorists who pass likely think it's a farm. Only those who hike up the ridge realize how incredible it is.

"It is absolutely one of the most beautiful properties we've done; one of the most spectacular," he said.

In addition to the conservation value, park land puts money into the local economy through tourism, Allan said. For every $1 put into parks, $9 goes back to the community, he said.

One priority of his agency is to expand Conservation Landscape Initiatives across the state where they can be successful, including the 58,000-acre Forbes State Forest. Another priority is infrastructure improvements to the parks.

"Partnerships are how we make things work," Allan said. "People who visit our state parks spend $38 million annually, including almost a half million here in Somerset County."

Brad Clemenson, communications director for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, said one goal of the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape Initiative is to create opportunities for outdoor recreation for the community, including hiking, fishing and camping.

"On behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, it's a great day," said Hank Parke, a Chamber ambassador. "Folks in Pittsburgh say they are going up the mountain, and chances are they are coming here or a stone's throw from here."

Laurel Hill State Park now has more than 4,100 acres. The 63-acre Laurel Hill Lake is a focal point of the park, which has an extensive trail system and a diversity of plants and wildlife.

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