Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Preserving land may depend on local leaders

If there's one broad trend some Lehigh Valley conservationists can agree on about the future of their work, it's that the initiative rests with local government.

''What we've found is there's a lot of interest in these smaller communities,'' said Scott Everett, trail manager for the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor.

''With growth in the Valley, we're seeing rising interest in preserving what's left,'' he said.

Everett was one of several people at a meeting Saturday of ecologists and concerned citizens of all stripes that congregates yearly at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center north of Slatington. The group has no set agenda beyond sharing information.

Everett's organization maintains a trail that follows the Lehigh River along the Lehigh County border, and soon plans to surface the section of its trail that runs along the Lehigh Canal towpath from Bethlehem to Freemansburg. It gets most of its funding from the federal government, which usually involves a substantial amount of bureaucracy, Everett said.

''The lower the level [of government], the easier it is to get funding and the quicker we can make things happen,'' Everett said.

But although local governments are often willing to participate, just reaching them all is a mighty task, said Jennifer Heisey, a recreation planner for the Appalachian Mountain Club. The AMC is working to conserve areas within a region called the Pennsylvania Highlands, which is north of Philadelphia and stretches from the borders with western New Jersey and northwestern Maryland. It includes much of Lehigh and Northampton counties.

''It's becoming [environmentally] fragmented, because it's a heavily populated area,'' Heisey said. ''If you have fragmented forest, that will decrease the water quality. A lot of people don't get that. That's the big kicker for preserving the land.''

Heisey said although many local governments understand the need to conserve forested land in this region, getting the large number of governments in the area to work on a coherent strategy is difficult. But as development progresses westward from New Jersey, she's seeing changing attitudes among Pennsylvanians.

''They're starting to see the changes happen where they live, and they're starting to take action,'' she said.

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