Projects this big, this wide-ranging, this involved don’t come around very often. Nor do they generally get tested so severely so soon.
So when one does, and achieves its goals, people take notice.
Like in this case. The Game Commission and Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy led a two-year effort to restore Plunketts Creek on State Game Lands 134 in Lycoming County to its floodplain. The project not only succeeded, it earned a 2022 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence. Those are meant to highlight “the creative and innovative ways we can improve our environment,” said Gov. Tom Wolf.
This project certainly fit the bill.
It tackled a problem going back years. In the 1940s, an earthen berm – standing 10 feet tall in places – had been built along the stream to protect the former Northcentral Game Farm from flooding. It was further developed after Hurricane Agnes hit Pennsylvania in the early 1970s.
It worked, but too well.
“The berm did a good job of keeping the pheasant farm from flooding, but it was causing tremendous erosion on the other side of the creek,” said Rodney Mee, a Northcentral Region Game Lands Supervisor. “In some places, though it was hard to tell because of how it sloped, it was close to 10 feet high. That was a problem.”
Indeed, when major storms hit, the berm diverted the stream so that it flooded adjacent private properties, causing erosion in places, sediment build-up in others, as well as other damage.
With the Game Farm retired, the Game Commission wanted to eliminate those issues while creating wet-meadow habitat on site. Then, an opportunity to do good arose from a mistake elsewhere.
In February 2017, wastewater from a gas fracking operation leaked from a storage tank into Little Pine Creek and a tributary to Bonnell Run, killing salamanders and other amphibians. The Attorney General’s Environmental Crimes Unit and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission investigated.
As a result, the two companies that owned the tank donated $40,000 each to the Conservancy, with the money slated to benefit waterways in Lycoming County.
Representatives of a number of conservation organizations and agencies got together to figure out where best to spend it. In the end, they chose the Plunketts Creek project.
Many meetings followed as the project worked its way through the permitting process. One bore some unique fruit.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee involved in those meetings also happened to be a member of the U.S. Army Reserve’s 333rd Engineering Co. based in Reading. He suggested the unit might be able to do much of the actual work of removing the berm through its Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) program, meant to give soldiers who might someday have to build roads, runways or tank cover real-world practice.
The paperwork necessary to allow that to happen in 2020 was filed and approved.
In anticipation of their arrival, staff and students in Susquehanna University’s Freshwater Research Unit surveyed the stream to see what fish lived there. Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission staff followed up by installing in-stream habitat structures.
Then, Covid happened.
In July of that year, just weeks if not days from getting started, the Reservists learned their training that summer had to be virtual.
“Originally, we thought the Reservists’ were going in a week later,” said Renee Carey, the Conservancy’s Executive Director. Instead, they didn’t get to come out until 12 months later.”
But when they arrived, they went to work.
The Reservists brought dump trucks, bulldozers, graders and skid steers, as well as a loader, excavator and roller. Using that with equipment provided by the Game Commission, they removed 2,200 feet of an earthen berm and stabilized 850 feet of bank over the course of three weeks.
Game Commission crews then stepped in, doing “live stake planting” of shrubs and trees like dogwood and sycamore. Mee said that involves cutting whips 4 feet long and pounding them into the bank until only a small portion remains visible above ground. Planted densely enough, and provided with enough moisture, those cuttings grow in clusters, helping to hold banks in place.
“It’s kind of a new thing that’s really taken off to aid with stream bank mitigation,” Mee noted.
That wasn’t all there was to the project, though. Removing the berm left tons upon tons of dirt, stone and other material. Some was spread across the site.
But the Reservists used 15,000 tons to rebuild a 1-mile section of Huckle Run Road, which runs atop Camp Mountain across the game lands. That work not only improved access, but better protected Huckle Run, like Plunketts Creek a high-quality coldwater stream with a naturally reproducing population of native trout.
“So it was a huge operation that killed multiple birds with one stone,” Mee said.
Carey agreed, saying the scale of the project was “unprecedented” for the Conservancy.
The involvement of the Reservists made that possible from a funding perspective, she added. The Game Commission, Conservancy and other partners laid out about $200,000 in cash, combined, for the project, she said. But the Reservists logged 5,680 hours of time, work valued at $536,050. That, she said, is far more than project supporters could have ever paid for.
Beyond that though, the presence of the soldiers got many other groups – not normal participants in projects like this – involved, Carey added.
That included Eugene Grafius Post 104 of the American Legion, for example. The Reservists bunked in the Game Commission’s old brooder houses on site. But, Carey said, the Legion and others helped cover the cost of feeding them, so that Reservists were able to eat meals catered by local restaurants rather than just MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat.
In return, the 333rd Engineering Co. held a “community night” where local residents could come out, see their equipment, learn how they use it and more.
The work to remove the berm, repair the road, improve stream access for anglers, and protect adjacent landowners wrapped up in late August 2021. It then got an early and tough test. Three weeks later, storms connected to Hurricane Ida rolled through.
But the project allowed the creek to flow into its natural flood plain, dropping out sediment without damaging neighboring properties.
“A lot of people were relieved after that,” Carey said. “The project worked exactly as we hoped it would and helped all of the partners meet their goals and missions. It was pretty cool to bring all of those goals together when getting a single project done.”
It was an effort worthy of praise, too, as the Governor’s Award recognized.
“It is always a privilege to spotlight people going above and beyond to improve the environment and make our great outdoor spaces more accessible,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “Each of the projects awarded this year will leave a positive lasting legacy for Pennsylvania.”