A 172-acre tract along the crest of the Blue Mountain, above and just to the west of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Tunnel in East Penn Township, has been acquired and preserved through the combined efforts of the Wildlands Conservancy, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Lehigh Gap Nature Center and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
The parcel, currently known as the Hauser Tract, is being acquired by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and will become part of its State Gamelands No. 217. The steeply-sloped property is along the flyways for migratory birds and is next to the 800-acre Lehigh Gap Nature Preserve and the 2,179 mile long Appalachian Trail.
"The property owner, Dan Hauser, came to me over two years ago," explained Dan Kunkle, director of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. "He said, 'I really like what you are doing on the mountain and what you are doing. I have this piece of land next to yours and I would love for you to buy it from me.'"
Although interested, Kunkle couldn't afford the asking price. He spoke to representatives of the Wildlands Conservancy, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the game commission.
"I called everybody who I thought would be interested," Kunkle continued.
He knew that the land was part of the Superfund cleanup process, and sought part of the settlement money to acquire the land.
"It was a slow process – that wasn't going to happen," Kunkle said.
Then, Kunkle received a call from Hauser.
"He said he was facing foreclosure in less than a month – and he had dropped the price."
Kunkle again turned to Chris Kocher and Kent Baird of the Wildlands Conservatory, and they helped broker a deal for the land to be acquired by the Pennsylvania Game Commission using funds acquired through natural gas leases.
The Wildlands Conservancy celebrated the acquisition and protection of the property on Tuesday with a presentation at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center and a hike to the property. Now open to the public, the property may be accessed from the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, from the Appalachian Trail trailhead at Lehigh Furnace, or by car from Route 873 – go up SR4024 – Mountain Road, turn right onto Translator Lane, park at trailhead lot, and hike up and across the mountain.
According to Kunkle, the property contains one of the largest natural grasslands remaining in Pennsylvania. When the Native Americans lived here, they periodically burned the land to encourage the growth of blueberries. Kunkle believes this practice continued into the 1930s.
"It created ecosystems that don't exist without the burning," he said.
The grasslands have been called a savanna because pitch pine, scrub oak, sassafras, shadbush and scarlet oaks grow in this grass land. He also noted that they are free of invasive species. Kunkle wonders if the PGC will consider proscribed burns to maintain this environment.
The new tract will join the Appalachian Trail system as a northern side trail which will offer overlooks of Carbon County from about a 1,600-foot elevation.
According to Dave Mitchell, land management group supervisor at the PGC, the site is native to "wild turkey, white-tailed deer, black bear, some roughed grouse, and migratory song birds."
"It is adjacent to other protected properties," said Baird, who is vice president of conservation and planning for the Wildlands Conservancy. "Connectivity is important when we talk about land preservation."
The property which adjoins the Lehigh Gap Preserve and the State Gamelands No. 217 allows a larger swath of land where wildlife can roam without crossing roads or developed property.