'Cussewago Meanders'

Kevin Boozel and Brenda Costa of the French Creek Valley Conservancy talk after hiking through a section of the 126 acres the Conservancy just acquired near Cussewago Creek.

The land sits between the northbound lanes of Interstate 79 and Rogers Ferry Road: Shaped like an irregular pie slice with rectangular bites taken out of its northern border, where a few houses line the road, the property extends south a half-mile to where its southern edge resembles an intricately folded crust, bending back and forth for more than a mile along a series of hairpin turns in Cussewago Creek.

Looking south from Rogers Ferry Road, behind the row of about a half-dozen or so houses, the ground slopes gradually toward the creek. A portion of the 129 acres was put to agricultural use in the past, but that won’t happen again anytime soon. Before long, you’re in the woods, perhaps passing a deer stand erected by a previous occupant or noticing some ghost pipes sprouting in the shade.

“But the area down along Cussewago Creek,” says Brenda Costa, “really is beautiful. It’s just these gorgeous meanders through this forested area, and a lot of ducks, migratory birds in the area.

“It’s really lovely.”

And if Costa and the French Creek Valley Conservancy that she leads have anything to do with it, the property they’re calling “Cussewago Meanders” is going to stay that way — in perpetuity.

The Conservancy has purchased the land, the largest acquisition yet in terms of price for the nonprofit that has been protecting French Creek and its tributaries since 1982. The addition brings the Conservancy’s portfolio of protected land to more than 3,000 acres, nearly double the amount under its protection just five years when Costa became executive director.

The $270,000 transaction with the family of Helen Stewart, the former owner of the property who died in 2019, was made possible by a $1 million grant from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act program operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thirty percent of the grant is going to the Conservancy for the Cussewago Meanders property.

While surpassing 3,000 conserved acres marks a significant milestone for the Conservancy, the “big news,” according to Costa, is how the organization won the funding to support not only acquisition of the property but stewardship of the land into the future.

Winning that support was a first-of-its-kind effort in Pennsylvania and involved multiple conservation agencies.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” said Jim Feaga, the Ducks Unlimited biologist who helped secure the grant involving several locations in the state’s northwestern region, another in the northeastern corner and one near the site of the Little League World Series in Williamsport. “It’s the first ever of this size in the state.”

Key to the success, Feaga said, were the “strong partnerships” between multiple agencies with overlapping goals, including Ducks Unlimited, the Conservancy and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Just as important was the ability of those agencies to match their grant request with properties already under their care.

“In Pennsylvania, it’s hard to cobble together enough acres to be competitive,” Feaga said.

Several factors added to the appeal of the Cussewago Meanders property. The glaciated wetlands just north of the creek and the creek itself demonstrate the overlapping priorities, Feaga said, of the agencies involved. Where the Conservancy has a particular interest in the freshwater mussels and hellbenders that make their homes in environments like Cussewago Creek, Ducks Unlimited prioritizes the wetlands that support waterfowl.

“It’s a whole synergy of different partners coming together for various reasons but with a common theme of protecting the watershed and its tributaries,” Feaga said.

In addition, the Cussewago Meanders property borders other properties that have been conserved in recent years, including a 66-acre parcel donated last year by the Burkholder family, Costa said.

And those properties, Feaga added, were in turn bordered by conserved properties.

Success breeds success, and the Conservancy has been very successful in recent years at winning the trust of land owners interested in preserving the ecological legacy of their properties. The Conservancy was able to use donated properties valued at $320,000 as the match for its portion of the grant.

“The people who have donated their lands to us made this acquisition possible,” Costa said. “People who are conservation-minded and generously donate their land — it doesn’t just protect their land, it allows us to have ‘match’ for some of these larger grant opportunities.”

Agencies like the Conservancy can’t just take land, according to Andy Walker, president of the board that oversees the nonprofit. While they can occasionally buy property like Cussewago Meanders, it’s much more often the case that the Conservancy obtains a conservation easement on property that continues to be held by the owners or that property is donated to the nonprofit.

“That’s like the ultimate commitment to preserving the ecological function of that land and the legacy of that land,” Walker said. “We’re working with willing conservationists — it’s testament to the people that live in the watershed and own land along the creek.”

The Conservancy’s commitment in return runs toward the ultimate as well.

Perpetuity: It’s the kind of word one deploys when the occasion calls for more dignity than usual — when mere everyday vocabulary can’t convey the full sense of forever-ness for which the situation calls.

It’s also a guarantee that can suggest a whiff of arrogance, even after what Costa said may have been the biggest week in the organization’s history. As for how things will look like 5,000 years from now, Cost said she’s not sure. Instead, the Conservancy’s three full-time and two part-time employees think in terms of the next 50 years, the next 100 years, the next 200 years.

“It is really satisfying work,” Costa said. “At the end of the day I can walk out to this property and say, ‘We protected this — forever.’

“That’s a big deal.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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