By Danielle Taylor

Trail lovers in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region will soon have a new and improved trail system to explore in southern Elk County. Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development awarded the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC) a $40,000 grant to help develop a multi-use trail system within Bennett Branch Forest, a 1,465-acre property protected by WPC.

With this grant, WPC plans to improve more than 2.3 miles of trails and forest management roads to better accommodate hunters, hikers, bikers, and wildlife watchers. The organization also plans to improve a parking area and install signage to make the property more welcoming for all visitors.

“Our goals are to manage the forest sustainably, remediate impacts from past mining activities and provide opportunities for low-impact recreation,” says Andy Zadnik, WPC’s director of land stewardship. “The property was acquired as part of a package in 2008, and most of the land went to the adjacent state forest. We retained this portion to showcase examples of sustainability and reclamation.”

Former strip mines don’t sound like a great place for trees to thrive, but ironically, the American chestnut grows well in the soil of these deserted industrial areas. This species has been devastated by blight for more than a century, and although seedlings will germinate, the disease kills them before they get very tall. However, different research teams are working to revive this monumental species that once reigned majestic across the nation’s forests, and Bennett Branch Forest is playing a part. In 2013, WPC teamed up with the American Chestnut Foundation to plant more than 20,000 trees, including hybrid American chestnut, across 30 acres of reclaimed strip mine to restore the forest and determine which chestnut varieties have the best resistance to the blight.

This map of Bennett Branch Forest shows its location in southern Elk County as well as planned improvements for user access.

“Right now, the chestnuts seem to be doing well,” says Zadnik. “They were a few feet tall at the end of the first growing season and had a pretty good survival rate — about 70 percent. As the trees get bigger, the Chestnut Foundation will monitor the situation and cut down any affected by blight. A local conservation group called PA Wildlife Habitat Unlimited has been invaluable in managing the site for us. We hope to eventually install interpretive signage to explain this reforestation work as well as an adjacent project to clean up abandoned mine drainage.”

The property has been open to the public for low-impact recreation since WPC acquired it in 2008, but many of the existing trails suffer from erosion issues and other problems that make them unsustainable in the long term. The funding will make it possible for WPC to refine the existing network of trails and reconfigure them in a way that will allow trail users to continue enjoying the forest for generations to come.

WPC hopes to start trail improvements in 2018, but Zadnik encourages people to visit the property now. “We’re trying to create a more welcoming environment,” he says. “The property is open to the public free of charge. People can go and hike. We allow mountain biking on designated logging roads, as well as backcountry camping, and it gets a fair amount of use by hunters. Also, although we’re not managing the property specifically for elk, some have been spotted there.”

Bennett Branch Forest currently has two access points on PA Route 255, one near the village of Hollywood and the other near the village of Force. Learn more about this destination and find other interesting places to explore in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region by going to VisitPAGO.com or calling (814) 849-5197.

 

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