Information courtesy of the PA Wilds Center | Header photo courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

Each year, the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship recognizes outstanding individuals, organizations, programs, communities, and places that exemplify the great work being done across the 12.5-county Pennsylvania Wilds region to develop nature tourism and the outdoor recreation economy in a way that creates jobs, diversifies local economies, inspires stewardship, and improves quality of life. This year, six winners from the five-county Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region within the larger Pennsylvania Wilds tourism area were announced as Champions of the Pennsylvania Wilds, bringing well-deserved attention to the ways they improve the region and enhance visitor experiences to the special places within.

More than 250 businesses and community leaders from across the Pennsylvania Wilds, along with state partners and officials from Harrisburg, gathered last night to celebrate the winners at the 2018 Pennsylvania Wilds Annual Dinner and Awards.

The 2018 Champions of the Pennsylvania Wilds winners from the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region are:

Great Places Award Winner: Dr. Colson E. Blakeslee Memorial Recreation Area (photo shown above) – Benezette Township, Elk County

The Dr. Colson E. Blakeslee Memorial Recreation Area is the recipient of the Great Places Award. This multi-use recreation area was named in memoriam to Dr. Blakeslee, a long-time champion of the restoration of the Bennett Branch, which had once been a dead, red-stained stream. This sustainable natural asset and destination consists of 24 acres along the Bennett Branch of Sinnemahoning Creek, with more than 2,400 feet of stream frontage. This property helps to ensure public access to the Bennett Branch for fishing, boating, and other outdoor recreation, and to promote public support for maintaining the remediation facilities in the watershed. This property also provides opportunities for wildlife viewing along State Route 555, one of the most heavily traveled sections of the Elk Scenic Drive. The opportunity to fish a stream that has been dead for decades provides a powerful environmental stewardship message for how local people and diverse partners can work together to restore and protect our natural heritage and in the process, transform a site into a highly valued asset for tourism and improve quality of life for residents.

Conservation Stewardship (Individual) Award Winner: Bekki Titchner – Elk County

Bekki Titchner received the Individual Conservation Stewardship Award for her creation of “The Factory Song,” and for her tireless commitment to conservation stewardship and recycling. “The Factory Song” is music in an educational format that tells the story of past and present factories, providing historic and economic dialogue about our ancestors, land usage and challenges of life in the region. As Elk County Recycling/Solid Waste Coordinator, Bekki successfully navigated an innovative recycling program to success, when so many others have struggled to do so. She and the team at the Recycling Center have taken the lessons learned from our rich industrial heritage and put them into practice with an aim towards conservation. This recycling program now operates as a shining example of what a rural recycling program can deliver in a place where no one thought it could.

Conservation Stewardship (Group) Award Winner: PA Firefly Festival, Inc. – Tionesta, Forest County

The PA Firefly Festival celebrates its sixth year in 2018, bringing more attention to the rare synchronous firefly found in Allegheny National Forest and bringing more visitors to the region. Photo by Radim Schreiber.

The PA Firefly Festival, Inc. (PAFF) was honored with the Group Conservation Stewardship Award for their work in bringing worldwide attention to the need to protect the unique firefly population (Photinus carolinus, also known as the synchronous firefly) located in the Allegheny National Forest. Founded in 2013, PAFF is an organization dedicated to the science of fireflies, the identification and conservation of firefly habitat, and educating the public about these magical beetles. Fireflies are an indicator species; their presence tells us about the health of their habitat. Their annual PA Firefly Festival brings in thousands of visitors to the Pennsylvania Wilds from across the USA and abroad. PAFF is being recognized as a Champion of the PA Wilds for their multi-faceted conservation work, which includes innovative partnerships, training and education, youth involvement, the usage of grant funding to support conservation initiatives, educational marketing and events, collaboration with conservationists and researchers, habitat preservation, and more. These tireless advocates launched, and have continued to sustain and grow, a wholly unique conservation stewardship initiative in the Pennsylvania Wilds with global and regional impact that will carry for generations to come.

Member of the Year Award Winner: Jan Hampton – Emporium, Cameron County

The PA Wilds Center and its partners are humbled to recognize Jan Hampton with a posthumous Member of the Year Award. Jan was a tireless and upbeat advocate for conservation and youth outreach, working for 23 years in the Cameron County School District, and serving for 18 years as the Cameron County Conservation District manager. Jan was a former chair of the Pennsylvania Wilds Planning Team, and endeared so many with her testimonial that “The Pennsylvania Wilds is a gentle sharing of the things we hold most dear.” During her time as conservation district manager, Jan expanded both environmental stewardship programs and staff. Her youth outreach was also significant; small steps of teaching in classrooms about birds, bats, elk, and of course, frogs, paved the way for more advanced activities we have today, such as the Wild About Nature Field Day, The Wild Envirothon, and Trout in the Classroom. In 2017, the Cameron County fair hosted a Jan Hampton Youth Conservation Night in her memory. Her great love for the outdoors, conservation stewardship and youth education made a lasting, multi-generational impact on the region. A great singer – Jan once broke out into song, unscripted, at one of the Pennsylvania Wilds awards dinners! Jan Hampton’s enthusiasm, friendship, sense of humor and leadership are missed, and the Pennsylvania Wilds team is grateful to honor her legacy with the Member of the Year Award for 2018.

Artisan of the Year Award Winner: Kyle Yates – Brookville, Jefferson County

Kyle Yates’ photography has become iconic in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors and Pennsylvania Wilds regions, and his images, like this one of a bridge in Clear Creek State Park, entice visitors to travel to the region. Photo by Kyle Yates.

Kyle Yates was honored with the Artisan of the Year Award for going above and beyond to use his talents and creativity to promote the Pennsylvania Wilds and Pennsylvania Great Outdoors regions through his medium of photography. An award-winning photographer, Kyle captures stunning, unique shots of the region’s natural landscapes. He frequently volunteers his captures to be shared by the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau, PA Wilds Center, and the Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania to help promote their mission and work, to elevate the visual promotion of the region as a high-value nature tourism destination, and to enhance regional pride among residents. As noted in his award nomination, “his photography makes you want to come here and explore the Wilds.” Kyle was a contracted photographer for the second edition of the Pennsylvania Wilds Design Guide, capturing examples of authentic community character in multiple counties. Kyle was also selected as the photographer for the “Always More to Explore” regional marketing campaign launching May 2018, which showcases unique pairing of assets from across the Pennsylvania Wilds.

Best Brand Ambassador Award Winner: Katie Weidenboerner – Elk County

Katie Weidenboerner has been honored with the Best Brand Ambassador Award for her outstanding work to promote and develop the Pennsylvania Wilds brand through written and visual storytelling, and place name recognition. An accomplished journalist and Assistant Editor at the Courier-Express and Tri-County Sunday in Dubois, Pennsylvania, Katie is a regular contributor to the Pennsylvania Wilds blog, helping to tell the stories of the region and our incredible assets, inspiring regional pride and encouraging visitors to come explore. A long-time contributor and supporter of the Pennsylvania Wilds mission, Katie Weidenboerner traveled thousands of miles last year to photograph 22 artists in their creative spaces for the Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania’s Creative Makers Exhibit, a traveling art show that has now been on display in three galleries so far across the region. This photojournalism exhibit will be on display at the State Capitol Building East Wing in 2019.

For more information on exciting places, events, people, and more in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region, go to VisitPAGO.com or call (814) 849-5197.

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