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Sylvan Dell Environmental Center and Robert Porter Allen Natural Area Now Being Developed Through a Private-Public Partnership Effort

South Williamsport native Robert Porter Allen (1905-1963), was at one time one of this country’s leading naturalists, serving as president of the National Audubon Society. He is credited with helping to save the Roseate Spoonbill and the Whooping Crane. His childhood experience birding in Sylvan Dell’s large wetland influenced his career in ornithology. Allen’s innovative research methods pioneered efforts to conserve nesting habitats. So, it seems that a nature education center in the Sylvan Dell area of Armstrong Township should bear his name.

According to an executive summary of the project provided to Webb Weekly by James Dunn, an Armstrong Township Supervisor, where the project will be located, it is a 227-acre farmstead recently acquired, with local and state funding, for the purpose of creating a nature park, enhanced wildlife habitat, and improved access to nature for city residents and visitors. The site will be owned and managed by the Southside Regional Authority with representation from South Williamsport Borough, DuBoistown Borough, and Armstrong Township. The site consists of West Branch Susquehanna River frontage, riparian forests, farmland, a farmhouse and numerous barns and outbuildings, and the largest remaining floodplain wetland along the West Branch Susquehanna River.

Future plans include the restoration and expansion of the wetland, establishment of oak savanna grasslands and enhanced forested riparian buffers, walking and biking trails, canoe/kayak river access, as well as community gardens, and regenerative agriculture demonstrations. The site also provides a strategic physical connection between the city residents, the river, and Bald Eagle Ridge, enhancing access to close-to-home recreation. Some of the ‘stacked benefits’ the project will achieve include: local/organic food production, habitat restoration, Keystone species reintroduction (beavers), stormwater mitigation, water-quality improvement, source water protection, enhanced biodiversity, invasive plant control, environmental and social justice, environmental education, and enhanced community partnerships.

In regard to operations and maintenance, Dunn said the South Side Recreational Authority will own and operate through an annual contribution from Armstrong, DuBoistown, and South Williamsport municipal governments. Fundraising and grants will be the primary source for future improvements.

According to Dunn, they have an awarded restoration grant (Standard NAWCA GRANT), the first-ever awarded to Pennsylvania, and an application under review for a trail surface aggregate pedestrian path. The project was also part of a grant from Ducks Unlimited. The restoration and path construction (if awarded) will occur in 2022. Other than some signs and annual seasonal planting and maintenance, the natural area could be completed in 2022.

The environmental education center is a work in progress. The scope is broad by comparison to the natural area and will require significant investment. But it’s well worth the time and money, and there are interesting partnerships. The purpose is to establish a field station for the local educational institutions, environmental science, and sustainability programs. Active demonstration sites for regenerative agriculture, pollinator, wildlife gardens, and lawn conversion for nutrient reduction. Some foundational work has been established, but much more work is needed.

Local and state officials and area outdoor nature enthusiasts are excited about this project.

“The purchase of this wetland was a regional priority for DCNR; it’s has walkable, bikeable, accessibility for 50k residents. With the adjoining Riverwalk, South Side Park, and Little League International, it’s perfect for reconnecting people with nature,” Wes Fahringer, Recreation and Parks Advisor, Regional Services Department of Conservation & Natural Resources told Webb Weekly.

“One of the greatest assets our county has to offer is its outdoor recreational opportunities. Participating in the Recreation Authority project is a win/win. I am helping to develop a new outdoor nature area with walking and biking trails for everyone to enjoy, and at the same time, helping to preserve nature and the wildlife that depend on it,” said Amie Penfield, member of the South Williamsport Recreation Authority.

“The Robert Porter Natural Area has and will be providing an extraordinary chance to get outside and enjoy the wonderful nature that we have in our area. From the wonderful birds to the easy walking paths on the property and then to magnificent wetlands, much educational opportunity exists for young and old alike, Ted Loy, President of the Lycoming Audubon Society.” As the Authority enhances this property in the beautiful Susquehanna Valley, even more opportunities for hands-on discovery and education will take place, and Lycoming Audubon will be there to assist in this wonderful property’s ecological development.”

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  • robert schmidt
    May 24, 2022, 9:05 pm

    Can you tell me if this Robert Allen was ever involved in the saving of the whooping crane population?
    Reason I’m asking is when I was younger (much) we had a Robert Allen living in our house in Amityville LI NY. with his wife son and daughter. I know he was involved in the Audubon Society way back then. I believe he was working for the society at that time – 1940/41.

    Just curious if this is the same man. A reply would be appreciated. Robert Schmidt