Imagine that the city of Williamsport and the boroughs of Hughesville, Jersey Shore, Montoursville, Muncy and South Williamsport all were converted back into the farmlands or forests from whence they came. That's about how much land has been preserved as farms or forests by the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy since its founding in 1990.
The conservancy recently added Green Hills Farm in Loyalsock Township to the list of properties it has kept from future development.
It has conserved more than 11,000 acres, or about 17 square miles, over 23 years throughout 12 counties in northcentral Pennsylvania, from Tioga, Bradford and Potter south to Centre, Snyder and Columbia counties.
Of that total, the conservancy holds 44 easements on 4,735 acres, which prevent the property from being developed no matter who buys the land in the future.
The remainder of that 11,000-acre total has been bought by the conservancy and then transferred to agencies such as the state Bureau of Forestry, the Game Commission, parks and municipalities.
Those easements are "permanent," said Renee Carey, executive director of the conservancy.
"The easements we're doing primarily are stating the land can be used for agriculture and typical woodland management uses. Residential, commercial and industrial uses are limited, though not generally prohibited outright because of how certain uses are defined in Pennsylvania."
Owners "continue to own and manage the property and run operations, lease farm fields and work with foresters to do woodlot management," Carey said.
The conservancy visits each one of its properties at least once a year to keep an eye on its maintenance, and keeps its owners aware of state and federal programs they might be eligible to enter.
All the easements the conservancy maintains are donated by the landowner, unlike programs in several southeastern Pennsylvania counties, where a bond issue has paid for buying easements from owners of farms or woodlands.
"There may be a tax deduction involved, but it's not black and white," Carey said. "The peace of mind has been more important with lots of our owners. They know the property will be taken care of, it's going to remain as a working farm, a working woodlot, someone's not going to lay out the property into one-acre cookie-cutter housing lots. They know the current generation as well as future generations will have the opportunity to farm the property."
When the conservancy does buy land, it always has a "takeout" partner lined up, Carey said.
"Sometimes when a property is listed for sale, people contact us and let us know. A lot of time if land adjoins forestry, we contact them and let them know. We have a small acquistion fund that helps pay for upfront costs like survey work and title searches, and we work with a bank in the area on a mortgage or short-term loan to acquire land, then sell it to the state."
There's no limit, big or small, on the size a property must be to get protected.
The conservancy also works with the state Department of Environmental Protection, watershed experts and groups, and county conservation districts to protect streams and rivers, Carey said.
"We contact the experts, say we have money to do x, y and z, and ask if they know of any sites this might benefit. We have an active project list with over 37 sites on it, and average (completion) of about 10 to 15 projects a summer."
Structures to "improve in-stream habitat for fish and insects and other critters" are one example of work the NPC has done on streams, along with installations of cattle crossings and watering systems to improve best agricultural management practices and "reduce the agricultural impact a stream is up against."
Waterway projects the conservancy has completed include several on Wallis Run and lots of work on Chillasquauque Creek. There sometimes are volunteer opportunities to work on the restoration projects, and the conservancy sponsors canoeing and kayak trips every year.
"There are work ways and fun ways people can participate," Carey said. "With such a small staff working in such a large geographical area, we want to keep doing what we've been doing - keep working to conserve more of this region's agricultural landscape."
For more information on the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy, call 570-323-6222, or visit its website at npcweb.org.