Photo credit: Kate Raman. Photo provided by Natural Lands.

Natural Lands announced the permanent preservation of 278 acres in Bear Creek Township, Luzerne County. Once known as Pocono Drag Lodge, the site’s drag race strip, which operated in the 1960s, was an iconic part of the region’s car racing heritage. Natural Lands purchased the property and immediately transferred ownership to the PA Game Commission; the land is now part of Game Lands area #91, and open to the public for recreation and hunting.

“The past few years, since the start of the COVID pandemic, have highlighted the need for additional publicly accessible outdoor spaces,” said Todd Sampsell, vice president of conservation for Natural Lands. “Attendance at state parks, county nature areas, and regional hiking trails is at an all-time high as more people have discovered the benefits of the outdoors for physical and mental well-being.” Sampsell added, “Natural Lands has helped to add nearly 1,000 acres of land to the PA Game Commission’s holdings over the years. We’re delighted these 278 acres will never be developed and will be enjoyed by generations to come.”

Pocono Drag Lodge was a quarter-mile, National Hot Rod Association-sanctioned dragstrip that opened in 1963 and closed permanently in 1970. During those seven years, it was a major site for the NHRA, hosting racers the likes of Arnie Beswick, Sox and Martin, Red Lang, Butch Leal, and even stock car legend Richard Petty and his ’64 Barracuda. Said John Levitsky, the former property owner, “Pocono Drag Lodge was developed by my family during a peak in the drag racing era. It was also a time when natural areas seemed to be endless in our region, and protection of forest lands was not a part of people’s focus. The Pocono Mountains are becoming suburbia rather than the beautiful forested natural area it once was.”

The property is 90 percent wooded, offering abundant habitat for wildlife while also absorbing stormwaters and capturing carbon. The forest has begun to reclaim areas once cleared for the old raceway, filling itself in with pine, oak, teaberry, witch hazel, and mountain laurel. The PA Game Commission plans to remove all the derelict buildings on the property, including the old concession stand and starting gate, further returning the area to a natural condition. The property also includes two tributaries to Bear Creek, which flows downstream to Lehigh River. Preserving the forest means protecting the water quality, as woodlands help to filter water that flows into adjacent streams.

Photo credit: Kate Raman. Photo provided by Natural Lands.

“We are grateful for partners like Natural Lands that do the heavy lifting to help bring tracts like this to the Game Commission in order to continue the Commonwealth’s conservation heritage by providing opportunities for hunting, hiking, bird watching and outdoor enjoyment,” said David J. Gustafson, director of the PA Game Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management. “This addition to State Game Land No. 91 will enhance the continuity and connectivity of an existing conservation corridor and allow the Game Commission to expand on the conservation efforts we are undertaking in this area. Natural Lands continues to be an invaluable partner and we thank them for facilitating this acquisition.”

“The property was always a place for our family and friends to get together, hunt, and pick blueberries and mushrooms. Even when the races were operating, I was more likely to be looking for frogs and salamanders in the swamp when there wasn’t work to be done,” said Levitsky. “So, when Natural Lands contacted my family with interest in preserving the property, it did not take long to decide. We knew that the many family members that had spent time here would be happy to keep the land undeveloped. We are proud to protect this beautiful space.”

Funding for this conservation project came from the Open Space Institute through several programs:  the Appalachian Protection Fund, the Delaware River Watershed Protection Fund Forestland Capital Grant Program, and a transaction grant; the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – Community Conservation Partnership Grant; and the PA Game Commission.

This post adapted from a press release by Natural Lands.