Last month, the Lancaster Conservancy and partners gathered at the Conoy Wetlands Nature Preserve to celebrate two momentous occasions: the Conservancy’s acquisition of 49 acres along the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail in Conoy Township, expanding the Conoy Wetlands Nature Preserve to 71 acres, and the formal opening of the Conservancy’s Falmouth Forest Garden on the original Conoy Wetlands tract.

Nearly two years ago, the Conservancy announced an innovative public-private partnership to save 49 acres of forests and wetlands along the Northwest River Trail from potential development (see original article in LancasterOnline). In 2017 Talen Energy marketed about 119 acres of forested and agricultural land as a package and was unwilling to sell only the 49 acres of natural land to the Conservancy. In order to keep this land in its natural state, Conoy Township facilitated a partnership with the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority (LCSWMA). LCSWMA agreed to purchase the entire package from the utility, sell the natural 49 acres to the Conservancy once enough public and private dollars were raised to preserve the land and sell the agricultural land for continued farming. “This unique partnership with the Conservancy offered a wonderful opportunity for LCSWMA to help protect the environment and improve the livability of the community,” said Bob Zorbaugh, LCSWMA CEO.  “We continually look for ways to support and invest in the communities where we have an operational presence, including along the Susquehanna Corridor.”

The Conservancy applied for and received a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to acquire the land in 2018. Matching contributions from the Pine Tree Conservation Society, High Foundation, and Brookfield Renewable were critical components to fund the rest of this acquisition. Conoy Township stepped in and agreed to partner with the Conservancy in management of the land. “Wow, another part of Conoy’s vision is reality,” said Steve Mohr, chairman of the Conoy Township Board of Supervisors. “Another ace in the hole has been revealed. Come join us in viewing this one of a kind project.”

All 49 acres will be maintained as a public nature preserve in perpetuity, open to the public free of charge 365 days a year. The Conoy Wetlands Nature Preserve is the perfect escape for city residents who want an easy, scenic hike in the woods with views of the Susquehanna River. The land’s preservation protects a critical section of the Northwest River Trail forever.

The Northwest River Trail is a 14-mile public recreational trail located along the Susquehanna River. It traverses five municipalities and is available for walking, biking, jogging, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing. The Northwest River Trail also connects this property to the Conservancy’s 22 acre Conoy Wetlands Nature Preserve just upriver. It was there that, in 2018, the Conservancy implemented Phase I and II of what is believed to be the first forest garden on publicly-accessible natural lands in Pennsylvania. “Grants that rehabilitate our local ecosystems are important as we look to restore balance in Lancaster County land use,” said Sam Bressi, CEO of LCCF, which provided funding for the project. “Fallow tracts like the wetlands in Conoy Township are a perfect place to do a demonstration garden to help educate folks using the popular Northwest River Trail on the value to our landscape of native fruits and trees that provide both food and habitat.” Officially opened today, Falmouth Forest Garden serves as a demonstration of regenerative agroforestry for strategic natural land management.

It hosts 20 native crop-producing species and a supporting groundcover of native herbs and wildflowers. This project serves as a model for natural-lands managers and farmers throughout Lancaster County on how to increase biodiversity, protect water supplies, and sequester carbon while increasing the land’s carrying capacity by diversifying yields and securing a source of continued income. “At the Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education, we believe that our ability to feed ourselves in the face of economic and environmental uncertainty depends on the incorporation of perennial cropping systems into our landscapes,” said Alyson Earl, executive director of the Horn Farm Center, which was a key partner on this project. “The location of the Falmouth Forest Garden along the Northwest River Trail makes it an excellent location to provide a model of and education about how our native plant species can once again provide for the needs of our community.”

Accessible off the Northwest River Trail, this restored five-acre floodplain forest within the Conoy Wetlands Nature Preserve is designed to provide long-lived perennial crops such as black walnuts, persimmons, pawpaws, serviceberries, and hazelnuts for improved wildlife habitat and a unique visitor’s experience. The natural regeneration of black walnut trees and elderberry bushes set the template for restoration efforts and inspired the design by calling attention to the productivity of rich riverside soils.