LOFTY – A 5,600-acre tract of land in the Weiser State Forest District is being developed into a motorized recreation area that offers something for everyone – from avid ATV riders to conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, hunters and fishermen.
At a news conference Friday along Lofty Road, Cindy Adams Dunn, Secretary of the State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the acquisition of the land was made possible by nearly $700 million secured by Gov. Tom Wolf in the 2022-23 state budget were for conservation, recreation and preservation. She did not say how much the state spent on acquiring the land.
Dunn said the funding will enable the development of three new state parks at locations to be announced later this year, in addition to the Catawissa Recreation Area, which includes parts of northern Schuylkill and Lower Luzerne counties.
“Today is a momentous day,” Dunn said. “After a decade of work, this is the beginning of a new era for this website.”
Dunn said that when the area is completed and operational, it will attract ATV, UTV, full-size vehicle and off-road motorcycle riders, as well as people interested in nature and environmental conservation.
The Catawissa Recreation Area includes land that included the site of an off-highway vehicle park, Paragon Adventure Park, which closed more than 10 years ago. The department works with a consultant to develop and implement a motorized recovery plan. State forest officials will manage the land until planning is complete and a contractor assumes control of operations.
Dunn said attracting new people to the area will boost the economy and bring diners to restaurants, shops and hotels. Fees for using the park will raise funds for environmental improvement.
“This is the greatest chance to bring everything together,” she said.
John Norbeck, DCNR associate secretary and an avid ATV enthusiast, said the project was well thought out, well planned and years in the making.
He said that all the work done so far will bear fruit in the future.
“We know what we’re doing and we know what we have to do to get there,” Norbeck said.
In addition to the motorized vehicle fleet, Norbeck said the plans include surveying and tending the forest and cleaning up Catawissa Creek, which has been polluted over the years with water from now-closed mining operations.
“We also want to make this a great place to fish and hunt,” he said.
In addition to enhancing Pennsylvania’s motorized recreation, Norbeck said the new area will provide opportunities to manage natural resources, restore water quality and remediate abandoned mine areas in the area.
“Acquiring these lands also helps us achieve a number of conservation goals, including improving and protecting water quality, restoring degraded lands, preserving ecological resources, and providing educational opportunities for visitors and the surrounding community,” he said .
Pennsylvania State Forester Ellen Shultzabarger and Weiser District Forester Tim Ladner said the Catawissa Recreation Area project will be a win-win for everyone.
“The legacy of this project will result in long-term protection of plant and animal habitats, remediating the source of acid mine drainage and creating a new advantage in the region,” Shultzabarger said.
DCNR rangers will patrol the site to manage existing activity and control unauthorized use until the motorized recreation area opens, which is expected in summer 2024.
Nathan Reigner, the state director of outdoor recreation, told attendees that outdoor recreation is responsible for nearly $12 billion in economic impact annually and creates thousands of jobs across the state, making the addition of the Catawissa recreation area even more so makes more important.
Reigner said that visiting a recreation area like the Catawissa Recreation Area is not only a fun way to spend a day in nature with family and friends, but also makes an important contribution to the prosperity of the surrounding communities.
Reigner found that motorized outdoor recreation contributes more than $300 million annually to the state’s economy. Echoing Dunn’s comments, he said the Catawissa Recreation Area will directly benefit vehicle dealerships and repair shops, restaurants, gas stations and lodging.
John Stefanko, assistant secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation will play a key role in the reclamation of the Catawissa Creek watershed.
He said the watershed is home to 40 miles of creek and five mine tunnels.
Although cleaning up Catawissa Creek will be a major undertaking, Stefanko said it will become a reality through a concerted effort by government agencies.
Also present was Sen. David Argall, R-29, Rush Twp.
He said Republicans in Harrisburg don’t always agree with Democrats and lawmakers often disagree with the government.
However, the realization of the Catawissa Recreation Area brought together everyone who was aware of the importance of the project.
“In this case, we agreed 100 percent,” Argall said.
The project will benefit not only the ecology of the area but also the economy, he said.
“This is about dollars and cents and the birds and rabbits,” Argall said.
“This could be a major reason for people coming here from the area,” Argall said. “If we get it right, and I know we will, it could be good for both our natural environment and our businesses.”