Cyclists enjoy the west branch of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.
In the late 1990s, when the term “greenway” was still fairly new, Pennsylvania environmental and transportation officials decided to develop a plan to create interconnected open spaces that were valued as making important contributions to the state’s ecological and human communities.
For land along the Susquehanna River, two major public-private greenway efforts emerged, aimed at protecting, revitalizing, and promoting a 500-mile stretch of land and waterways, primarily along the river’s main and western branches.
Another major goal was the revitalization of nearly 70 river towns that arose during the industrial eras that have now passed.
The first initiative formally merged in 2006 as the non-profit Susquehanna Greenway Partnership.
A second, the Susquehanna Riverlands Conservation Landscape, increasingly focused on the Susquehanna’s lowest reaches, where, unlike most rivers, the waterway’s steepest drop arises at the end of its journey. There the river has carved an impressive gorge through flanking forested hills, with no room for riverside roads.
The Lower Susquehanna Gorge is seen from Pinnacle Overlook in Lancaster County, PA.
Since 2008, the Riverlands Group has focused on protecting this unique geology on both sides of the river and promoting sustainable tourism through recreation and the considerable cultural and historical treasures in the growing counties of Lancaster and York.
The partnership of officials and businesses from the two counties along with the state and the National Park Service received a boost in 2019 when Congress designated the Susquehanna National Heritage Area as the country’s 50th National Heritage Area. The area was one of four visitor centers on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
So far, 6,300 acres of forested riverbanks have been protected, including 1,100 acres in York County in April. Most of the conservation comes from the sale of farmland to the Lancaster Conservancy, which then works to make them accessible.
“They have sheltered viewing sheds, pristine streams, and real access for all,” said Fritz Schröder of the Conservancy.
A vintage boat takes visitors to scenic highlights in the lower Susquehanna Gorge between counties Lancaster and York, PA.
The State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has awarded millions of dollars in grants for land conservation projects over the years. Its secretary, Cindy Adams Dunn, said initiatives along the Susquehanna are proof that “green pathways are powerful tools to achieve sustainable growth and livable communities”.
Although the greenway is not yet complete, the partnership has preserved large parts of the river corridor and has helped instill in its residents a renewed sense of river pride, quality of life and accompanying eco-tourism.
The partnership oversees the 240-mile West Branch Susquehanna River Water Trail, helping to connect and nurture several hundred miles of country trails and parks in a narrow strip on either side of the river. As a rule of thumb, if you can see the river, you are on the Susquehanna Greenway.
A hang glider hovers over the west branch of the Susquehanna River.
To date, 16 river towns up and down the Susquehanna have officially joined the Greenway Partnership, meaning they have formed planning groups working to connect residents and visitors to the river.
The signs of dynamism are seen in both subtle and dramatic ways. For example, in March 2021, The Nature Conservancy announced the purchase of 1,200 acres where the Kittatinny Ridge crosses the Susquehanna, a well-known landmark just a short distance north of the state capital of Harrisburg. The reserve protects the lookout point for hikers on the famous Appalachian Trail.
At a more subtle event in May 2022, hundreds of residents and corporate volunteers in 12 river towns collected hundreds of tons of trash from rivers, streams and parks as part of Susquehanna Greenway Cleanup Week. The number of participating cities has doubled from the year before when the cleanup first started.
“We’re in our teens,” said Corey Ellison, executive director of the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership. “What needs to happen is [that] we are all united in this vision of connected corridors. We all need to embrace the value of space and quality of life.”
“Were happy. Business is booming.”
This is Leo Lutz, longtime mayor of Columbia Borough, a town on the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County that was once considered the nation’s capital. The city has largely languished for the past century.
A paddling demonstration is held on the Lower Susquehanna River as part of a Susquehanna Riverlands Conservation Landscape event.
That changed when the Columbia Crossing River Trails Center was built along the river in 2016. It serves as a starting point and information hub for exploring multiple land and river trails, National Heritage Designation and boat tours that shuttle visitors between historical and recreational sites on either side of the river. Driven in part by the turmoil of COVID-19, more than 200,000 people flocked to the visitor center in 2021.
Lutz excitedly ticked off a list of new local amenities: a paddle outfitter, a new cafe in the old train station across from the trail center, antique shops, industrial buildings converted into apartments, and an overall new vibe. All are the result of the Susquehanna Riverlands initiative, he said.
“The work done is second to none,” said DCNR’s Dunn. “There have been so many amazing projects that have expanded outdoor recreation opportunities while protecting the region’s rich historical and cultural resources. The result has been sustainable economic development and an incredible opportunity to connect visitors with nature in meaningful and enduring ways.”
Mark Platts, President of the Susquehanna National Heritage Area, used to worry that people without boats would not be able to easily get to the river. And apart from the beautiful view, there wasn’t much to do.
But now, he said, “core groups have publicized the river as a place to spend time and experience, not just to look at it. There’s this energy and accessibility and variety of experiences that wasn’t there 20 years ago.”