A tall drink of water: Congress primes pump for conservation program in Northeast

Cooks Creek, Pennsylvania. Courtesy Heritage Conservancy.

Good news travels quickly — and sometimes even hitches a ride on the currents of creeks and rivers. Moments after a Pennsylvania congressman announced last week that Congress is chipping in $700,000 to help conserve a critical watershed in the Keystone state, the ripple effects floated toward the some 25 million people who rely on the Highlands region of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut for their drinking water.

“Protecting areas like the Cooks Creek Watershed preserves our natural resources and improves the quality of life for our families,” said Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-PA, who joined environmental leaders and local elected officials in Springfield Township, Pennsylvania for a press conference to herald the project.

The allocation from Congress comes on the heels of a House-passed amendment this summer sponsored by Rep. Scott Garrett, R-NJ, to double the funding for the Highlands Conservation Act, legislation passed in 2004 that recognizes the 3.5 million-acre area as “nationally significant” and authorizes Congress to appropriate $10 million a year to help acquire and protect land within its confines.

Congressman Patrick Murphy at Cooks Creek Event. Courtesy Appalachian Mountain Club.“The Highlands Conservation Act has been short-changed in the past but the tide is turning,” says The Wilderness Society’s Pat Byington, an Alabama-based eastern forest specialist who has been advocating for full funding for the program. “The Highlands have broad bipartisan support and Congress is paying increasing attention to the need to preserve the region’s drinking water, wildlife habitat, forests, farmland and trails.”

The conservation initiative is also backed by the Highlands Coalition (TWS is a member) — a four-state alliance of nearly 200 nonprofit, municipal, state and federal organizations working to improve the Highlands.

“In a tight economy, it’s more important than ever for federal, state and local funding sources to join forces to protect vital natural resources,” says Kristen Sykes, a mid-Atlantic project manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club and a spokeswoman for the coalition.

The Highlands are a major recreation destination and feature hundreds of miles of trails including the Highlands Trail, Horse-shoe trail and the Mason Dixon Trail. The Highlands host over 14 million recreational visits every year, more than Yellowstone National Park. The Highlands Conservation Act that seeks to preserve these pristine areas is funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which also conserves lands in national and state forests, wildlife refuges, and cultural and historic sites.

This fall, the House Natural Resources Committee will examine legislation that will provide for full and dedicated funding for the LWCF. The need to do so is especially critical in the eastern United States, where very little undeveloped land remains.

“I think Congress should follow the sage advice of Will Rogers,” Byington says. “Buy land. They ain't making any more of the stuff.”

Cooks Creek, Pennsylvania. Courtesy Heritage Conservancy.
Congressman Patrick Murphy at Cooks Creek Event. Courtesy Appalachian Mountain Club.