Nearly 1,000 acres of wilderness in York County to become nature preserve

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
The Lancaster County Conservancy is saving nearly 1,000 acres in northern York County which will become the Hellam Hills Nature Preserve. Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

With population growth and land development expanding across southcentral Pennsylvania, areas of untouched wilderness are shrinking.

So when the opportunity arose to preserve nearly 1,000 acres of that wilderness in northeastern York County, Philip R. Wenger knew the investment would be invaluable.

"It has a tremendous wild feel to it, which you can’t really find in most of the natural lands that exist here in central Pennsylvania," he said. "I just thought it would be a shame if we lost this to some kind of a major subdivision or housing project."

Wenger is president and CEO of the Lancaster County Conservancy, a nonprofit organization with the mission of preserving wild, forested lands and natural habitats in the region.

The York County land Wenger referred to will soon be known as the Hellam Hills Nature Preserve. The land sits just north of Accomac Road in Hellam Township.

York County Vice President Commissioner Doug Hoke said what he likes about the conservancy is that the land it maintains is open to public use, and he's pleased about the nature preserve in York County.

"It’s just a beautiful piece of property along the river," Hoke said. 

Protected land: The preserve, which will likely be open to the public by mid-2019, will protect interior forests, meadows, ravines, streams and a variety of wildlife.

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Wenger said the conservancy plans to create a trail that's accessible and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as observation decks and other hiking trails, but the preserve will not be outfitted with other amenities.

There won't be pavilions, picnic tables or playgrounds, which Wenger hopes will be a draw for ecotourists who want to experience nature in its unaltered state.

Wenger said people tend to think there's plenty of natural land around and that it's not necessary to worry about preservation, but he disagrees.

"If you don’t do what we’re doing, you end up with a community like King of Prussia (Montgomery County), where there’s just no natural lands left," Wenger said. "Everything is built out and subdivided and parcellated."

The conservancy is funded by grants from foundations and government agencies such as the DCNR, as well as individual and corporate donors and fundraising events.

The map shows the tracts of land that will become the Hellam Hills Nature Preserve in northeastern York County.

Scout camp: About 250 acres of the land is from the Wizard Ranch Boy Scout camp.

The conservancy is under agreement to buy the tract from the New Birth of Freedom Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Ronald M. Gardner Jr., Scout executive and CEO of the council, said the agreement is good for everyone involved.

"We win, the conservancy wins, and the public wins because the property is preserved," Gardner said.

The New Birth of Freedom Council has a tradition of holding a major Scout camping weekend, known as the Wizard Safari, every four years. Gardner said the council and the conservancy are working together to continue the tradition after the land changes ownership.

Subdivision canceled: Another 104 acres of the preserve were sold by the Marietta Gravity Water Co. in  Lancaster County. The Marietta utility had leftover land after joining its water system with the Columbia Water Co., which serves parts of York County, in 2012.

That acreage had been marketed and approved for a 23-lot residential subdivision, but the land went up for public sale in December 2016. With the help of Robert Kinsley, of Kinsley Construction in York Township, the conservancy secured the land.

Kinsley bought the property when it became available for sale to ensure it wouldn't be scooped up by a developer, and he held it for the conservancy until the organization was able to secure funding through the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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Mason-Dixon Trail: Another feature of the preserve is a rerouted portion of the Mason-Dixon Trail. The trail itself is open to the public, Wenger said, but that's the only part of the preserve currently accessible. He cautioned that there's currently no parking lot or amenities for hikers.

The Lancaster County Conservancy is in talks with neighboring property owners who approached the conservancy to discuss contributing some of their own land to the preserve, and Wenger said he hopes to have about 2,000 acres when all is said and done.

"For those of us who are passionate about trying to protect the land, we really look for these opportunities where there’s large areas — not just 30 acres here or 50 acres there," Wenger said. "We can really set the land aside and let the trees get very old and let the animals have a place that they can live."