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Improvements planned for more than 2,000 acres of protected land in York County

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

York County has 2,144 acres of protected wild land in Hellam Township for residents to enjoy following the opening of Susquehanna Riverlands State Park.

The state park lies west of the Hellam Hills and Wizard Ranch nature preserves, which are owned by the Lancaster Conservancy, a private and accredited land trust. The two preserves are known collectively as the Hellam Hills Conservation Area.

All three locations eventually will have established hiking trails, parking lots and public bathrooms but are in the early stages of planning. The Susquehanna Riverlands master planning process started in late September.

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Although the nature preserves are still several years away from having amenities, the conservancy is excited to be preserving the properties.

“The Hellam Hills Conservation Area is one of the last large, wooded tracts of land between the Lancaster, York and Harrisburg city areas and needs to be protected both for water quality reasons for the Susquehanna River and in the larger Bay watershed,” said Kelly Snavely, the conservancy's director of marketing and communications.

Hellam Hills Nature Preserve in Hellam Township, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

The conservancy works with many partners to preserve more than 8,000 acres of land, and it continues to seek community support.

“We need the community be involved in caring for and ensuring that we continue to do our work at these nature preserves,” Snavely said. Public "donations to our organization allow us to continue to go out and actively protect our land. There’s a lot of pressure and development in our area, specifically the Hellam Hills Conservation Area.”

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The conservancy originally had the now-state park property under a sales agreement when the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources approached with a proposition. The department had unbudgeted money that had to be spent on public access to natural resources and wanted to use it to establish a state park, DCNR Secretary Cindy Dunn said.

While the state park will remain largely unchanged over the master planning process, park officials are working on plans to expand the existing parking lot, park manager Nathaniel Brown said. When the master plan is done, amenities such as trails and a park office will follow.

The planning process is expected to take up to 18 months, but Brown noted it could take longer. For now, the park is open to the public — and while it is mostly untouched land, a portion of the Mason-Dixon Trail runs through it.

The Mason-Dixon Trail is a 200-mile route that runs from the Appalachian Mountains through the Hellam Hills Nature Preserve, Snavley said.

Forester Eric Roper, with Lancaster Conservancy, marks areas for native tree species to be planted at Wizard Ranch, a part of Hellam Hills Nature Preserve, in Hellam Township, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

Both nature preserves are open to the public, but Wizard Ranch has no easy access for the public and no parking lot, Snavely said. No official signage for trails has been installed in either of the preserves as the conservancy reroutes many the existing trails.

The Hellam Hills Conservation Area will likely have amenities before the state park. There is no set date for when amenities will be available, but the conservancy released its master plan for the area in March.

The plan lays out conservation and preservation needs; recommended recreational facilities such as footpaths, restrooms, pavilions and bridges; designated hunting areas; and a "stewardship hub" for preservation employees to work in.

While providing outdoor recreation to the county, the conservancy sees the preserves as places to provide education as well. Wizard Ranch, which the Boy Scouts of America previously owned, is a great place to provide educational programming in the future, Snavely said.

To learn more about Susquehanna Riverlands State Park, visit its website at https://www.dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/SusquehannaRiverlandsStatePark/Pages/default.aspx. For more information about the Lancaster Conservancy, its nature preserves and work, visit https://www.lancasterconservancy.org/hellam-hills-master-plan/#.

— Reach Noel Miller at NMiller3@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.