Stakeholders, residents oppose DCNR’s plans for Big Elk Creek State Park11/29/2023 11:53AM ● By Richard Gaw
There is a generous swath of pristine land in southern Chester County that now sits on the precipice of significant change.
Over the past three weeks, legions of those opposed to any new imprint on its definition and disturbance of its largely quiet earth have galvanized in an effort to hold back the big ideas of a big agency. Meanwhile, that agency -- the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – attempts to construct a middle ground of understanding while serving the needs of a larger public.
Buttressed against the Maryland State border and the Mason-Dixon Line, the Big Elk Creek section of the White Clay Creek Preserve in Elk and Franklin townships is a 1,700-acre property containing 800 acres of farmland, 600 acres of woodland, 100 acres of native grass meadows and nearly 200 acres of flood plains.
Historically, it once served as a vital transportation network for the Lenni-Lenape indigenous population and for those seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad, and its place adjacent to the Maryland border and the 5,565-acre Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area provides a valuable link to conservation efforts in a still mostly rural corridor that inspires passive recreation and a greater appreciation for a fragile ecosystem. When pieced together with Fair Hill and other area easements, it helps to form one of the largest undeveloped open areas in the entire Mid-Atlantic Region.
Managed by the staff of the White Clay Creek Preserve – now the Friends of the White Clay Creek Preserve -- since 1984, 739 acres of the Big Elk Creek were purchased by the State of Pennsylvania on Jan. 28, 2010 from property once owned by George W. Strawbridge, Jr. In 2020, the commonwealth purchased an additional 978 acres. The decade-long acquisition that expanded the White Clay Creek Preserve was coordinated by The Conservation Fund and funded by the DCNR, Chester County and Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware.
In late September of 2022, DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn gathered with dignitaries to celebrate the establishment of Big Elk Creek State Park, changing its designation from a preserve. Acquiring the property was part of a $45 million, 30-year investment by the state that joined Big Elk Creek with Susquehanna Riverlands in York County and Vosburg Neck in Wyoming County as the newest additions to the commonwealth’s 124-park system.
“Each new park site is unique in its value to a great system,” Dunn said at the event. “All of the new parks are steeped in cultural pre- and post-Colonial history, centered around important water resources and represent fantastic natural resource value.”
“Chester County is beyond pleased that the commonwealth has chosen Big Elk Creek as one of its next state parks,” said Chester County Commissioner Marian Moskowitz. “We know the investment will further highlight the land’s natural attributes and habitats and become a place that our residents and visitors will love.”
‘Great Gathering Sites’
On Nov. 6, 2023, DCNR held a public meeting at Lincoln University before a large audience of area residents, conservation stakeholders and elected officials, where in a 63-slide, one-hour presentation, the agency introduced the initial development and restoration ideas for Big Elk Creek State Park. The plan drew its coordinates and vision from the results of a stakeholder input public survey and interviews held with residents of southeaster Pennsylvania in July, that discussed planning, design and documentation; low impact site design; the construction of environmentally responsible buildings; and plans for the protection of the environment.
Also incorporated in DCNR’s presentation were plans for family campgrounds that will offer 30-foot by 30-foot cabins and standard, full-service and walk-in campsites, and as shown in photographs, adequate parking spaces for RVs. DCNR called the plan “Great Gathering Sites.”
Those in attendance that night were not allowed to ask questions about the planned project, so instead, they brought their concerns to their townships. At the Nov. 15 Franklin Township Board of Supervisors meeting, residents in attendance expressed their outrage over DCNR’s new concepts for the park for a full 90 minutes, as the DCNR slide show played above the heads of the board.
“This was supposed to be a preserve, not a state park!” one resident said, pointing at the supervisors. “You people should have been involved a long time ago, just as a lot of other townships should have been.”
“We live 15 feet from the edge of the park,” another resident said. “I don’t want people in my backyard.”
A resident of Mt. Olivet Road told the board that she has lived in her home for the past 25 years adjacent to Big Elk Creek, and expressed her dissatisfaction with the lack of communication DCNR has had with area townships about their plans.
“I find it very disheartening to see that map of Big Elk Creek showing areas for camping with permanent structures,” she said. “When you start talking about putting in permanent structures, permanent utilities and large buildings crammed between trail systems, that’s a whole other ball of wax.
“The lack of transparency [from DCNR] is unsettling and concerning, and we feel like they’re trying to slip us one.”
Several other Franklin Township residents said that the introduction of overnight camping to Big Elk Creek would lead to noise and light pollution and safety issues due to the proximity of these sites to their homes.
Public opposition to planned development at Big Elk Creek has not just been confined to board rooms. A petition on Change.org named “Halt the Construction of a Campground in Big Elk Creek State Park” has received close to 1,400 signatures over the past three weeks. In a letter announcing the petition, author Anteia Consorto urged local government officials and the DCNR to reconsider their decision about building this large campground complex, writing that “the proposed construction of a large campground with RV’s, cabins and/or yurts threatens to disrupt this peaceful environment that we call home and the delicate balance that supports 15 rare and endangered plant species.
‘A cookie-cutter facsimile of other state parks’
Gary Schroeder, founder, past president and current member of Friends of the White Clay Creek Preserve, was part of a consortium of volunteers who formed the organization in 2012 to help preserve the White Clay Creek Preserve – and the Big Elk Creek Preserve – as a valuable natural resource, open to low-impact recreation only. He said that DCNR’s plans for Big Elk Creek go against the prevailing grain of both public sentiment and the Friends’ original mission.
“We live in the mid-Atlantic area and there are not many unique properties like this where you have thousands of acres with no houses on them, so there has been a lot of efforts to maintain it as open space, so our charge has been to continually ask, ‘What should the future be for this incredible resource that is different for our area?’” he said.
Schroeder said that DCNR’s plan for Big Elk Creek is very similar to other parks they own in the state.
“It focuses more on active recreation and less on preserving and maintaining this unique property that we have,” he said. “We just need to work together as partners with the state and the community to get the state to look at it as a unique property for this area, and not develop the park as a cookie-cutter facsimile of other state parks.
“The state does not need to create another RV park when there are plenty of commercial ones available. It doesn’t add any value to our area.”
‘Contrary to the will of the community’
Perhaps the most vocal, persistent and recognized critic of DCNR’s plans for Big Elk Creek State Park has been State Rep. John Lawrence. On Nov. 7, one day after DCNR’s presentation, he sent a letter to both Dunn and John Hallas, the director of Pennsylvania State Parks, calling the agency’s plans “completely contrary to the will of the community and out of step with the surrounding area.” He referred to the DCNR proposal as “a major tourist attraction” that reverses the original intent of the property.
“The property in Elk and Franklin townships was acquired as an addition to the White Clay Creek Preserve,” Lawrence wrote. “Everyone involved at every step of the acquisition process (including DCNR) understood the property would be managed as part of the Preserve – a semi-wilderness area with limited, low-impact use.”
On Nov. 14, Lawrence wrote a second letter to Hallas, saying that the DCNR has not honored its pledge to maintain Big Elk Creek as a preserve. (In general, the purpose of a preserve is to protect and manage a property’s natural features; conserve watershed and enhance water quality; provide habitat for animal species; and preserve a historic space or land.)
In an interview with the Chester County Press, Lawrence called the White Clay Creek Preserve an integral part of the fabric of southern Chester County for 40 years, defining it as “a treasured and sacrosanct resource.”
“The whole attraction of the Preserve is the fact that it is a remote place to get away from everything,” he said. “The joy and benefit that it brings not just to the community but for folks far outside the community gives them a place where you can take a hike, ride your horse or your bike and get into nature, and really be away from it all. It’s unique not just to our community, but unique to the Northeast Corridor.”
He said that DCNR is back-stepping on maintaining the primary purpose of the park.
“DCNR stated years ago that Big Elk Creek property will always remain a place for low-impact uses – a non-developed park without development of a day use or an overnight park,” he said. “That’s what DCNR committed to the community when this property was added to the White Clay Creek Preserve. It’s important to mention that while campgrounds are not bad, it was not the intent of what was going to happen here.”
While he called his Nov. 14 meeting with Hallas in Harrisburg “productive,” Lawrence said that Hallas did not commit to managing the Bilk Elk property as a preserve, “and that is what I am looking for from DCNR – a commitment to manage the Big Elk Creek State Park in keeping with the way the White Clay Creek Preserve has been managed for the past 40 years,” he said.
Lawrence expressed both optimism and doubt as to how DCNR will respond to public criticism of their plans for Big Elk Creek State Park.
“The next few months at the public feedback opportunities that are provided will be critical in determining how DCNR is going to proceed with their plans,” he said. “Are they going to implement these plans? Are they going to modify these plans, or are they going to shelve these plans and start from scratch? It is critical for the community to keep that level of engagement as things move forward, and I will continue to place pressure on DCNR to live up to the commitment they made to this community over a decade ago, and many times since.”
‘We’re trying to get this right’
Over the past three weeks, the opposition to DCNR’s plans for Big Elk Creek State Park has continued to ratchet up in volume throughout Elk and Franklin townships and beyond. In his capacity as a DCNR spokesperson, Wesley Robinson has heard those voices, both in ZOOM captures of township meetings, online and expressed in comment cards he and his colleagues received at the Nov. 6 meeting. He urged those with concerns about the planned project not to rush to judgement, but rather acknowledge the full entirety of the agency’s vision.
Robinson said that of the 1,700 acres that make up Big Elk Creek State Park, less than five percent of the entire property is planned to be dedicated to camping space.
“We’re not planning to come in and create dozens and dozens of buildings and 1,500 parking spots,” he said. “We are developing the park for recreation in that area and are making sure that it is managed so that people can fully make use of the park. What we hope to add is a park that people wish to come to as a destination – something that gives Pennsylvania something to be proud of.”
While Robinson said that there is no solid timeline for the development of the park, DCNR is tentatively scheduling a follow-up public meeting in April of 2024, with a time and place to be determined. In the interim, the agency will be posting answers to frequently asked questions on its website (www.dcnr.pa.gov.).
“DCNR knows that locals want to have a say and we want to let them know that we have the interest of the general public in mind,” he said. “We want everyone to understand that this is not a closed process. There are some elements of it that DCNR is working on within its authority as the public land manager of 124 state parks, 2.2 million acres of state forest, but we are trying to balance what we do within a state system with the need to be good environmental stewards.
“We’re trying to get this right.”
Schroeder, who has been involved in the process of land conservation for nearly 40 years, said that while DCNR’s plans for Big Elk Creek State Park have initially been met with opposition by many area residents, that ultimately the project will be best served by a collaboration between DCNR, local experts and residents to determine the best course of action.
“We have an opportunity to look at the Big Elk Creek with fresh eyes and see what the appropriate use of that resource is, knowing that there are activities like horseback riding and foxhunting, and some mountain bike riding, and we want to maintain them and create appropriate access for them,” he said. “DCNR has some wonderful ideas for creating new trails and developing an active educational program at Big Elk Creek. To me, that is consistent with the needs of the communities here, because that’s what is unique to our area.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].