Wild Notes Spring 2010 edition
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Spring 2010

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Cosmo the flying squirrel

 

Lehigh Gap Nature Center  Page 2

devoid of vegetation, and the topsoil, contaminated by toxic metals, once held in place by the forests, had washed into the river leaving more than 2,000 acres of barren moonscape. In 1983, the area was added to the National Priorities List for Superfund by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As part of the Superfund requirements, there were three important goals for the site in order to minimize further risk to humans and the environment: 1) re-vegetate the area with native species; 2) stop the serious erosion of
subsoil that continues to bring metals down-slope into the Lehigh River; and 3) sequester the toxic metals in the soil so they were no longer accessible to living organisms through uptake in the food web. The area was too large and the terrain too steep to remove the contaminated earth and relocate it. To this end, in the early 1990s, a remediation method utilizing sewage sludge and fly ash waste was implemented on the slopes of the Kittatinny east of the Lehigh Gap. This method managed to make the mountainside green again, but did not meet all of U.S. EPA’s criteria for success, and the revegetation effort stagnated. The process was deadlocked when our small conservation group, then known as the Wildlife Information Center, undertook a bold project to purchase 750+ acres on the ridge just west of the Lehigh River. The Wildlife Center’s plan was to purchase the land, re-vegetate it using models from nature, and develop the site into an environmental education and outdoor recreation area. We have succeeded and now do business as Lehigh Gap Nature Center.

Whatever would inspire a group of environmentallyminded citizens to purchase a portion of a Superfund site? The Lehigh Gap Nature Center (LGNC) is all about location. The Gap is at the crossroads of the Kittatinny Ridge and Lehigh River, and of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor Trail (D&L Trail). The land (more than 750 acres) is located on the Kittatinny Ridge where the Lehigh River cuts through the ridge forming Lehigh Gap, which has a rich history involving early shipping and trade routes, and the birth of the Industrial Revolution in this country.

Grasses now flourish on the formerly barren slope of the Kitatiny Ridge at Lehigh Gap

But perhaps of greater importance, the Kittatinny Ridge has international ecological importance as a migration corridor and stopover site for raptors and Neotropical songbirds and monarch butterflies, is an Important Bird Area in Pennsylvania, and is a high priority area for conservation for The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The ridge serves as a leading line for autumn migration of raptors including several species of concern in the state. It is important stopover habitat for migrating songbirds, nesting habitat for interior forest songbirds such as Wood Thrushes and Scarlet Tanagers, and an important wildlife corridor. The ridge plays an extremely important role in hydrology—holding precipitation and allowing it to gradually seep through the ground—purifying it and minimizing surface runoff into the Lehigh River. The ridge is also important as a recreation area for people. Its slopes include several state game lands and state parks, and it is also home to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. The world-famous Appalachian Trail follows the ridgetop through much of Pennsylvania. The scarred and toxic section of the ridge presented problems for wildlife and those trying to enjoy the recreational opportunities in the region. But now, it is also home to the new Lehigh Gap Nature Center.

Our plan was met with skepticism by some, but we persisted with our vision and EPA approved our plan for re-vegetating the mountainside with native, mainly warm-season, grasses. The grasses have succeeded in meeting all three goals set forth by EPA. The grasses, with their extensive and deep root systems, are very effectively stopping erosion while providing excellent
habitat for birds, insects and small mammals. These grasses take up the metals in low enough quantities as to be deemed safe for the bluebirds, kestrels, and snakes that feed off the insects and small mammals that
eat the grasses or their seeds.

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