ClearWater Conservancy's Land Conservation Program seeks to balance the rapid growth of central Pennsylvania with the conservation of important ecological, cultural, and historic places. We work with landowners and managers to determine appropriate conservation methods, including land management recommendations, conservation easements, and land acquisition.
Walking along the stream, surrounded by trees, birds chattering overhead, it is difficult to believe that one is in the middle of an urban area. Millbrook Marsh in State College, Pennsylvania offers its community an escape from the busy town that surrounds it. Through cooperation between many local groups and governments, this area, once used as a dumping ground for fill from nearby construction, is now appreciated by the community for what it is: a natural gem in the middle of the city.
Millbrook Marsh is not only a protected natural area, but also is home to a regional nature center, hosting programs for children to learn about wetlands and watersheds. Trails and boardwalks through the marsh offer the opportunity to explore and observe this unique ecosystem. The protection of this 62-acre site and the creation of the nature center is the result of a truly collaborative effort on behalf of ClearWater Conservancy, local government, and other community organizations.
In 1991, the Centre County Natural Heritage Inventory highlighted a number of important natural sites within the county. Among them, Millbrook Marsh was identified as “highly significant,” being the only sizable example of one of the rarest types of natural communities in the county, a calcareous marsh. The marsh is home to several uncommon species of plants, as well as species of special concern.
In the early 1990s, the site was a priority for the protection efforts of ClearWater Conservancy, and the landowners were approached to discuss methods for protecting the marsh, such as the use of conservation easements on the parcels within the marsh.
Further support for the protection of Millbrook Marsh came in the form of the Spring Creek Corridor Study, released by ClearWater Conservancy in 1995. The study recommended establishing a Millbrook Marsh Nature Reserve to protect the marsh’s scenic and ecological qualities while providing opportunities for environmental education.
After discovering that Penn State University was planning to sell a farm adjacent to Millbrook Marsh, Don Hamer, then president of ClearWater Conservancy, approached Penn State to recommend a cooperative endeavor among Penn State, local government, and community groups to create a regional nature center at the 12-acre site at the farm. Throughout 1995 and 1996, representatives of Penn State, ClearWater Conservancy, the Centre Regional Recreation Authority, and the Centre County Historical Society worked together to establish a vision for the nature center.
At the same time, ClearWater Conservancy was working with the largest landowner within the marsh, the Clover Highlands Group, to facilitate the donation of their 50 acres to Penn State, thus consolidating the two largest parcels in the marsh under Penn State’s ownership in 1996.
The Millbrook Marsh Nature Center Advisory Committee formed in 1997, consisting of representatives from various agencies and community organizations. Their work established the vision for the future of Millbrook Marsh Nature Center. Through a state Key ’93 grant awarded to ClearWater Conservancy, the Penn State Cooperative Wetlands Center worked with the advisory committee to create the Protection and Management Plan for Millbrook Marsh Nature Center. The advisory committee also determined the mission of the Millbrook Marsh Nature Center, which is to educate and inspire people about the natural world and to instill a passion for the environment through science, history, culture, and art.
The Centre Region Recreation Authority agreed to act as the coordinating agency for the regional nature center in January 1997, leasing the 62 acres from Penn State at a price of $1 for 35 years. In January 2001, the conservation easement was recorded between ClearWater Conservancy and the Pennsylvania State University.
Currently, the Millbrook Marsh Nature Center hosts numerous educational activities. Marsh Mondays offer parents the chance to learn with their children, brownbag lunches teach adults about local conservation issues, and day camps offer children a summer among nature.
The vision for the Millbrook Marsh Nature Center is to build and operate an innovative and creative environmental education center on a year-round basis (the Spring Creek Education Building), a cutting-edge wetland/water laboratory, information kiosks, a parking area, and access to community bike paths. With this vision in mind, members of the Millbrook Marsh Nature Center Advisory Committee have undertaken a Building Fund Campaign to raise almost $1,000,000 toward the $1.25 million (local) goal. Pledges from major gift donors, local governments, grants, and foundations have been part of the quiet phase.
Millbrook Marsh Fen
In early 2000, ClearWater received a gift of the ecologically rare limestone fen at the heart of Millbrook Marsh from the Neibel family. The Fen is an important addition to the protected lands of Millbrook Marsh.
It is a special kind of wetland, one that responds to an alkaline source of water. The relatively high pH (about 8.0) groundwater that supports the Millbrook Marsh Fen comes from an escarpment of limestone and dolomite bedrock. The fen supports a variety of emergent wetland plants, most importantly it is habitat for several Pennsylvania state endangered and threatened species of sedge, spike rush, and pondweed.
Hilton Garden Inn conservation easement
ClearWater’s second conservation easement of 2005 was the culmination of an effort to partner with the Hilton Garden Inn to highlight an environmentally-sensitive redevelopment of a commercial gateway into State College while protecting and enhancing the adjacent wetland resources of Millbrook Marsh.
Representatives of ClearWater and the Green Hotel Associates first started discussing the donation of a conservation easement in April 2001, before the hotel was even built.
The property was worthy of conservation for its riparian and wetland habitat. Approximately 450 feet of Thompson Run, a first order stream, runs through the property. Thompson Run is designated by the PA Department of Environmental Protection as a High Quality Cold Water Fishery, which should be maintained and protected at this quality.
The property is located within the Millbrook Marsh Biological Diversity Area, defined by the Centre County Natural Heritage Inventory as representing "one of the rarest types of communities in the county. It is the only sizeable example of an open sedge fen in the county".
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has categorized Millbrook Marsh as being of "exceptional significance", meaning it is "of exceptional importance for the biological diversity and ecological integrity of the county... Sites of exceptional significance merit quick, strong, and complete protection".
Hilton Garden Inn’s portion of wetland is adjacent to the 5.5-acre Millbrook Marsh Fen, which is owned and protected by ClearWater Conservancy, and in close proximity to an additional 50 acres of Millbrook Marsh that are protected by conservation easement. Preservation of the wetlands on Hilton Garden Inn property will result in an expanded area of protected open space and buffer some of the most significant and sensitive portions of Millbrook Marsh.
Mark Morath, President of Hospitality Asset Management Company, worked closely with ClearWater on behalf of the Green Hotel Associates not only to donate the conservation easement, but also to ensure that the hotel was sensitive to the environment during the construction and landscaping phases of development. For instance, the hotel’s landscape architect consulted with ClearWater to choose plants that would be compatible with the marsh ecosystem.
"We’ve done a lot of landscaping, much more than most projects of this type," said Morath. "We want to be a good neighbor to Millbrook Marsh".
Plus, being ecologically sensitive is just good business. By building a "green hotel", restoring part of the Millbrook Marsh fen, and donating a conservation easement to ClearWater, the Hilton Garden Inn showcases a great community partnership that protects and enhances the quality of life, the environment, and the economy of the Spring Creek Watershed.
The interpretive panel to the left is displayed prominently at the Hilton Garden Inn and illustrates to the hotel guests the cooperation between ClearWater Conservancy, Millbrook Marsh Nature Center, and Hilton Garden Inn.