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.
Scotia Barrens Conservation Project
The Scotia Barrens is a unique habitat in Pennsylvania. It is one of the largest examples of a pitch pine – scrub oak barrens remaining in the Commonwealth and is believed to have extended from just north of State College to the southeast through Huntingdon County. Acquisition of approximately 6,200 acres of barrens in 1973 by the Pennsylvania Game Commission protected the largest remaining tract of this habitat and its associated flora and fauna. (Western Pennsylvania Conservancy 1995). The valuable natural resources of these lands have long been recognized and numerous studies have documented their uniqueness.
Ecological Resources of the Barrens
Since its acquisition, State Game Lands (SGL) 176 and several adjacent private properties have been identified as a Biological Diversity Area by the Centre County Natural Heritage Inventory, an Important Bird Area by Pennsylvania Audubon, and one of the first designated Important Mammal Areas by Pennsylvania Wildlife Federation. Additionally, ClearWater Conservancy’s Spring Creek Rivers Conservation Plan identified the Barrens as playing a critical role in the Spring Creek Watershed’s ecology. An extensive series of locally rare, acidic wetlands, ponds, and marshes support unique flora and fauna and provide countless educational and recreational opportunities.
The unique species assemblages inhabiting the Scotia Barrens is a result of the harsh growing conditions characteristic of typical barrens habitat and also from the impact of iron mining and associated settlement activities in the early 1900s. The Barrens is host to several extremely rare species of flora and fauna (e.g., barren buckmoth (Hemileuca maia), northeastern bulrush (Scirpius ancistochaetus), golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera), and Appalachian cottontail (Sylvilagus obscurus) and also supports a large diversity of migrating and breeding Neotropical migrant songbirds. Vernal pools and large, deep ponds are also inhabited by many species of amphibians, diverse herbaceous communities, and rare insects (Pennsylvania Audubon Society 1999 and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy 2002).
Importance to Groundwater Recharge
The geology of the Scotia Barrens causes it to be an important groundwater recharge area for Bellefonte’s Big Spring, the second largest spring in Pennsylvania. The sandy soil in the Barrens allows water to percolate deep into the ground. Under the sandy soil is sandy dolomite bedrock that allows groundwater to flow through and also be stored in its pore spaces, fractures and openings. Within this bedrock, a fault zone of openings and caverns connects the Scotia Barrens to the Big Spring in Bellefonte. Groundwater recharge from the 25 square miles of the Barrens is more than enough water to supply the 19 million gallons a day that flow from the Big Spring and serves as drinking water to many residents of Bellefonte Borough, Milesburg Borough, and Spring, Benner, and Walker Townships.
A Recreational Resource
SGL 176 is an important recreational resource for the residents of Centre County. For hunters, SGL 176 supports whitetail deer, black bear, bobcat, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, American woodcock, and gray and fox squirrels. Other recreational uses include hiking, jogging, cross-country skiing, bird watching and wildlife photography. Some activities, such as mountain biking, horseback riding and all terrain vehicles are permitted, but only on designated trails. The PGC also operates the Scotia Range, a facility equipped for safe usage of rifles, handguns and shotguns. It is used for target practice, sighting in of firearms, hunter safety education and law enforcement training. It is available to hunters and, with permission, to organized youth and law enforcement organizations.
The Scotia Barrens offers a unique link to the region’s iron-mining activity from the late 1700s to the early 1900s. As early as 1790, area settlers realized that the Barrens was a rich source of raw material for the iron furnaces that soon dotted the central Pennsylvania landscape. In 1881 Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie bought 400 acres from Centre Furnace ironmaster Moses Thompson and named his new company town Scotia, after his homeland of Scotland. A bustling company town sprang up, complete with large open-pit mines, ore-processing facilities, railroad service and all the necessities of village life. Soon, however, ore supplies dwindled and competition from the Great Lakes area drew the market away from Central Pennsylvania. By 1911 Scotia was a ghost town, except for a brief mining resurgence during World War II.
Today, little remains of the mining town of Scotia, other than landforms, rail beds and archeological sites that could help reveal the story of Pennsylvania iron-ore mining to future generations; the Spring Creek Rivers Conservation Plan recommends the creation of a heritage park for the area.
Threats to the Scotia Barrens: development and long-term security as our community grows
Rural areas surrounding the Centre Region are quickly transitioning into bedroom communities for the growing town of State College. The area surrounding SGL 176 in Ferguson, Halfmoon, and Patton Townships is currently under extensive residential and commercial development pressure. As additional acres of surrounding barrens habitat are lost and SGL 176 become increasingly isolated by development, the unique biological and water resources of the Barrens are threatened and its ecological integrity is diminished.
The Centre County Natural Heritage Inventory recognized the threat that encroaching development has on the barrens. Not only does increasing isolation reduce the ability for species immigration and emigration, maintaining genetic diversity, but it also eliminates the possibility for the PGC to reintroduce fire management into this ecosystem, a recommendation of the Natural Heritage Inventory.
In 2003, the Toftrees portion of SGL 176 was transferred from the Pennsylvania Game Commission to Pennsylvania State University. For decades, this portion of SGL 176 was leased to the Pennsylvania State University, who used the property as a sewage effluent treatment system and research facility (commonly referred to as the “living filter”). The transfer of this portion of SGL 176 secured the University’s ability to use this property for sewage treatment indefinitely, however, this transaction of public land occurred without any public awareness, comment, or involvement. The manner in which this transaction took place raised significant local concern about the long-term security of SGL 176 proper.
ClearWater's Scotia Barrens Conservation Project
ClearWater Conservancy initiated the Scotia Barrens Conservation Project using the Blue Mountain – Kittatinny Ridge Conservation Project, a landscape-level conservation initiative managed by Pennsylvania Audubon Society, as our model. Conservation planning and prioritization also will be coordinated with the PGC’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy to ensure habitat needs for priority wildlife species are met.
The Scotia Barrens Conservation Project will include:
As part of the larger Scotia Barrens Conservation Project, we are working to maintain natural connections between Scotia Barrens and Tussey and Bald Eagle Mountains. Significant development pressure from the north imminently threatens to isolate the Barrens from the large forested tracts of Bald Eagle Mountain, itself an important natural resource. Even though there appears to be open space remaining as one makes the drive from Route 322 west along Route 550 towards Stormstown, the fact is that future developments are on the books for all but a sliver between Scotia Barrens and the ridge.