Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — October 2004

Landfill Debate Unveils Hidden Natural Treasures

by Ben Cramer

The current debate over the proposed landfill in Snow Shoe and Rush townships, western Centre County, has understandably focused on economic and political matters. However, some groups concerned about the effects the landfill may have on outdoor sports and recreation, as well as ecology and conservation, have raised issues about the natural bounty that may be damaged or lost altogether. These are issues with little immediate economic impact, but which could have far-reaching implications for the health of Central Pennsylvania’s ecosystems, as well as a loss of future benefits from recreation and tourism.

The large landfill has been proposed for a rather remote area near the towns of Snow Shoe and Moshannon, along Moshannon Creek near the boundary between Centre and Clearfield counties. Proponents have posited that the landfill will simply utilize sections of land that have been previously damaged by mining and/or logging, even though, over the decades, these areas have still returned to healthy middle-growth forest to a surprising degree. In addition, there is still the issue of the landfill’s potential interactions with more pristine ecosystems nearby. These can include the impacts from increased truck and rail traffic to service the landfill, leakage of toxins, spreading odors, and various types of noise and visual pollution. Regardless of precautions taken during a landfill’s design and construction, there will always be potential shocks to surrounding ecosystems. And the areas around the proposed landfill site are a classic Central Pennsylvania landscape of creeks, hillsides, and dense forests.

A central component of the landfill proposal is an abandoned Conrail track which once extended from Philipsburg to the Snow Shoe area, and has since been converted into a private trail for off-road vehicles and bicycles. Some provisions in the landfill proposal call for this railroad track to be rebuilt for the delivery of trash to the site. A ride along this railroad grade offers an adventurous and enlightening look into the natural Pennsylvania beauty and opportunities for recreation that are imperiled by the potential landfill.

The railroad grade passes through areas near Black Moshannon State Park, closely following Moshannon Creek as it flows northeast toward the Susquehanna. While not especially far from its source, this creek is still an impressive waterway, with a very wide and fast-moving course through the low hills of the plateau region above Bald Eagle valley. Moshannon Creek is a key site for enthusiasts, from throughout the Northeastern United States, for whitewater rafting and kayaking in the spring. The creek also offers opportunities for more easygoing rafting and canoeing during many other times of the year. The creek is popularly known to locals as the “Red Moshannon” due to its distinct orange-ish color, which is the result of many decades of leakage from a multitude of nearby coalmines. This impressive creek has suffered severe damage and is not yet completely healthy, though citizens’ groups such as the Moshannon Creek Watershed Coalition have organized over the years to promote the river’s rehabilitation. Regardless, Moshannon Creek still offers a multitude of recreational opportunities.

The old railroad bed proceeds to the crossing of I-80 over Moshannon Creek and its gorge, traveling quite far above the river but also quite far below the high-flying double overpass that carries the interstate over this impressive canyon. A barren landscape immediate below the overpass indicates the extensive reconstruction that has been ongoing for the bridges for about the past year. This construction-related disruption to the gorge is invisible to the motorists on the interstate above, but speaks loudly about how the local landscape can be affected by construction. The railroad bed then continues over an old Viaduct that can be seen to the right as one travels westbound on I-80. From the interstate, the Viaduct is far below and appears to be quite puny. However, it is still a whopping 170 feet above Moshannon Creek, offering a terrifying experience for even the most adventurous cyclists.

The railroad bed has now entered the area of the landfill proposal, and continues to roughly follow Moshannon Creek, offering impressive vistas of the river’s sinuous course through the surrounding hills, and even a wet and creepy former railroad tunnel. Black Moshannon Creek flows in from the southeast and joins its larger parent stream in this area. This is the creek that forms the unique bog- and swamp-ringed lake upstream at Black Moshannon State Park, and features distinctively colored water of its own, resembling Dr. Pepper, which has inspired the creek’s name. This coloration is more natural, and is caused by the decay of plant matter contributed by the unique plateau ecosystems along the river’s course.

The landfill proposal includes lands in the high areas between the two creeks, with the inclusion of off-limits “buffer zones” along the immediate banks of the waterways, which are generally less than a quarter of a mile wide on average. The ability of such zones to visually conceal the operations of the landfill, or prevent immediate displeasure for recreational enthusiasts in the area, is doubtful. The greater ecological forces engendered by large-scale landfill operations also do not recognize such small-scale manmade boundaries.

Potential impacts to the forests, hillsides, wildlife, and rivers of this classic Central Pennsylvania landscape (note that Moshannon and Black Moshannon Creeks are important components of Susquehannock/Chesapeake Bay watershed) cannot be dismissed so easily, as the result of debates focusing on immediate economic and political issues behind the landfill proposal. Fishermen, hunters, birders, boaters, hikers, bikers, and those who just plain love Pennsylvania’s abundant natural beauty and resources may all be affected in negative ways by the construction of such a large landfill. All the people of the region may also feel impacts on our water and air. Exploring these beautiful and adventuresome landscapes around the landfill proposal will allow us to see the deeper issues involved and add to a more constructive debate.

Note: The railroad bed described here is not open to the public. It is maintained by the Snow Shoe Rail-Trail Association (SSRTA), a private organization that allows use only by members and approved guests. For more information on this trail, contact SSRTA at PO Box 314, Clarence, PA 16829.

Correction: Although originally reported as a private trail, the Snow Shoe Rail-Trail is, and always has been, a multiuse public trail. The confusion arises in a trail management practice that requires motorized users (e.g., ATVs, snowmobiles) to provide annual proof of insurance, proof of registration, and review the “Wheels Yield to Heels” rules of the Trail, which is called a membership. Nonmotorized use is free and open to the public (e.g., walking, hiking, biking, horsebackriding) although many nonmotorized users choose to join the Snow Shoe Rails-to-Trails Association as well.

Ben Cramer is a freelance writer, outdoor enthusiast, and graduate student living in State College. He is also a committee member for the Moshannon Group of Sierra Club. The Moshannon Group hosts regular outdoor adventures throughout Central Pennsylvania (see the Outings page for details).