Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — September 2010

THE LOWER TRAIL: A Threatened Treasure

by Dr. Stan Kotala

Hiking along the Lower Trail

The Lower Trail traverses an outstanding example of Ridge and Valley riparian forest. Both are endangered by proposed 135-acre limestone quarry in the Covedale area. · Photo by Stan Kotala

Fall is a great time to observe wildlife and there are few places that offer better opportunities to do that than the Lower Trail, a 17-mile rails-to-trails route along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River between Flowing Springs, near Canoe Creek State Park in Blair County, and the village of Alfarata in Huntingdon County. Enjoyed by more than 100,000 people annually, the 18-mile Lower Trail is one of Blair County’s major recreation assets. The trail was recently named a U.S. National Recreation Trail. The Lower Trail is open to the public, free of charge, for hiking, jogging, bicycling, horseback riding, birdwatching, cross-country skiing, and other non-motorized recreation. The trail also provides access to the river for fishing, kayaking and canoeing.

The Lower Trail runs through an outstanding example of a Ridge and Valley riparian forest. The combination of steep, wooded slopes, floodplain forests, and high soil moisture produces a diverse, healthy lowland riparian ecosystem. The northern portion of the trail runs through a narrow gorge with a low ridge to the west and the high ridgeline of Tussey Mountain, up to 1,500 feet above the river, to the east. There is little human disturbance there other than the trail. To the south, the river meanders through mostly forested riparian habitat that contains some agriculture and sparse human settlements.

Access to the trail is easy and you have many access points from which to choose: from downstream to upstream, they are Alfarata (near Alexandria), Mt. Etna, Cove Dale/Carlim, Williamsburg, Grannas Station, and Flowing Springs. All the trailheads have ample parking facilities. Picnic tables, pavilions and toilets can be found at the Alfarata, Mt. Etna, Williamburg, and Flowing Springs Trailheads. The trail is 8 feet wide and has a hard surface of crushed limestone, perfect for bicycles, even those with skinny tires. Wide grass berms alongside the trail accommodate horseback riders. Being an old railroad grade, the trail is flat with a minimal grade as you make your way upstream, with mile markers posted at each mile. The trail is open year round, free of charge, and is well-maintained by volunteers of Rails-to-Trails of Central Pennsylvania.

This site was identified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Ornithological Technical Committee of the Pennsylvania Biological Survey in October 2001. Juniata Valley Audubon has officially adopted this site for the purpose of stewardship and bird monitoring. More than 150 species of birds have been observed along the Lower Trail since Juniata Valley Audubon began a Special Areas Project there in 1995.

Immediately adjacent to the trail near Covedale/Carlim is the Heller Caves Biological Diversity Area (BDA). The Heller Caves serve as hibernacula for eastern small-footed bats, a Threatened species in Pennsylvania and a “priority species” in the Commonwealth’s Wildlife Action Plan.

Sadly, a proposed 135-acre limestone quarry adjacent to the Lower Trail in the Covedale area would have a severe adverse impact on the trail and its users, local residents, the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River IBA, and the Heller Caves BDA. Catharine Properties, which owns approximately 200 acres fronting the trail for close to a mile, is proposing to develop a limestone quarry next to the trail, with its attendant blasting, bulldozing, heavy truck traffic, dust, noise, etc. The BDA and a portion of the IBA are part of the proposed mine.

According to the Blair County Natural Heritage Inventory done under the direction of the Blair County Planning Commission from 2001–2006, the Heller Caves BDA can be destroyed by adjacent blasting or other earth-moving activities that disrupt bedrock. In addition, the Inventory states that reduction of forest cover would reduce habitat area for roosting and feeding needed by these bats. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission “forested areas with caves, mines, rock outcrops or talus provide key summer habitat” for small-footed bats. The Blair County Natural Heritage Inventory goes on to state; “Blasting and other activities that will affect the bedrock should be avoided within this area so as not to damage the cave being used as a hibernation site” and “maintaining and cultivating forest cover will increase the amount of available habitat for bats.”

It’s important for people to protect special places from destruction and degradation. To many, the Lower Trail is such a place. Fifteen organizations ranging from the Mid State Trail Association to the State College Bird Club to the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club have come out in opposition to this destructive project. Enjoy the trail and support the groups that are fighting to save it!

[Editor's Note: This conservation issue is listed as Catharine Township Quarry on the Issues page.]

If you go: From State College, follow Route 26 south to Pine Grove Mills, then taking Route 45 south to Route 453. Turn east (left) on Route 453 and follow it to Route 22 at Water Street. Turn left (east) on Route 22 and follow it for a short distance to the first asphalt road on the left (Main Street) and then follow it for a few hundred yards to the Lower Trail parking lot on your right. A picnic pavilion at the parking lot is a great place for a meal.

Dr. Stan Kotala is the Endangered Species and Wildlife Chair on the Executive Committee of the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club