YORK COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — World Nature Conservation Day, celebrated annually on July 28, reminds people of the importance of a healthy natural environment and the need to protect natural resources. Although the holiday lasts for just one day, the Lancaster Conservancy takes on this mission year-round.

The Conservancy is currently developing a master plan for the Hellam Hills Conservation Area located in York County across the Susquehanna River from Marietta, and it’s seeking public input in determining how the area will be used and protected.

The Hellam Hills Conservation Area encompasses more than 1,000 acres of protected natural land and includes two preserves: Wizard Ranch Nature Preserve and Hellam Hills Nature Preserve. The Lancaster Conservancy first began acquiring land in this area in 2017.

Map of the Hellam Hills Conservation Area courtesy of the Lancaster Conservancy

Creating the Hellam Hills Conservation Area

Jenn Teson, vice president of operations and conservation at the Lancaster Conservancy, noted that this area “is one of the last remaining forested areas of this size in the region,” so the Conservancy was eyeing the land for conservation for a while.

About five years ago, Teson said, a big chunk of land in the area, which was owned by the Marietta Gravity Water Company, went up for sale. The Conservancy acquired the land, and that began the organization’s process of protecting land in the Hellam Hills Conservation Area.

“It’s come over in several different tracts of sizes from 7 acres to 500 acres plus, and it’s been a really great story of how we knit a landscape together and preserved different types of properties,” Teson said.

Before becoming part of the preserves, the land included private residential property, property owned by the Marietta Gravity Water Company, and a Boy Scout camp.

Going forward, the Boy Scouts will still be able to hold events in the conservation area. Some of the homes still house people, while one of them was torn down and the land returned to its natural condition because the building was in poor condition.

Returning developed space to its natural state is a precise process, Teson explained. When land is disturbed like that, invasive species can easily take over, which is not what the Conservancy wants. To prevent that, “We put native species where the house used to be, and we planned for succession so that it moves from a grassy meadow into a forest in a natural state of things,” Teson said.

The Lancaster Conservancy manages 47 nature preserves and more than 7,500 acres of land. Teson said this process of creating the Hellam Hills Conservation Area included both typical and atypical elements.

“This one was really interesting because we were very focused and proactive in the properties that we acquired,” said Teson. The Conservancy also does not usually acquire land with buildings, so dealing with those was a unique process, as was partnering with the Boy Scouts.

The Hellam Hills Conservation Area includes many different types of environments with water, forest, and meadow habitats — another unique element of these preserves.

Seeking public input

Now that the Lancaster Conservancy has acquired the land for the Hellam Hills Conservation Area, it is looking for public input on how best to protect and utilize the natural space.

“Because the preserve is so large and it has had many historic uses, we wanted to make sure that we really took our time and planned this one right,” Teson said.

The Conservancy hopes to create a plan that balances maintaining the space for human recreation with protecting the wildlife habitat it encompasses, ensuring that the recreation does not negatively affect the environment.

Hellam Hills Nature Preserve (Credit: Jenn Teson)

“It’s so important when you are protecting a piece of property forever and that piece of property is publicly accessible that you get the input of the neighbors, the community, the current and future users of the preserve,” Kelly Snavely, director of marketing and communications for the Lancaster Conservancy, said.

To that end, the Conservancy is holding four public meetings offering opportunities for the community to be involved in the creation of the Hellam Hills Conservation Area Master Plan. The first meeting occurred in April. The second will be held virtually on September 7.

Before the September meeting, community members are invited to fill out an online survey to share information about how they currently use the Hellam Hills and Wizard Ranch preserves and what they would like to see there in the future. The survey is open through the end of August.

Snavely says one thing she’s been hearing from people so far is that they are excited to hike the Mason-Dixon Trail, which used to run along a roadway but will now travel through the conservation area. People have also expressed interest in birdwatching on the preserves, which border the Susquehanna River.

Another element of the Hellam Hills Conservation Area that Snavely and community members are excited about is the opportunity for the Lancaster Conservancy to expand its educational resources into York County through these preserves.

“What’s so important about this master planning process, that is really exciting to me to watch, is a community coming together, trying to figure out how we can care for this piece of natural land forever, not just for the next few years, but in perpetuity,” Snavely said.

More information about the Hellam Hills Conservation Area and the master plan development process can be found on the Lancaster Conservancy’s website. While the master plan is created, the trails at the Hellam Hills Conservation Area are still open to the public, but hunting is not allowed on the preserves.

Balancing preservation and recreation

Balancing preservation and recreation is a key part of developing and maintaining nature preserves, and Snavely believes both aspects are important.

“It’s so important when we preserve land, that we preserve the habitat and that we’re preserving the ecological function,” Snavely said, but providing people access to these spaces is another major part of what the Conservancy does.

“Only through being able to access nature — to get out in nature, to watch the birds, to be able to hike on a trail — are people going to fall in love with nature and understand the value of protecting and conserving the natural world,” Snavely said.

Teson hopes that the Hellam Hills Conservation Area Master Plan includes steps for robust and effective restoration efforts on the preserves that will protect the preserves’ habitats and care for the more than 2 miles of streams flowing through the area.

Birds, bats, reptiles…”Everything that you can imagine goes through here, so the habitat piece for me is really exciting,” Teson said.

Snavely is looking forward to the area providing opportunities for people to spend time outdoors and learn to care for their environment. “It’s just an opportunity for more people to fall in love with taking care of our natural world, learning how to leave no trace, to be good stewards of this Earth, and to really build a conservation ethic,” Snavely said.