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Township looks to secure grant to preserve more of meadow

June 16, 2005|by RICHARD BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

BLUE RIDGE SUMMIT, Pa. - The 70-plus acres of land known as Happel's Meadow Wetland Preserve, once a thriving truck garden that specialized in growing celery, has been an untouched local treasure for the last 60 years.

If Washington Township can secure a $67,000 grant and raise a local match, Happel's Meadow, a flattened swamp on top of the mountain leading into Blue Ridge Summit, will become a bird watchers' and nature lovers' paradise.

The land to be bought will be turned into a parking area for vehicles and school buses, will allow for the construction of a nature center and, for the first time, provide public access to the wetlands.

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The township is teaming up with the Conococheague Audubon Society and similar groups to raise the local match.

It is dissected by Pa. 16 and is the source of Red Run stream.

The property was given to the township 15 years ago with the provision that it "be kept and maintained as wetlands in its natural state perpetually ..." and "... forever beheld as a natural preserve for scientific, educational and aesthetic purposes," according to a management plan drafted by the township's seven-member wetlands advisory committee.

Fences, foot trails and maintenance activities are allowed.

The committee hasn't met since 1999, member Doris Goldman said. There was no reason to, said Frank Smith, 67, another member.

The committee has plans for a public parking area and walkways into the wetlands, but until public access is available, those plans remain shelved.

There are 47 acres on the north side of Pa. 16, and 23 on the south side, Township Manager Michael A. Christopher said.

The committee researched the history of Happel's Meadow. The first known deed transfer is dated 1798.

A little more than a century later, in 1902, the property was bought by Albert L., John, William and Frank Happel. In 1906, brothers Albert and John began to farm the land after clearing nearly 80 acres of brush. They drained the swamp with a network of lateral tiled ditches.

The brothers grew tomatoes, cauliflower, corn, beans, carrots and spinach, but they were particularly known for their fine celery.

Smith said he remembers the brothers when he was a kid.

"They grew a lot of celery," he said.

The Happels sold vegetables to people in the Pen Mar Park resort area. Rich summer visitors sent their chauffeurs to pick up orders, according to the committee's research.

The building of Pa. 16, also known as "The Sunshine Trail," through their property destroyed the brothers' tiled drainage system and ended their farming business, the committee found. The property was abandoned in 1943 and the land eventually returned to its natural state.

Charles Gardner Jr. bought the property in 1963 and later divided off seven acres for the Pen Mar Youth League for a baseball field, which is in use today.

In 1990, Charles III, Amelia and Letitia Gardner donated the wetlands to the township to be maintained as a perpetual natural area.

Over six decades, Happel's Meadow has evolved into several natural plant communities with cattail, scrub and shrub swamps and a forest area. It is home to more than 70 species of birds and more than 200 species of plants, including eight rare varieties.

Goldman, who holds a Ph.D. in biology and teaches environment and history classes at the Renfrew Institute for Cultural and Environmental Studies in Waynesboro, Pa., has identified and listed 199 plant species in Happel's Meadow. Among them, 88 percent are on the state's endangered list, including grass plants such as bull sedge, Short's sedge and southern water-plantain, a white flowered plant.

Traipsing through the bog on her research rounds, Goldman walked on firm ground, through muck and occasionally "in water up to my waist," she said.

Goldman said wetlands such as Happel's Meadow are the home range of more than half of the mammals on Pennsylvania's endangered species list.

Bobcats live there, she said.

"They're so common there that neighbors have photographed them catching mice in the snow," Goldman said.

The area also is home to deer, muskrat, voles, mice, mink, frogs, salamanders and turtles, she said.

Happel's Meadow is important to the area's water supply. It hold water, filters it and allows its slow release, creating its own flood-control system. It recharges underground water supplies, Goldman said.

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