9.07.2010

Pennsylvania Elk Country Visitor Center: A More Critical Look

It seems that most written commentary portrays the Elk Country Visitor Center soon to open on Winslow Hill as a positive thing, yet when one scratches below the surface they find quite a bit of apprehension among landowners and many visitors to elk country as to how the opening of the Center will impact Benezette, Winslow Hill, and surrounding areas.

Rawland "Rawley" Cogan alluded to these concerns while setting forth his view of the Visitor Center during the "Wild About Elk" Workshop last June.

Rawley Cogan Explains Position On Economic Development: photo by W.Hill

While many view elk and other wildlife solely from the perspective of wildlife conservation, hunting, and eco-tourism, Mr.Cogan explained the economic importance of the center to an economically depressed region which has seen the loss of a lot of jobs, many of which will not return. Cogan also stressed the need to preserve Benezette from unfettered development. The following is a direct quote by Mr. Cogan:

“Part of our role in Keystone Elk Country Alliance is to drive economic activity throughout the region so when people come here, they need a place to stay. Benezette needs to stay Benezette. It needs to protect its' sense of place. Benezette is a quaint little old coal mining, timbering town that gives you kind of that step back in time feel and you don't want to change that, because if you change it, it's like every other place. So Benezette doesn't have the infrastructure for eco-tourism and the hotels and the restaurants, they've done pretty well with what they have. Our hope is to drive economic activity into places that they already have the infrastructure like St. Marys, and Clearfield, and Ridgway,Johnsonburg, Emporium,and DuBois, that they've got it in place so people will make the day trip into elk country and go to these other towns and cities to spend the night.” Rawland Cogan 06-16-2010

While Mr. Cogan hopes to preserve Benezette and one would presume Winslow Hill as well, it is by no means clear how he proposes to do so. If the influx of tourists comes, what is to prevent much of the private property in the area from being developed to a much greater extent than it is today? Perhaps there is a plan to deal with this but it seems that most are unaware of any such plan. One Winslow Hill resident expressed deep concern that properties on the hill may be seized by eminent domain, but there have been no official statements concerning this that I am aware of. There are only so many options available to control growth, which includes seizing the land for a park type situation, zoning, or the purchase of development rights from landowners. It is certain that hope alone is not going to prevent rampant development.

What Will Protect Remaining Private Land From Development? Photo by W.Hill

Prominent photographer, Bob Shank who has owned a camp on Winslow Hill for twenty years or more, reports that lot prices have skyrocketed lately with lots going for six times what they did in the early 1990s.  Shank feels that a recent steep price increase  is because the company which owns the undeveloped land anticipates a greatly increased demand for campsites with the opening of the visitor center.  Shank also points out several key properties on Winslow Hill that are unprotected from development, and wishes he had the resources to purchase them and eventually turn them over to his son or an organization such as The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, or The Pennsylvania Game Commission so that they would be preserved.

Vulnerable Habitat: Photo by W.Hill
A couple who are long time members of the RMEF also thinks much the same way and ponder if perhaps money spent on building a visitor center would not have been better utilized in buying and protecting more land.

It is possible that the Center will provide a focal point for elk based tourism to such an extent that the casual tourist will not be inclined to explore other areas that are not developed for tourism, and thereby alleviate tourist pressure. This is not a given; however, as it is possible that the network of trails and viewing blinds at the Center will not be able to handle the influx of tourists at peak periods, which could result in increased pressure on  surrounding private property and public lands.

A successful Visitor Center should help counteract those who would like to see a substantial part of the herd on Winslow Hill shot off. There are those who view the elk as a problem and would like to see a drastic reduction in the herd of acclimated elk. This ranges from some in the Pennsylvania Game Commission who either view the elk primarily as a problem, or solely as another hunting opportunity, to the private landowner that may object to elk damage and would rather not have them around, or may actually like the elk, but is so upset by rampant trespassing and traffic congestion that they would prefer to see the elk herd drastically reduced, which in time would cause a marked decrease in tourism. Some who view the elk situation from a hunting opportunity standpoint alone, give the impression that they would like to have the herd on Winslow Hill reduced to the point that it is no longer easily visible, which would result in more of a fair chase hunt, and reduce problems with tourists, but at the expense of viable elk tourism. The Center should also lend increased weight to the demand for more mature bulls and improve the chances for implementation of more strategies to prevent the over-harvest of this class of elk, which has occurred since the elk hunt began in 2001.

More Mature Bulls Needed: Photo by W.Hill

Whatever one's point of view, the Visitor Center is about to become a reality, but there certainly is room for continued debate about where we should go from here and what steps should be taken to preserve the character of the Benezette area.

While the Center apparently did not open for the Labor Day weekend, it appears that they will open to the public later this month, but the official Grand Opening will not be until October.

Originally posted at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill

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