Feature - French Creek Watershed, One of PA’s Last Great Places

Imagine vibrant waters where native fish break the surface to feed at first light, where dense forests line the banks of brooks and streams, where clear, cool waters rush over clusters of native freshwater mussels.

Just inland from Lake Erie, such a special place exists. French Creek, one of the state’s and the region’s most pristine watersheds, boasts a rich, irreplaceable natural heritage, which The Nature Conservancy recognized by designating it one of the Last Great Places in 1993.

For more than a decade, the Conservancy has been working in both Pennsylvania and New York to protect this special place. Most recently, we made our first direct acquisition of land along the mainstem of the famed French Creek in Pennsylvania, a parcel that includes forest, floodplain and an impressive 2,000 feet of river frontage. This milestone will help ensure this special place remains wild and pristine for generations to come.

“We’re delighted to protect French Creek, one of Pennsylvania’s aquatic treasures,” says Bill Kunze, The Nature Conservancy’s state director in Pennsylvania. “In addition to its ecological importance, protection of this property marks a renewed emphasis on our conservation work in the western part of the state.”

Darran Crabtree, director of conservation science for the Conservancy in French Creek, says, “Every acre of land we protect helps maintain the pristine waters of French Creek. This property, which includes streamside forests, will help safeguard countless aquatic species. This acquisition is especially ecologically valuable because of its proximity to some of the best rare mussel and fish habitats on Earth.”

Adds Crabtree, “Protecting this parcel helps us tackle threats to this natural area, including inappropriate development. Keeping the land intact and untouched helps us safeguard riverbank stability and healthy riparian forests. Development increases sediment and nutrient runoff, which lowers water quality and impacts the rich variety of aquatic life found here.”

A major tributary to the Allegheny River, French Creek appears much as it did centuries ago when George Washington followed the river before the French and Indian War. Its rich waters are home to more freshwater fish and mussels than any other waterway in the northeastern United States. An astonishing 28 species of native mussels and 86 species of native fish are found here, both indicators of the health and high quality of the watershed. As such, it is possibly the only river in the entire Ohio drainage whose ecosystem remains this intact, with many mussel species in French Creek and the Allegheny River representing the best remaining populations available.

“Freshwater mussels indicate the health and quality of the waters,” says Crabtree. “In this particular section of French Creek, there are still significant populations of northern riffleshell, a federally endangered freshwater mussel. This species, along with others such as clubshell, has disappeared from approximately 95 percent of its original range throughout the East and Midwest.”

Complementing and nourishing French Creek’s rich waters are relatively intact streamside or riparian forests, which offer critical protection to the aquatic species, plants and animals found here. Wooded areas also help offer “ecosystem services” to human beings by acting as natural filters for runoff and sediment and helping to maintain high water quality. In addition these riverside woodlands create a migratory funnel for neotropical birds such as cerulean warbler on their way to Lake Erie and beyond. The watershed contains Pennsylvania’s largest wetland and most of the natural glacial lakes found in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Recent research on French Creek’s range of aquatic species and ecological health is refreshingly positive. Species inventories in the watershed indicate that the river and its tributaries are not only holding their own, but in some cases they’re improving. Based on these findings, the Conservancy will use French Creek as a benchmark against which the success and health of other watersheds can be measured both in Pennsylvania and beyond our borders.

Funding for this newest acquisition comes, in part, from a generous grant from The Gott Family Foundation.

Conservation at French Creek also recently received a tremendous boost with the creation of the $1.5 million Bonnie and Joe Kies Land Acquisition Fund, one-third of which will be restricted to the French Creek Watershed.

The Kies fund will provide a one-to-one match for any public or private funds, substantially increasing the fund’s overall conservation value. We are extraordinarily grateful to the Kies family for the generosity and leveraging power of this gift.

Link: The French Creek Project

The Places TNC Protects in Pennsylvania

Reprinted from Penn’s Woods, Fall/Winter 2006, The Nature Conservancy


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