UPB students work on NEPA for eventual PKP bike trails

With the help of 15 college students, bicycle trails could be a positive addition to tourism offerings on the Allegheny National Forest.

Pennsylvania Kinzua Pathways, with the help of a variety of partners, has proposed a 46-mile series of mountain bicycling trails in the Jakes Rocks area.

One of the keys to moving the project forward is a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) assessment.

With millions of dollars of construction ahead, PKP was hoping to save on the estimated $300,000 to $500,000 for that assessment.

The group did what it does and created some partnerships, adding the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford to the list that already included the U.S. Forest Service, Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry, Council on Tourism, Pennsylvania Wilds, and others.

With the university’s participation, a source of experts willing to work for relatively little pay was available.

Nine students from UPB – Tianna Johnson, Nikki Fruehan, Yuxi Lin, Erik Beeler, Nick Gier, Jamie VanAlstine, Kelsey Krepps, and team leaders Lachlan Ross and Gregg Mirth – are conducting a biological analysis along the proposed trail.

“We are doing an intensive environmental assessment of the entire area,” Ross said. “We note all the flora and fauna, the habitats, things they might not want to damage (with the trail).”

On Thursday, the team came across an isolated American ginseng plant, a round-leafed orchid, a variety of interesting fungi, some wires, and many patches of invasive plants.

During their assessment, the students record, identify, photograph and take global positioning coordinates for every plant, animal and habitat of interest. They also evaluate the streams they come across for depth, pools, and other factors.

Making note of the animals and plants they see isn’t enough. “There are a lot of species out here we’re not likely to find,” Ross said.

While they might not see the endangered salamander, they know what kind of habitat it would live in if it were present. That habitat will require special consideration in the construction of the trail system.

That they are taking photographs and GPS coordinates for every point of interest allows Forest Service personnel to do much of the work they need to do without walking over the same ground. The data will be available by computer. “It’s going to allow them… to see exactly what we saw,” Mirth said.

Further partnerships led to including Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Clarion University of Pennsylvania in the mix. Those students – Sarah Kriebel and Tawnya Waggle of Clarion, and Kim Bray, Chloe’ Stevens, and team leaders Kirk Smith and Matt Howryla of IUP – are working on the archaeological portion of the survey, looking for heritage and cultural remains.

“We’re looking for artifacts or features,” Smith said. “If there are any cultural resources, they can limit the impact or move the trail.”

Every 15 meters along the trail one of the team members stops and digs a hole more than a foot wide and about a foot deep. The earth from the hole is sifted and the student checks for anything that was made or altered by human hands.

In their first three days on site, the students found a few items of interest. On the first day, they discovered stoneware that they said is about 200 years old.

They have discovered some artifacts that could be much older.

“We’ve confirmed we’ve found lithic flakes from making stone tools,” Howryla said.

They also found some pieces of clay that match with pottery-making techniques from about 2,000 years ago. “The pottery around here is from the middle woodland period,” Howryla said.

The crew bagged the shard and took it back to the office for examination.

Depending on where the students are digging, their search could reveal a huge span of time. “On the slopes, you could put one shovel-full in and be back a few thousand years,” Howryla said.

The biology students were on the ANF starting May 14 and expect to finish up early next month. The archaeology students started in the field on Tuesday and their seven weeks will keep them working until late August.

The students work 10-hour days, four days a week. When they are in the field, they are getting plenty of exercise. The biological group will log at least four times the actual length of the trail, according to Johnson. The archaeological group doesn’t have to cover as much ground off the trail, but each member of the team carries a shovel and a five- to ten-pound box sieve, in addition to a backpack.

Some days they are in the office. There is plenty of paperwork to be done, according to Ross.

They also attend classes after work.

The students receive credit for their hours in the field. PKP doesn’t have to find as much money for its project. The Forest Service and other employers benefit from having a new source of experienced workers.

According to the students, more important than the credits and the stipend is the experience.

“It’s a paying job in archaeology,” Kriebel said. “It’ll help me get real CRM (cultural resource management) work in the future.”

“It gives college students an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Ross said. “It’s an all-win.”

“This is a really good opportunity for us,” Smith said. Many jobs in the field require supervisory experience. He and Howryla will have months of that experience under their belts while most graduating archaeology students have little or none.

“These kinds of internships are really valuable,” said ANF Bradford District Planning Team Leader Steve Dowlan, who supervises the students.

Many students find that they need experience to get a job. But, without a job, they can’t get the experience, he said. “Unpaid internships are how you get that experience,” he said.

The students were not told what to do, where, and when.

“They developed the survey plan,” Dowlan said. “This project is very intensive. We wanted to provide, as much as possible, the experience of working as a paid federal employee in land resource management.”

“On a resume, it really counts for something,” he said.

The cost of the work done by the students is well below the estimated initial cost.

“We have raised $45,500 of the targeted $50,000 for the stipend,” PKP’s Joe Colosimo said. “Donors include Betts Foundation, Blaisdell Foundation, BPOE #223 Elks, American Refining Group (ARG), PKP, personal donors, Community Foundation of Warren County and Shell.”

ARG recently announced that it had donated $10,000 to the stipend fund.

“We continue to see strong community commitment from a number of different supporters,” Colosimo said. “This will be a great asset for the community and will help make Warren and the surrounding area a destination location.”

During a previous meeting with ANF officials and representatives of economic development agencies including the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry, Colosimo said the Jakes Rocks Epic Trail System could make this area “the bicycling capital of the Mid-Atlantic Region.”

“Even more important, this will provide an opportunity to tell many visitors about the rich history of the area surrounding the reservoir and the life in the valley prior to the construction of the dam,” he said.