Saturday, September 5, 2015

Importan Questions Answered About Gilbert Farm Viewing Area

PGC Northcentrail Information & Education Supervisor Doty McDowell  Speaks At Dedication
Yesterday morning as I traveled to Benezette to attend the dedication ceremony for the new viewing area on Winslow Hill,  I pondered the issues facing the agencies that control the vast public lands that comprise much of the elk range and how the attempt to resolve these issues effect persons such as I who view the situation from the perspective of a serious wildlife photographer and student of nature. This was foremost in my mind today as I would soon be attending the dedication of facilities that will significantly change wildlife viewing at the most popular elk viewing destination in Pennsylvania, an area where I have spent the vast majority of my time in elk country. As I drove I mentally compiled a list of several questions and concerns I  have heard from other photographers in face to face discussions, and commentary on the internet..

Land Management Officer Colleen Shannon was on the scene when I arrived.  As she is the supervisor of the crew that maintains the game lands on Winslow Hill I approached her with my concerns.

Land Management Officer Colleen Shannon
Many have expressed concern that the designated viewing area just off of the new parking lot is not large enough to hold the number of people that usually watch the area during the peak of the rut.  We were initially assured at a meeting with the PGC in early April that one would still be allowed to park along the old portion of Dewey Road and to stand there and photograph wildlife in the meadow, but as the project progressed it became clear that this was not likely the case so I asked LMO Shannon to address this.  She firmly stated that no parking or standing by the roadside will be permitted in this area of Dewey Road and that the signs have been ordered to post this restriction. According to her, the new viewing area provides a much better view of the area (from now on when I refer to viewing area in reference to this particular spot it is the area behind the stones in the photo below).  A primary goal of the project is to  isolate the public from the elk for safety reasons and to prevent habituation. The elimination of parking and standing along Dewey Road is part of the drive to end close-up elk viewing and to further encourage visitors to view from a distance.

Viewing Area
I asked if it would be permissible to stand outside the stones if that area is the viewing station is full  and it seemed one will be permitted to stand on the grass as long as they  are on the correct side of the Restricted signs, but I would not count on doing so until we see how things shake out during the peak period of the rut.

I also hoped to identify exactly who was responsible for the actual location of the boundaries of the restricted area in the saddle and asked Officer Shannon if she would clarify whether the boundaries were set at the state level (Harrisburg) l, the regional level (Jersey Shore) or the land management group level.  The answer as I understood it was that she and the elk biologist, Jeremy Banfield,  set the boundary lines working in conjunction with the Northcentral regional office of the PGC.

The purpose of this question was to determine if there was a possibility that a group of photographers could work together with the PGC in adjusting the boundaries to make The Saddle more usable to them while still conforming to the PGCs overall goals for the area.  I pointed out as an example the designated trail that goes into The Saddle and back to the area where the last pile of earth was before reclamation was complete. Naturally the road makes a convenient boundary, but allowing users to step a few  yards out of the road to the north would enable them to see the ridge to the north, which they cannot do at present. Shannon responded that," The Saddle is for elk and not for people", and went on to explain that the main concerns in setting up the restricted zone were safety and the habituation of elk. She further explained that on two instances last fall they had seen bulls chasing cows through groups of people and this could not be tolerated.   She went on to say that they didn't want people on top of the hill in The Saddle at the scenic lookout as there is often a lot of elk there and they don't want people interacting with them and don't want the people at the viewing area at the Gilbert Farm having to see all of the people on top of The Saddle.

I asked if we could expect the restricted areas to increase in size in the next few years and the answer was that if the current restrictions do not solve the problem there will be more.  She also told me that the original proposal was for a larger area to be restricted, but this was not adopted.

The official program began at 1:00 and featured a variety of speakers including, PGC Executive Director Matt Hough, and Northcentral Region Director, Barry Zaffuto.

Regional Director Zaffuto dealt with the history of how the viewing area on Dewey Road evolved over the years and went on to discuss in detail PGC concerns and goals in reference to the habituation of elk, which will hopefully be the subject of another post in the near future.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

New Winslow Hill Viewing Area To Be Dedicated

New Winslow Hill Viewing Area-Gilbert Farm
Regular readers of this blog are well aware of the changes to the elk viewing areas on Dewey Road and it seems likely that by this time many will have traveled there to view them personally. At any rate, on Thursday August 27th I received the following Pennsylvania Game Commission News Advisory pertaining to the dedication of the new facilities.

PA Game Commission News Advisory
For Immediate Release
August 27, 2015

New Elk and Wildlife Viewing Area to be Dedicated

The Pennsylvania Game Commission will dedicate the new Winslow Hill Viewing Area at a ceremony to be held on site Friday, Sept. 4 starting at 1 p.m.

Following the dedication, Game Commission representatives will kick off the fall viewing season by announcing plans for additional public facilities, as well as their fall program schedule centering on elk and wildlife viewing. Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough said the facilities and activities underscore the tremendous and growing interest in viewing wildlife, particularly elk.

In 2014, over 400,000 wildlife enthusiasts came to the Winslow Hill portion of State Game Lands 311 and the nearby Elk Country Visitor Center to view elk. This was a higher number of visitors than anyone predicted, and well more than existing facilities were designed to accommodate. Due to a need for improved viewing platforms, additional parking and safer traffic patterns, the Game Commission contracted the Larson Design Group, of Williamsport, to design a safer and more efficient wildlife viewing area.

From state Route 555 in Benezette, turn onto Front Street, then turn right onto Winslow Hill Road. Follow Winslow Hill Road approximately 2.5 miles. The dedication will take at the Winslow Hill Viewing Area off Dewey Road.
For the remainder of today's post I will share some photos and a bit of analysis of the situation. Of course this is written from the perspective of a serious wildlife photographer and most of the input I have heard is from others of a similar bent.

In the past, large numbers of elk enthusiasts parked in the pull-off along the edge of Dewey Road that stretched from the end of the tree line that ran along the right of the road to the site where the Gilbert house and barn used to stand. Many set up lawn chairs, cameras, spotting scopes, etc and spent an entire morning of evening there as the photos below show.

Elk Viewing Dewey Road-2009

The Gilbert Meadow-Taken From Road-bank
Most I have talked to are concerned that visitors will be required to stand in the gravel covered area behind the stones shown in the first photo, which would not be sufficient to contain a large number of people-- especially those with tripods, etc. set up. The photo below is taken from standing in the viewing area and looking down Dewey Road on August 18th and shows what happened to the area where the vehicles are parked in the photos above. 

Former Parking Area-From New Viewing Area
At the time there were not any No Parking Signs along Dewey Road in that area, but the roadway is only just possibly wide enough for a single line of vehicles to park along the field and if that is allowed there would be little room to maneuver around them on foot. There is a berm or bank that runs the entire length of the road in this area that ranges from about knee to waist-high, if I recall correctly. One could stand there with a camera and tripod and successfully photograph elk in the meadow, but the big question remains if this will be allowed. It only takes a short time for No Parking or No Standing signs to be erected and they could well be there even as I am writing this, or at any time in the future. Even if one can stand here, the days when one could pull-in and set up a lawn chair with a good view of the meadow seems to be a thing of the past which is especially devastating to those with physical infirmities that could not handily walk to the viewing “platform”.

There is either a parking area or a turn-around spot where the Gilbert house used to stand (no actual parking area signs were there on the 18th, but there was an informational kiosk such as usually erected in parking lots). Restricted signs are posted around this in such a manner that one cannot, however, see into the field without walking up the hill along Dewey Road to do so.

Parking Lot-Turn-around At Gilbert House Site
It will be interesting to see how the area is posted and the rules are enforced for the peak period of the September rut. I will wait until I see how this shakes out before forming a definite opinion, but at this point I can't help but think this appears to have been designed for casual tourism where the visitor stops by Elk Country Visitor Center, then drives up the hill or travels by tour bus, walks to the viewing area, snaps a few photos with their cell phone camera, then turns and walks away. There seems to have been little to no consideration for the needs of the serious wildlife enthusiast.

Originally Published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.