Georges Valley Cooperative Project, Central Pennsylvania

Landowners Team Up in a Keystone State Watershed

What happens when a bunch of landowners decide to help the American woodcock, a bird whose numbers have fallen as its young-forest habitat has dwindled? Add a local conservation group and a university-based watershed center, and good things can happen fast. In central Pennsylvania, this sort of team approach may provide a blueprint for similar projects throughout the East.

Lysle Sherwin heads the Center for Watershed Stewardship in Penn State University's Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. He worked with a local conservation association to enlist wildlife-minded landowners in Georges Valley, a 13.3-square-mile watershed near the town of Spring Mills.

Conservationists confer in Georges Valley

Lysle Sherwin (left), George Kelly, and Lisa Williams inspect a young aspen planted in a field along Muddy Creek. (Plastic tubing protects against deer browsing.)/C.Fergus

Sherwin notes that landowner-to-landowner networking is essential for this kind of effort to succeed. He says, "The property owners in Georges Valley are a mix of longtime residents, including families who have farmed the land for generations, along with more-recent move-ins who like living in a rural setting. Hunting, fishing, and watching wildlife are strong local traditions."

First It Was for Fish

The project started as an effort to improve streams by reforesting their banks and cooling their waters to help cold-water-loving trout – in particular, those in Penns Creek, a famous fishery fed by many tributaries, including Muddy Creek, which drains Georges Valley. The Upper Penns Creek Watershed Project drew in Penn State landscape architecture graduate students Jake Powell and Drew Siglin, who wanted to study "the complex dynamics of human communities and social networks among disparate residents in a watershed."

One such resident is Lisa Williams, a woodcock biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. She immediately saw the value to woodcock of creating young forest on the fringes of Muddy Creek. "The birds will feed and rear their young in the thickets that shade the waterway," she says. "They'll use nearby more-open habitats for spring courtship and nighttime roosting." Other wildlife will also thrive, including birds such as brown thrashers, indigo buntings, and whip-poor-wills, and reptiles like box and wood turtles – animals whose numbers, like those of the woodcock, have been falling as less and less young forest covers the landscape.

Meeting preceding Georges Valley Landowners Project

Key to gaining local acceptance were public meetings, including panel discussions with conservation professionals./J. Powell

In spring 2011, Williams ran a woodcock singing-route survey in Georges Valley. She heard 13 males singing along a two-mile stretch. "That told us that a breeding population was already in place," she says, "one that would fill any new habitat that landowners created."

The Penn State watershed specialists and members of the Penns Valley Conservation Association reached out to local residents through letters and brochures, site tours, and a panel discussion featuring representatives of federal and state conservation agencies that offer programs to help landowners create and restore wildlife habitat.

The Georges Valley effort may offer a broader application. "We realized that if we could figure out the critical pieces in creating a watershed-wide project like this one," says Sherwin, "we could then pick it up and move it to other areas."

In the Landowners' Words

Ask landowner Jerry Myers why he got involved, and he'll point to the wildlife-management plan that the Pennsylvania Game Commission developed for his farm through the agency's Private Landowner Assistance Program. In spring 2012, workers planted 500 alder and other native shrubs on 1.5 acres of wet pasture. "That patch hadn't been used for 10 years," Myers says, "not since we sold our beef cattle. It's an area I don't need to mow now."

Habitat in Georges Valley

This newly planted streamside buffer on the Bierly farm will lower the temperature of stream tributary while providing habitat for wildlife./C Fergus

Doug Bierly, a township supervisor, also cites the fact that he won't be mowing a pasture that his family no longer needs for their horses. The Bierlys opted for a streamside buffer of aspen and black gum trees, along with shrubs such as redbud, silky and flowering dogwood, and crabapple – all prime wildlife plants. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put in 500 trees and shrubs on 4 acres. Says Bierly, "I've noticed a definite increase in birdlife since the plantings went in."

Ray Grove has been controlling non-native invasive shrubs and planting native shrubs on his land with help from the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. Other Georges Valley landowners have enrolled in the Fish and Wildlife Service's Wetlands Conservation Program.

On Hill Crystal Farm, owned by Jennifer Tucker and Gerry Lang, machines removed unwanted invasive shrubs and scarified the soil, promoting root sprouting of aspen trees already growing along Muddy Creek. Conservationists also planted 230 aspen seedlings, quick-growing trees that will transform an old field into an patch of young forest. Says Tucker, "We were motivated by the fact that early successional forest is becoming an endangered habitat, something we didn't realize until Lisa Williams explained it to us. We've been impressed with the professionalism of all the folks involved in the project, from the biologists to the people operating the machinery."

Hen woodcock on nest

Woodcock, like this nesting hen, will seek out the new young forest fostered in the Penns Valley watershed./C. Fergus

Says Game Commission biologist Williams, "The Muddy Creek watershed will produce more local woodcock, and migrating woodcock will stop and rest in places where they'll find food combined with cover to protect them from predators. Just think what could happen if projects like this were replicated up and down the Atlantic Flyway, one of the corridors that woodcock follow as they shift between northern breeding grounds and southern wintering areas." (For more information about woodcock, see

Says George Kelly, who chairs the Watershed Committee of the Penns Valley Conservation Association, "Enthusiasm for making young forest and native shrub habitat is growing in Georges Valley, and it's spreading to neighboring Penns Valley." There, landowner David Martinec plans to convert a whopping 52 acres of his 100-acre family farm to wildlife habitat, with help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Game Commission.

Conservationists outside the area are watching carefully, wondering if this kind of group approach – which seeks to join cooperating agencies and local landowners – can translate into landscape-scale efforts that will help young-forest wildlife in other regions.

Lysle Sherwin of Penn State's Center for Watershed Stewardship is optimistic. "People want to do the right thing for wildlife," he says. "If we can help them find the best way to do it, good things will happen."

How to Visit

Contact Lysle Sherwin, Director, Center for Water Stewardship, Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, Pennsylvania State University, 301B Forest Resources Laboratory,, 814-865-5736. Pennsylvania Game Commission woodcock biologist Lisa Williams can be reached at, 814-422-8243.

Funding and Partners

Penns Valley Conservation Association, Pennsylvania State University, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Woodcock Limited of Pennsylvania, Wildlife Management Institute