Laurel Highlands Communities

The Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape works to stimulate community and economic development by connecting people to outdoor recreation and natural resources.


PEC has done some exciting community-based work in the traditional sense. For instance, we’ve led planning charrettes in Connellsville, Donegal, and Derry. These initiatives have energized and inspired people who continue to work toward these visions of how things might be.

But our most dynamic “community” work has involved broader communities. The Loyalhanna Creek community encompasses Ligonier, Latrobe, New Alexandria, and rural areas in between, all of whom have been touched by the Water Trail that PEC developed and the land trail we’re working on. The Stonycreek River community stretches from Hooversville and Hollsopple to Johnstown, but the “community” we touch here is far bigger than any one municipality. The “whitewater community” attracted to this neighborhood comes from all across the East, so the assets built here enhance the local quality of life but also have substantial, direct economic benefit.

Laurel Highlands photo

Boaters pass Latrobe Hospital on the Loyalhanna Water Trail.

By the same token, the area has a conservation community of thousands of individuals and a few dozen small watershed and conservancy groups, Trout Unlimited chapters, and various similar resource-based organizations. Each organization is its own local community. Collectively, this larger community has come together in the Laurel Highlands Conservation Coalition, which offers networking, education and advocacy, and works to build capacity for its local initiatives.

The Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape Initiative works in Westmoreland, Fayette, Somerset, and Cambria Counties, with most of the work focused along four featured sub-landscapes: Laurel Ridge, Chestnut Ridge, the Great Allegheny Passage, and the Stonycreek-Quemahoning Initiative.

The program works with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and other state agencies, non-profits, local governments, and businesses to develop, conserve, improve, and promote the trails, parks, natural, and cultural or historic assets in these areas.

Our projects include development of new trails or trail segments, such as the proposed Loyalhanna Trail at New Alexandria and a missing Recreation Laurel Highlands photo-Bradlink on the Path of the Flood Trail near Johnstown. The Youghiogheny and Loyalhanna Water Trails were both produced through this program along with “smart transportation” projects in Ohiopyle and Johnstown, as well as a green-streets/stormwater management project in Ohiopyle, to name just a few.

We also were instrumental in creating the Laurel Highlands Conservation Coalition, which has brought together dozens of small watershed, conservancy, Trout Unlimited and wildlife-advocacy groups, conservation districts, and others. The coalition’s programs aim to be educational and provide networking opportunities across the region.

Planning has also been an important component of our work and has included development of a Joint Master Plan and Implementation Strategy with Ohiopyle Borough and Ohiopyle State Park.

May 18, 2016

Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape Shifts Focus Toward Strategic Working Committees

In its first iteration, the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape (LHCL) was defined by three sub-landscapes: the Chestnut, Allegheny, and Laurel Ridges.

The geographic identification provided a framework on which the LHCL’s projects were defined and organized since PEC became the external lead to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) nearly a decade ago.

But recently, the LHCL transitioned from a geographically-based initiative to one that is focused on strategic issue-areas as a means to build collaboration and accomplish goals from a region-wide perspective.

Five working committees — Tourism and Outdoor Recreation, Land Conservation, Water Resources, Trails, and Infrastructure — are at the core of the LHCL today.

  • The Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee is eager to improve the overall visitor experience in Donegal — a major entry point to the Laurel Highlands — with the addition of a visitor center. PEC brings a big-picture perspective to this concept and is positioned to incorporate and balance the needs of destination, outdoor recreation, conservation, community, and business interests. PEC is currently seeking funding for the study.
  • The Land Conservation Committee is nearly finished with a GIS map to identify priority parcels for conservation of both natural resources and view sheds. Lands adjacent to, or near, existing parks are given high priority to preserve and expand the outdoor experience and strengthen the resource conservation and protection effort throughout the Landscape.
  • PEC launched the first Water Resources Committee in December 2015 which immediately coalesced around a project that will impact water resource protection across the LHCL. Working collaboratively, the committee submitted a grant request to DCNR in April to conduct a natural resource economic impact study designed to do a cost-benefit analysis of protecting or restoring water resources. This study, which will be transferable across the Commonwealth, will place a clear economic value on clean water and the economic losses incurred when water is not protected or restored. The study will also generate a matrix of priority water protection projects based on the River Conservation Plans that exist within the Landscape.
  • The 2016 Laurel Highlands Trails Summit is scheduled for Sept. 20, 2016 in Meyersdale, Pa. The Trails Committee is in the final planning stages for this workshop designed for both volunteers and professionals in the trail development and management sector. David Brickly, President/CEO of the September 11 National Memorial Trail Alliance, will provide the keynote speech, discussing the regional impacts of the 911 Trail. The afternoon will be capped with mobile workshops.
  • From building repair to improved cellular service, the Infrastructure Committee is addressing issues that affect many aspects of outdoor recreation and commerce in the Conservation Landscape.
February 11, 2016

Ohiopyle Visitors Center Among Laurel Highlands Conservation Coalition’s 2015 Achievements

2015 was an exciting year for the Laurel Highlands Conservation Coalition. Composed of DCNR, other state agencies, PEC and other non-profits, businesses, and the larger Laurel Highlands community, the coalition works to advance trail development, bring communities together, and much more. Below are the Coalition’s top 10 achievements from throughout the last year:

  1. Ohiopyle Visitors Center

    The $7 million Visitors Center opened in the heart of Ohiopyle State Park in July. Located to capture a view of the falls, the multi-disciplinary complex serves as an interpretive gateway toOhiopyle Visitors Center photo Ohiopyle Falls, Ferncliff Peninsula, the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), and the entire Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape. A model collaboration between the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor, and the Federal Highway Association Scenic Byways Program, the glass and sandstone building was built to qualify for LEEDs (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. The building includes geothermal heating, a green roof, energy-efficient lighting and a biological wastewater treatment system including a small wetland for treatment of the building’s sewage, all of which is visible for interpretation.

  2. September 11 National Memorial Trail

    The trail honoring those that died in the Sept. 11, 2001 plane crash in ShanksvilleMemorial Trail logo advanced in several ways over the past year. A preferred alignment was selected that will bring the trail from the GAP to the Flight 93 National Memorial, and from there through Johnstown to connect with two other National Parks. CSX donated land valued at $250,000 for the highest priority trail segment, a nine-mile corridor from the GAP to within three miles of the Flight 93 National Memorial. The National Park Service approved a Federal Lands Access Grant, matched by a DCNR C2P2 grant, to design this trail section. Planning was advanced on other important links through the Laurel Highlands.

  3. Restructure of Conservation Landscape Strategy

    The leadership team of the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape steered the project in new directions by creating five topical committees. Each new committee engaged a number of people to select priority initiatives. The Tourism Committee is exploring the idea of developing a visitors’ center at the Donegal exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The Land Conservation Committee made significant strides in identifying land parcels that should be prioritized for conservation, especially among parcels adjacent to state park and forest lands in the Ligonier Valley. The Trail Committee began planning a Regional Trail Workshop to be held in September of 2016. The Water Restoration Committee selected a Water Resource Economic Impact Study as its priority and the Infrastructure Committee worked with the Loyalhanna Watershed Association, Keystone State Park, and Derry Township to develop a detailed plan for the new Loyalhanna Trail. Meanwhile, Derry Township worked with Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) and DCNR to have the scope of work rewritten to design and build the trail in conjunction with a new sewer line coming through the area.

  4. Dunbar Coke Ovens 

    A project to stabilize and interpret a bank of historic coke ovens near Dunbar is about 75 percent done. A structural engineering report recommending actions needed to stabilize the ovens is in review and funds are in hand to do much of the needed stabilization. Interpretive signs have been designed and manufactured and are ready to install in the spring, while new bike racks now in key locations. Dunbar Borough received a grant from Rivers of Steel Heritage Area to support the project.

  5. Loyalhanna Creek

    This creek was elevated to a high priority within the Landscape. The second annual Loyalhanna Sojourn, a nine-mile paddle from Cardinal Park in Latrobe to the new ball field launch site in New Alexandria, was held in late spring. The ongoing improvements to the water quality of the creek, a result of numerous projects to restore erosion and abandoned mine drainage, have made the creek ideal for fishing and birding. Three boat access areas were built or improved as well.

  6. Stonycreek River

    This important river continued to be a major attraction, with the Stonycreek Stonycreek Rendevous photoRendezvous attracting a record attendance estimated at 1,400 people, making it one of the largest whitewater festivals in the country. Spending surveys were collected at the Rendezvous for the second straight year and again indicated that roughly $200,000 was spent over the weekend. Efforts to promote the corridor advanced through three grants from the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, including one grant that updated and improved thestonycreek.com and created a new brochure.

  7. Trail Connections

    A scope of work was developed for the Johnstown Urban Connectivity Project in preparation for seeking planning grants in 2016. At the same time, the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to review the City of Johnstown’s request for a feasibility study of replacing many of the concrete flood walls with earthen banks, which could also create far better bike-pedestrian routes as envisioned in the connectivity project. These projects are gaining momentum as part of the September 11 National Memorial Trail and Main Line Canal Greenway, and also connect numerous cultural, historic, and recreational assets in the local area.

  8. Blairsville Bridge

    The Richard King Mellon Foundation approved a $300,000 grant for a bike-pedestrian Blairsville Bridge plan mapbridge over Route 22 at Blairsville, bringing the project to about 90 percent of the funding needed for this vital link in the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal Greenway. A PennDOT multi-modal transportation grant and two design grants already were awarded for the $2.4 million project, which will connect the Ghost Town and Hoodlebug Trails to the Blairsville Riverfront Trail and, eventually, the West Penn Trail. Schools, shopping, and residential areas are also connected through the project. Indiana County applied to DCNR for additional funding to assist with the funding gap.

  9. Lift Johnstown

    This group and its partners advanced several exciting projects, including a design for a zip line on the hillside next to the Johnstown Inclined Plane, planning for a downtown education center, development of a “digital flythrough” to show the connectivity between vital community assets, and improvements to the historic train station. In addition, Lift helped promote voting for Johnstown to win Craft Hockeyville USA, which brought a $150,000 grant and the opportunity to host a nationally televised NHL game.

  10. Conservation Coalition

    The Laurel Highlands Conservation Coalition held a successful networking and brainstorming session to envision its future directions. DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn attended and spoke to the various local non-profit conservation groups that participated. The feedback from 48 participants has been assessed and will be used to plan future conferences.

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