Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape Annual Gathering: Celebrating Transitions

Transition was the theme of the 2022 Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape Annual Gathering, which took place on November 2nd at the Laurelville Retreat Center, surrounded by an appropriate display of fall colors. Representatives from DCNR, land trusts, conservation organizations, trail managers, and county commissioners attended to discuss the state of the Landscape and future plans.

DCNR Secretary Cindy Dunn gave opening remarks about DCNR’s role during an administration change. As the current administration’s tenure comes to a close, she recalled her role in the early stages of the Conservation Landscapes program. She also highlighted partnerships between DCNR and conservation organizations throughout the years and the value of natural assets and outdoor recreation for Pennsylvania’s economy.

Secretary Dunn and PEC President Davitt Woodwell had a conversation about DCNR’s role in the Landscape.

Following a “fireside chat” between Secretary Dunn and PEC President Davitt Woodwell, DCNR’s Adam Mattis gave an overview of the new mission and vision for the landscape, which hadn’t been revised for over 15 years.

“In 2006 we weren’t talking about climate resilience,” said Mattis, the internal lead for the LHCL. Addressing climate change was one of the most significant updates to the Landscape’s goals.

Revisiting the mission of the LHCL and working on the second phase of the strategic plan are just a couple of opportunities for growth and transition. In the past year, both the internal and external leads for the landscape, DCNR’s Kathy Frankel and PEC’s Marla Papernick, retired, leaving openings for new leadership. Chris Corbran from PEC’s Trails and Recreation team will be PEC’s new external lead for the Landscape.

Leaders from the Laurel Highlands also shared their own experiences with leadership transitions. Mountain Watershed Association’s Ashley Funk discussed becoming Executive Director after MWA’s founding Executive Director, Bev Braverman, retired after over 25 years in the role. Ken Bisbee, manager at Ohiopyle State Park, gave advice for people planning for transitions and how to use them as opportunities for growth.

The Kecksburg UFO Festival draws a crowd to the Laurel Highlands every summer.

The morning wrapped up with two presentations on an unconventional tourist attraction in Appalachia: UFOs. A representative from the Kecksburg volunteer fire department introduced the Kecksburg UFO incident, which still draws crowds to the Laurel Highlands every summer for the annual UFO Festival over 50 years after an alleged UFO crashed in Kecksburg. Dave Spinks, professional “paranormal investigator,” gave a presentation on the history of cryptids and UFO sightings in Appalachia. Both presentations gave gathering attendees plenty to talk about during lunch!

The gathering was a great opportunity for attendees to connect with each other in person, reflect on the future of the Laurel Highlands, and provide input on how the LHCL can support their work.

For groups doing work in the Laurel Highlands region, the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape Mini-Grant Program is accepting applications until December 14, 2022. his program will provide mini-grants of $1,000 to $10,000 for projects within Cambria, Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland Counties that support and advance the goals of the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape (LHCL). Projects should complement the mission to foster conservation and stewardship of the natural and man-built environments while promoting sustainable economic development through outdoor recreation as described in one or more the topics specified on the application. More information is available here.