Laurel Highlands Summit Generates Enthusiasm for Conservation Initiative

The Laurel Highlands Summit held Sunday and Monday was hailed as a huge success by the program’s sponsors and supporters.

“The primary purpose of the Laurel Highlands Summit was to inform and energize communities in support of this value-driven approach as our path to the future – and I think we succeeded,” said John Quigley, acting secretary of the state Department of Conservation & Natural Resources.

Noting that the state’s seven CLIs are seen as a national model for sustaining the state’s most outstanding landscapes, Mr. Quigley added, “We were very pleased by the number of people who came to the summit and the excellent cross-section of people, both geographically and in terms of interest — elected officials, business owners and non-profits, including tourism, recreation and environmental groups.  And what was even more impressive was the level of enthusiasm of the participants.”

More than 160 people took part in the two-day event, which promoted the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape Initiative and emphasized the potential of the natural and recreational resources to be a real catalyst for economic development across the Laurel Highlands.

The Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape Initiative, led by DCNR, is a partnership among counties, communities, non-profits and others striving to raise the region’s quality of life while crafting a model of sustainable development tied to the natural and cultural assets of the region. The initiative engages communities and local partners in the area with state agencies and funding partners to conserve and protect the high-quality natural resources and enhance the region’s economic viability. Statewide, DCNR has established seven Conservation Landscape Initiatives as a new approach to the long-term sustainability of our Commonwealth’s special places.  The Pennsylvania Environmental Council is playing a lead role in the CLI and coordinating the initiative with a wide variety of partners.

The Laurel Highlands is indeed a unique part of Pennsylvania.  Chestnut Ridge, Laurel Ridge, Mount Davis and Allegheny Ridge make up the Allegheny Mountain physical region, where deep-cut hollows and rushing streams with waterfalls are carved between rolling hillsides and picturesque farmlands. Located an hour east of Pittsburgh, the Laurel Highlands is a “legacy” brand in the tourism industry that attracts millions of people annually because of its scenic beauty, outdoor recreation as well as to explore the areas rich cultural and historical assets.

The Laurel Highlands CLI encompasses Westmoreland, Fayette, Somerset and parts of Cambria and Bedford counties, with most of the effort focused on four sub-landscapes: Laurel Ridge, Chestnut Ridge, the Great Allegheny Passage and the Stonycreek-Quemahoning corridor.

“In a ‘live where you play’ world, the economic development potential in relation to the natural, cultural and heritage resources in this region is tremendous,” said Davitt Woodwell, Senior Vice President for Programs at PEC.  “The money spent by visitors and locals who recreate in these resources is only a small part of the economic potential – the much bigger potential rests in how these resources can attract talented people to live, work and create businesses in these communities.”

Summit speakers included John Quigley, DCNR’s acting secretary; Cindy Dunn, a DCNR deputy secretary, and Dee Kaplan, a deputy secretary for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Also featured were Kennedy Lawson Smith, former head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program, who is co-founder of Community Land Use and Economics (CLUE) Group, and Rebecca Ryan, whose firm Next Generation Consulting specializes in helping communities attract young people.  Ryan’s firm is completing a study on the Johnstown area, which concluded that Johnstown scores high in “vitality” in part because of its proximity to the natural resources of the Laurel Highlands.

Breakout sessions focused on conserving natural resources, community planning and economic development.

The summit was planned by PEC, National Road State Heritage Corridor, Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, and DCNR.  Sponsors were DCNR, DCED, T&B Planning, Mackin Engineering, and the Community Foundation of the Alleghenies.