Pennsylvania Legacies #170: Lay of the Landscape

An exit interview with program manager Marla Meyer Papernick as she departs from PEC and DCNR’s Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape, where Marla has served as external lead since 2015. We look back on what the effort has accomplished since then, and what the Landscape’s new strategic plan says about its future.

Marla Meyer Papernick

Pennsylvania has eight conservation landscapes: regions with a strong sense of place that include the presence of state-owned public lands, and the potential for economic growth centered on natural resources and the outdoors. Conservation landscapes bring together state and local government, businesses, community groups, advocates for conservation and outdoor recreation, and anyone else with an interest in promoting the use of state parks and forests.

Each landscape is co-led by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which runs the program, along with a representative from an external nonprofit partner. In the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania — as well as the Poconos in the northeast — that duty falls to the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

PEC’s Marla Meyer Papernick has served as external lead in the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape for the last six-plus years, supporting partners like land trusts, state parks, and watershed organizations throughout Westmoreland, Fayette, Somerset and Cambria counties. As of today, she is retiring from PEC. 

“Each landscape is unique, because they are defined by the region in which they are, and the resources in which they are located,” said Papernick. 

Over the years, she has led projects to highlight the assets of the region and better translate their value to stakeholders and visitors. From tear-off maps that help state park visitors quickly identify outdoor recreation destinations to trainings designed to connect frontline workers from different parks and historic landmarks, increasing collaboration and communication in the region as a whole has been a priority.

It’s really the partners — the people in the landscape who are working in those various organizations — that make this work so rewarding. People are doing amazing work.

“The idea of a large landscape is to blur jurisdictional lines and work on projects related to land and water conservation, and outdoor recreation, and in some landscapes economic development as it relates to those issues,” Papernick said. 

One significant outcome from the last few years is a report on the value of water in the Laurel Highlands. The 2019 study, “Valuing Clean Water, Ecosystem Service Values in the Loyalhanna-Conemaugh and Youghiogheny River Watersheds of the Laurel Highlands Region,” analyses the ecosystem service benefits of water in the region through the lens of five major areas of impact: recreation, abandoned mine drainage, natural gas, agriculture and storm runoff, and sewage treatment.

A map of major outdoor recreation destinations in the LHCL.

Recently, PEC developed a series of fact sheets and templates to help people share information from the report with local decision-makers. As with all projects in the LHCL, this report was a collaboration between many dedicated partners. 

“It’s really the partners — the people in the landscape who are working in those various organizations — that make this work so rewarding. People are doing amazing work,” said Papernick.  

So what’s next for the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape?

“The future is bright for the landscape,” said Papernick. “It is positioned to capitalize on the work we’ve been doing for the last 10+ years, and we are just wrapping up the strategic plan… it’s a great time actually for me to be leaving because its a great change for PEC and DCNR to look at what are the skills we need moving forward to advance the strategic plan and meet the needs of our partners.”