Plans for a gas station next to a bird-watching wetland in Huntingdon County spark opposition
On the side of a stretch of Route 22 in central Pennsylvania is a modest sign for a “wildlife observation area.” It’s in a gravelly parking lot, crumbling in places, and would be easy to miss as trucks and cars whiz by.
But, after a short walk across the lot and onto a path, a lush landscape teeming with wildlife emerges.
“We’re passing a beautiful catalpa tree and some goldenrod coming up," said Claire Holzner, of Huntingdon, on a warm July day. "And there’s a pollinator garden on the left that has been planted by volunteers and people working here for years, which is really beautiful. When we get to the pavilion, we’ll be able to see out to the water. And usually you get to see and hear lots of different birds here. It’s just a gorgeous place.”
Holzner was a giving a tour of the Old Crow Wildlife Observation Area, near the intersection of routes 22 and 26 in Smithfield Township, Huntingdon County. It was created in 1997 by PennDOT as a mitigation project. Bird watchers and naturalists say the project is a success. But this patch of green could get a new neighbor — a gas station and truck stop. A group is trying to stop that, saying the 24-hour operation could harm the wetlands.
“It’s a little oasis in a very built up area," said Holzner, a founder of the Coalition to Save Old Crow Wetland.
The group says the site, with its marshes and wildlife, could be jeopardized by the gas station and convenience store York-based Rutter’s wants to build next to it.
“It's the worst possible location for a truck stop right next to a very delicate fragile ecosystem," Holzner said. "Rutter’s does have the choice to find another location. It's up to them.”
Along with the potential for runoff into the water, there are concerns about the impact of nighttime light pollution, litter, invasive species, and even road salt. Opponents say the proposed Rutter’s wouldn’t just be a convenience store, but a large truck stop with underground fuel storage.
A spokesperson for the York-based chain said the company doesn’t discuss the status of ongoing projects.
Smithfield Township’s code enforcement officer Ed Habbershon said supervisors won’t vote on the plan until other agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Protection, have approved it. Habbershon said the process needs to play out.
“How fair would it be to Rutter’s side if we didn’t let them have their due process?” he said.
Huntingdon area residents and birders Deb and Greg Grove like to visit the Old Crow Wetland to bird-watch. They have a viewing scope set up the day they're there with other opponents of the proposed Rutter's.
“There’s a green heron sitting out here if you want to look at it … it’s sitting on a rock,” Deb Grove said, offering a reporter a look through the scope.
Birders have counted about 220 species of birds there, including eight or nine that are endangered in Pennsylvania, along with seeing other wildlife like turtles and butterflies. The habitat is mixed with ponds and trees, milkweed and cattails. It includes a pollinator garden and bat boxes.
“The reason this is so great is because there's a really good intact ecosystem here, and it starts at the lowest level with tiny little micro-organisms, and so on, that can live in the water or around the water or on the plants," birding expert Greg Grove said. "And the birds are sort of up towards the top of the food chain, or the food web more properly. And they're here only because the whole thing works so well.”
Greg Grove is retired from Penn State. He and Deb have both led the State College Bird Club and been part of the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology. He said a key concern is the possibility of runoff from the gas station, which is uphill from the wetlands.
“We just figure the best laid plans, or whatever, usually go somewhere astray at some point," Grove said. "And it just seems like there could be alternatives to putting a Rutter’s in, but this is what we have. There's no replacing this — the wetland, the marsh.”
Visitors to the site can watch for birds and other wildlife from the pavilion, or walk along the paths around the wetlands.
“I have 21 birds that I’ve heard or seen since we got here," Deb Grove said, recording her entries. "And you can hear a house wren over here.”
And then Deb Grove and Doug Wentzel spot king birds.
“That electric sound. Isn’t that wonderful?” said Wentzel, who lives in McAlevys Fort in Huntingdon County and is president of the State College Bird Club and program director at the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. He said the wetland is an outdoor classroom — literally.
"Usually in the fall watching monarchs come through, this is a stopover point, because of the common milkweed and the flowering plants here," he said. "So not only for birds, but for insects, dragonflies, the painted turtles, the frogs, this is again an oasis of wildlife. It would be a real shame to lose this for a truckstop.”
The state Department of Environmental Protection reviewed Rutter’s stormwater or National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System plans, responding with a list of deficiencies. The company has until Sept. 12 to respond to those. A DEP spokesman said the DEP and the Huntingdon County Conservation District will review any response, and if significant deficiencies remain unresolved, the application will go to what’s known as an "elevated review" status.
Coalition members want to see that elevated review and a public hearing. They have an online petition. The DEP spokesman said a decision has not been made on whether to hold a public hearing.