The Loyalhanna Watershed Association of Ligonier, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is transforming the historic McConnaughey Farm in Ligonier Township into a rotational cattle grazing farm, restoring natural wetlands and planting trees, all to prevent erosion and runoff into nearby streams.
The watershed association has a broad goal to protect Loyalhanna Creek, which flows 41 miles from its origin in the Laurel Mountain near Linn Run State Park north to Saltsburg.
That protection also includes the small tributaries at the base of the steep hills of the McConnaughey Farm that feed into Mill Creek, which runs into Loyalhanna Creek just west of Ligonier near Route 30.
The McConnaughey Farm is owned by the watershed association and is the gateway to the western edge of Ligonier Borough.
"Land conservation is important to the water quality of Loyalhanna Creek," said Susan Huba, 33, director of the watershed association, which has its office on the farm.
"We prevent storm water runoff, and control development. Large developments can contribute to flooding problems as well. We've seen flooding this summer in both Ligonier and Latrobe. And where our office is on the farm is in a flood plain. So trees and wetlands hold the water and help reduce runoff and flooding."
The watershed association is using a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to fence in the steep pastures of the 123-acre farm to continue cattle grazing there and to reduce the impact of erosion and pollution on the stream.
The project involves construction of fencing along the perimeter of the farm. Then, pastures will be separated into 16 different areas so that cattle can be moved from one section to another for rotational grazing.
Tom Sierzega, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the agriculture department in Greensburg, said, "The fencing is being constructed now, and should be completed by spring." It is a five-strand electric fence.
He said the rotational grazing system will reduce erosion on the farm.
"That's a very steep hill at the farm," he said, "and the cattle now make a path to the stream water at the base of the hill."
Moving the cattle to the different sections will keep the pasture grass at an optimum length of two inches, and the cattle manure provides a natural fertilizer for the grass, he said.
The watershed association currently leases the land to a local farmer and hopes to continue a leasing program. Mr. Sierzega said he expects about 60 cattle will graze at the farm.
Troughs in each fenced-in pasture will provide water for the cattle.
The watershed association also will create natural buffers between the stream and the cattle by planting trees and shrubs to keep them out of the water. The association received a $40,000 grant from the Conservation Reserve Program in the agricultural department to plant trees and bushes along the creek.
"We're going to plant native trees and shrubs -- maples, oaks, dogwoods and cherry trees," Ms. Huba said. "In the spring, we'll plant about 2,600 trees, shrubs and plants."
The association also has restored a natural wetland at the base of the farm hill with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through California University.
"It's a wet meadow that had been drained over the years, but now it's gone back to it's natural wetland," Ms. Huba said.
The association has excavated the natural wetland area and removed invasive plant species such as a multifloral rose, which has a light pink bloom, as well as a reed grass.
"It's amazing how much it's gone back to its original wetland state," she said. "Water irises have already returned, and frogs and birds."
The quality of Loyalhanna Creek is improving, but the watershed group continues to work to resolve several mine drainage problems throughout its length, Ms. Huba said.
The creek is becoming more popular as a recreation destination among fishermen, boaters and hikers.
It is stocked with trout each year, but also supports cold-water brook trout and bass in the warmer sections of the creek.
This summer, because of the unusual amount of rain, the creek has been deep enough to support kayakers into August, which is unusual, according to Ms. Huba.
The creek begins in the Laurel Mountain and flows northwest through Latrobe and New Alexandria into Saltsburg, where it joins with the Conemaugh River to form the Kiski River. It is only about five feet wide where it begins but widens as it nears Loyalhanna Lake, and is hundreds of feet wide by the time it joins the Conemaugh River.
Several walking trails have been developed along the creek, as well.
A key area of focus for the watershed association remains the conservation of land -- including wetlands, farmlands, greenways, forests and open space. Currently, the association owns more than 400 acres of land throughout the watershed for the purpose of protection and conservation.
The association, made up of 1,000 members and three full-time staff, is working with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and other organizations to identify strategic Ligonier Valley properties for conservation.
The Loyalhanna Watershed comprises 2,500 miles of streams and tributaries that eventually flow into the creek.
After the McConnaughey Farm land conservation project is complete, the watershed association will turn its attention to a $2 million capital campaign to restore its three buildings, Ms. Huba said.
The watershed office is currently in the old Ligonier Township building, and it also has the original farmhouse and barn to maintain.
"We are looking to apply to foundations to restore them," she said.
The association hopes to tear down the aluminum municipal office building and move its offices into the farmhouse, which is now vacant.
"Once the barn is restored, we're hoping the summer market can operate year-round," she said.
The popular Ligonier Country Market is held each Saturday from May through October at the base of the farm on the watershed's property.
For more details, see loyalhannawatershed.org.
Debra Duncan, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.