Rural Pa. banks on elk helping economy
Years in the works, the Elk Country Visitors Center was unveiled this fall in hopes of turning the town into a prime destination to view the animals.
Sun, Nov 21, 2010 at 03:43 PM
THEY’RE BACK: Elk once roamed throughout Pennsylvania before logging, human settlement and hunting eliminated them in the 1860s. Fifty years later, the Pennsylvania Game Commission began introducing them back into the area. (Photo: jupiterimages)
Through a light morning fog, two elk emerged in a clearing before disappearing a minute later behind a thick stand of trees, a teaser for guests arriving early at the ceremonial opening of Pennsylvania's first elk visitors center.
The elk did come back, and the state isn't far behind them.
Along with the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale reserve, the state hopes one of rural north-central Pennsylvania's most promising economic engines will be a hulking four-legged creature that can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds. Years in the works, the Elk Country Visitors Center was unveiled this fall in hopes of turning the commonwealth into a prime destination to view the majestic animal.
"We built it, and they will come," Gov. Ed Rendell said, borrowing a phrase from the movie "Field of Dreams."
And the governor hopes they will bring their wallets. Building off the "Pennsylvania Wilds" tourism campaign that plays up outdoor getaways, Rendell and business leaders are optimistic the attraction will help dollars flow into a rural area that has long struggled financially.
The gas drilling and so-called wildlife tourism are potential rural economic drivers in relatively early stages of development, though there are worries they could be in conflict, too.
While Marcellus drilling isn't pervasive in Elk County, home of the visitors center, state conservation and natural resources secretary John Quigley promised that Pennsylvania would keep close watch on how the explosive growth of the natural gas industry might affect the tourism investment and the elk herd estimated at about 725.
"We had to plant this flag to make a strong statement about conservation and about the place of natural resources in this economy," Quigley said. "If anything, the Marcellus makes this more important. ... We're hoping the mindset carries forward."
The visitors center — built through a partnership between the state and the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, with $6 million each from the commonwealth and private funding — has the dark-wooded charm of the foyer of a country lodge. There's a fireplace and large windows that look out on a serene field where the elk come to graze in the evening.
What's different are the two roughly 6-foot models of elk on display in the middle of the round main exhibit area.
"We're going to try to drive around here and see if we can see the elk," said Joe Zandarski, 38, of Butler. He drove about an hour from the camp that he, his wife and two young kids were vacationing at in Mount Jewett.
September and October are considered the best time to see elk, when in mating season, though late fall and winter may also provide good viewing opportunities.
"Going to the zoo is one thing," Zandarski said, his 2-year-old son Zachary in tow, "but to see it in its natural habitat is something special."
A century ago, it wouldn't have been possible.
Elk once roamed throughout Pennsylvania before logging, human settlement and hunting eliminated them in the 1860s. About 50 years later, the Pennsylvania Game Commission began introducing the first of about 170 Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park.
Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor, was so taken with the animal during the opening ceremony that he said the bugling calls of elk during mating season were "one of the most amazing sounds I had heard in my life."
The governor has pointed to a Pennsylvania Wilds Planning team report that showed that attendance and state sales tax revenue up slightly in the Wilds region between from the middle of last decade to 2008. The number of hotels in the region has increased by more than a third during that period to 43.
Brian Kunes owns the eight-room Benezette Hotel and restaurant just down the road from the visitors center. He plans to expand in part because of more business from elk watchers and the hope of year-round business rather than just busy times around hunting or leaf-peeping seasons.
Visitors center organizers "think they can maintain it all year long, and for me, that's good," said Kunes. Elk can slowly wander through town and backyards, in view from the restaurant.
"People come to see the elk, to see the leaves ... It's got to help."
Elk remain far more plentiful in the mountain regions of the West — according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the largest herd is in Colorado (292,000) with Montana (150,000) and Oregon (120,000) next. The group on its website describes its mission as "ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat."
The national elk population of 1.03 million is up 44 percent from the mid-1980s. The foundation credits increased conservation efforts around the country, not just in the West. Pennsylvania's elk herd is more than five times larger since 1984.
According to the foundation, canoeists paddling the Buffalo River in Arkansas can see wild elk, a sight missing for more than a century before the animals were reintroduced into the Ozark Mountains as part of a program to increase biodiversity.
Copyright 2010 AP Features