PICTURE ROCKS - For 30 years, Michael Gross and his wife, Rickie, have been walking the trails they blazed themselves on their 270 acres in Wolf Township.
Five years ago, the two decided to follow in the footsteps of Rickie's parents, the late Allen and Mary Snyder, and make the land a public preserve.
"My wife and I felt we wanted to see the land preserved from development and we already knew about conservation easements, because her parents did one on their land in Montgomery County," he said.
Now open to the public, the Glacier Pools Preserve is exactly what the Grosses wanted.
"There really isn't any other woods near Hughesville with public access," Gross said.
In a conservation easement, the land never can be developed.
Originally, the Grosses sought to protect their acreage from intrusions such as housing developments. But, due to changes in interested industries, it now isn't just housing developments from which the Grosses are looking to protect it.
"We came to realize the road of development changed due to the gas industry," Gross said. "We felt that we wanted to have this piece of land, keep it from housing or well pad and (gas industry) equipment, even though the surrounding areas may be developed."
Help obtaining the easement came from the Merrill Linn Conservancy in Lewisburg.
"We felt that the purpose should be public use as well as private preservation," he said.
The public access is sponsored by the East Lycoming Recreation Authority.
Essentially, Gross said, the land is like Lime Bluff's second park, the first being the Lime Bluff Recreational Area along Elm Drive in Wolf Township. That park has walking paths, a playground and areas for softball, bocce ball, horseshoes and disc golf.
Glacier Pools Preserve contains diverse habitats. Perhaps most unique are the 20-some vernal pools on the property.
Hence the name, Gross explained.
"These are areas where blocks of ice from the last glacier melted and left a depression in the land," he said.
The pools fill with water in the spring, then become low or even dry out in the fall.
They don't hold fish, but they are a paradise for amphibians such as frogs and salamanders to make their home and breed.
When not using the vernal pools, the amphibians live on the forest floor surrounding them.
"One of the reason to keep the (forest) floor full of dead trees is to help provide habitat for the amphibians," Gross said.
Sometimes rare species can be found in the pools.
Gross said he is anxious to get out next spring with a biologist and look for eastern spadefoot toads or fairy shrimp. The spadefoot toad is classified as endangered by the state Fish and Boat Commission. Fairy shrimp are seasonal pool crustaceans and only are found in seasonal pools.
"There is a lot of glacier geology, and that is what makes it quite nice for walking and linear (trails)," he said.
A trail map is available at glacierpoolspreserve.com.
Right now, the site has about three to four miles of trails through various forested areas and meadows.
Teaching the public
Interpretative panels are in the works. Clyde Peeling's Reptiland, in Allenwood, is working on producing five of them, which will be mounted along the trails at the preserve.
According to Chad Peeling, operations manager at Reptiland, the panels will highlight the vernal pools, the amphibian diversity they support and the geologic processes that created them.
"The graphics will peel back the obvious view of Pennsylvania forests and offer walkers a deeper understanding of the ecological systems at work," Peeling said.
The Gross family has had a very close relationship with Reptiland for a long time. Peeling said when they heard of the project, they jumped at the chance to help.
"Most people don't know what vernal pools are, much less why they're important," Peeling said. "Interpreting the natural world is our primary purpose, and this preserve is worth understanding."
Peeling has written the panels and Reptiland's graphic designer is working on layouts.
"Reptiland is the entity that's funding the graphics and our time," Peeling said.
Gross also expects a leaflet to be made soon, explaining all the birds, small animals and amphibians that cohabitate the site.
"It goes from fields to nice, mature woods, and the vernal pools," he said. "There are a different set of wildflowers, and we have a lot of butterflies."
Recently, a mushroom collector came to the preserve. Gross said he always has been interested in fungi and was glad to see someone with that interest using the land.
"A man from Picture Rocks was up there collecting wild mushrooms, he said. "I said to him, next time he comes up, I would like to go with him."
After speaking with him, Gross said he learned of a mushroom collecting community that was looking for a place to collect, and he looks for them to return.
Putting in the time
The preserve really is a work in progress and its success requires forest and conservation management.
"As far as I can tell, developing a forest is very much like gardening. You have to choose the goals ... with forest improvement activities," Gross said.
The goals they have chosen include promoting the habitat for amphibians and small animals, he said.
To do so, the meadows on the preserve have to be mowed.
"They want to be forest, and we want the meadows for ground-nesting birds, butterflies and flowers," he said.
There is an invasive species plant problem on the preserve. Gross said he has been combating multiflora rose, autumn olive, honeysuckle and barberry for about five years.
He is trying to find a way to do this with as little maintenance as possible. He's examined options such as using herbicides or mowing every three years.
"We are working with forester Jack Stevens and also working with the (Lycoming County Conservation District) out of Montoursville trying to put together a forest management plan," Gross said.
Stevens is a private forester.
"We are hoping for a grant in the next cycle for a long-term forest management," Gross said, joking that he never thought he would assume the role of a park ranger in his retirement.
Gross hopes the public who use the land also will want to volunteer and help keep the preserve open by working on some of the necessary maintenance.
If the site isn't used, Gross said the public-use agreement with the East Lycoming Recreation Authority can be broken by either side at any time.
The easement, however, is permanent. The site never will be developed.
"My model has been Rider Park," Gross said. "I do this as a real junior of Rider Park."
For Gross, the preserve is a work in progress but its end goal is simple - "To provide a beautiful place for the people to walk."
As a family practice doctor, Gross hopes it encourages people to get out and exercise, walking with their families and dogs.
"It's a lovely spot, and a good place to look at butterflies, birds and amphibians," he said.
It might be a short walk, but there is plenty of nature to experience.
"The most important aspect of conservation is preserving intact habitats, and the Gross family has made a real contribution to the area's future heritage," Peeling said. "Conservation easements, like this one, offer landowners a way to protect and pass on the wild places they love without losing control of their property."
He adds that the benefits of wildlife are significant. The seasonal pools support breeding populations of spotted salamanders, red-spotted newts, wood frogs and pickerel frogs.
"The wildflower meadows support a diverse array of butterflies and songbirds. This is a special place," Peeling said.