SOUTH WILLIAMPORT, PA — The Robert Porter Allen Natural Area (RPANA) is not just a recreation area. It is meant to be enjoyed today, but also to honor the past and educate for the future.
The natural area, located along the Susquehanna River and Sylvan Dell Road, South Williamsport, has deep historical roots.
The area was once the home of Robert Porter Allen, a pioneering ornithologist and environmentalist who conducted research for the National Audubon Society. He was also an award-winning naturalist writer, an activity that allowed him to carefully and thoughtfully document the birds he studied.
His conservation research and writings on the massive crane have won him national recognition. A 2012 biographical book, “The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane,” honors Allen’s role in preserving the species.
Three farms stretched along the land between South Williamsport and Muncy, with the Porter family residing near Muncy, the Allens residing near downtown South Williamsport, and the Gibsons located in between – where it stands today the RPANA.
The Porters and Allens were married, but there were several generations of Porter Allens before the famous ornithologist was born. As a child, Robert Porter Allen referred to the natural area as “Gibson’s Marsh” and developed his love of nature and birds throughout his time there, according to Jim Dunn, a nearby resident and chief of project.
Long before Robert Porter Allen’s family settled the land in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the area was Native American territory. After industrialization, it had many uses: the former bathing and boating area of the town of Williamsport in the early 1900s; a section of the Pennsylvania Canal; a key transport connection for the rail system, and later the Loyalsock Gap Turnpike.
The project aims to preserve the cultural and historical resources associated with the site, as well as preserve the natural habitat and wildlife inhabiting the area.
As in the past, the park area will offer recreational opportunities: walking and biking, bird watching, cross-country skiing. Natural history will be maintained through educational courses in partnership with local schools and universities. Other long-term goals include habitat restoration, trail connections (see map), and canoe/kayak access.
Dunn noted tangible plans such as signs detailing the area’s transportation, recreation, and family history, as well as environmental education about plants, bird species, flowers, and trees.
Bucknell University intends to use the area as a field station, and Lycoming College will join in the future, according to Dunn. Local organizations such as the National Audubon Society, a conservation group that observes birds at the site, are also interested in opportunities in the area.
The project is funded by grants from DCNR and PennVEST, which were then matched with local funds provided by Lycoming County Commissioners. In particular, the natural area received a North American The Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant, one of the most competitive in North America, and the first to be awarded in Pennsylvania, Dunn said.
Operationally, the project is now owned and operated by the Southside Recreational Authority, a group of residents who oversee recreational projects in their community. As chairman of the board and the one who got it all started, Dunn led the project on all fronts.
According to Dunn, the project was “about a decade” in the works. Dunn said his inspiration for the project came from “going there as a kid, knowing it was there – kind of a hidden gem. I didn’t want the site to be defaced”.
Dunn grasped the significance of the park not just as personal to him, but as necessary knowledge for all who visit it. “To have a comprehensive understanding of an area and its importance, you have to learn…you have to learn the history of its uses at different times. And you have to put that into context with what it is today “, he said.