Tucked away in the hills of western Pennsylvania, about an hour outside of Pittsburgh, is the Crooked Creek Environmental Learning Center.
As groups around the world prepare to celebrate Earth Day on April 22, Crooked Creek is one of those places where the natural world is the focus of every program, from a Saturday seminar on backyard chickens to its week-long Young Naturalist summer day camp for kids.
Run by a private nonprofit foundation with a single staff member dedicated to it, this 30-acre learning center includes trails, a meeting room and a bunkhouse with room for up to 30 overnight guests.
“Our mission is promoting environmental education and responsible resource management,” said Dennis Hawley, who has run the center for the past 15 years.
The learning center property is leased from the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the surrounding 2,600-acre Crooked Creek Lake Recreation Area. The lake was built in 1940 as part of a flood-control project along the Allegheny River.
Since then, the land around it has been managed first by the state of Pennsylvania as a state park, and later by the Corps of Engineers. When the center became run-down and some were proposing to tear it down about 15 years ago, the Armstrong Educational Trust took it on. Hawley has been managing it since then.
Crooked Creek ELC is not part of any government entity’s budget. Year after year it is run on a combination of volunteer labor, grants and donations.
“Every year, it’s a struggle,” Hawley said.
But the center provides an affordable place for scouts, church groups and outdoors-focused groups to hold overnight events. It’s also a destination for people who want to learn about the natural world.
Hawley said his programs draw an audience from the Greater Pittsburgh area, and he’s even had people drive 80-90 miles for some workshops, which cover topics ranging from hummingbirds to blueberries to maple sugaring.
“People have gotten a lot more interested in environmental issues around here,” Hawley said. He credits that in part to residents’ desire to learn more about natural gas production from Marcellus shale in the county, an issue the ELC held forums on but did not take a position on.
“We don’t take one side or the other on these things, we just present what the evidence is,” Hawley said.
Visitors can experience the 30-acre site through trails that run through it. One of the most popular is the “You Can Trail,” a universally accessible trail that Hawley constantly sees in use.
A graduate student named Lisa Lindsay started a Plants Map profile for the ELC, as part of research she was doing on the property for her doctoral thesis. Lindsay has grouped the plants on the You Can Trail into their own collection, and Hawley said she plans to install Plants Map’s interactive plant signs and tags along the trail to further enhance its appeal.
Also at the property, a poetry trail offers a completely different way to experience the landscape. Developed by an English class at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, this trail offers a verse of poetry chosen by students at every stop.
Next month, Crooked Creek ELC will host the 19th Annual Alle-Kiski-Connie Rivers Canoe Sojourn. This annual event takes place May 19 – 22, 2016. Participants stay overnight at the ELC, and trailers are available to transport their boats to three different river trips they take on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to experience the Allegheny, Kiskiminetas and Conemaugh river valleys.
The sojourn draws participants back year after year, Hawley said. It is run in partnership with the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers and the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
To learn more, visit Crooked Creek Environmental Learning Center on Plants Map.