Conemaugh Lake project

Doug Bosley (left), chief of interpretation and visitor services, Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site and Johnstown Flood National Memorial; Joshua Manley, management analyst for five National Park sites in southwestern Pennsylvania; and Elizabeth Shope, public information officer and park guide at Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site and Johnstown Flood National Memorial, discuss a Conemaugh Lake project Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, inside the visitors center.

When it came time to debut the Johnstown Flood National Memorial’s new visitors center in 1989, the National Park Service picked a hillside spot that offered a stunning view of the onetime South Fork dam.

But these days, the view from the center’s picture window offers little more than a peek at western Pennsylvania’s wilds, National Park Service Ranger Doug Bosley said.

Shrubs, overgrown weeds and hundreds of trees – some of them 35 feet tall – have blanketed the remains of the onetime dam and Conemaugh lakebed that released at least 20 million gallons of water onto the Johnstown region in 1889.

 “At this point, when I show someone that viewpoint, I almost need an old photograph,” he said. “It’s hard for most people to understand what they are looking at.”

That will change soon, he said.

The National Park Service is partnering with state and federal experts on a $275,000 effort to clear nearly 70 acres from the old lakebed, taking down rows of trees, eradicating knotweed and then charring the area with a “prescribed fire” to prime the area for more ideal growth.

It’s a process that was used in 2017 at the historic Little Round Top battlefield in Gettysburg, Park Service Project Coordinator Joshua Manley said.

“And it enabled us to show people a scene that had been hidden for years. We think it’s going to do the same thing here,” he said. “We want to enable people to visualize the magnitude of that lake – and imagine what a weapon it was while emptying down that mountain.”

Target areas

Bosley said the area was last cleared extensively in 1989. Park Service crews maintained it well for a decade with hand tools and mowing zones with an old tractor.

But in the years that followed, that work crew got smaller and cleanup efforts became less frequent.

It doesn’t take long for nature to take over, he added – making the task too challenging for weed trimmers and chainsaws.

Manley said an effort that could start in late January would involve a team of National Park Service specialists from as far away as South Carolina.

Scientists, archeologists and engineers will join ecologists and landscape experts from the Olmsted Center For Landscape Preservation, which has worked for nearly 30 years to preserve cultural landscapes at some of America’s most famous landmarks.

The team will be relied upon to rejuvenate four targeted “viewpoints” of the former lake: the visitor center’s picture window that overlooks the Unger Farm and former dam, the Lake Road overlook just down the road from the center that offers an area for cars to pull over and the lake’s north and south abutments, individually, which represent all that remains of the man-made earthen dam.

Manley said a long stretch of acres will be strategically avoided in between those areas.

Wetlands will be avoided, aside from the removal of problematic trees, he said.

A 50-foot buffer will be in place on both sides of the Conemaugh River so that there’s no erosion, sediment issues or other waterway disturbances.

Norfolk Southern’s railroad tracks and right-of-way are also off-limits, he added.

‘Windows of opportunity’

Manley said the work will be delayed until late January “at the earliest” when the soil is frozen to minimize any ground disturbance.

“Taking down those trees – the first step – should take 12 to 14 days ... but we aren’t starting until the conditions are ideal for it,” he said, noting that the entire project timeline could take anywhere from a handful of months to well over a year because it is so reliant on weather conditions.

Afterward, herbicides will be used to eliminate invasive plants – knotweed included.

Once the target areas have been thinned and cut, experts will set fire to the corridor following National Park Service and National Wildfire Coordinating Group Standards, Manley said. The move will add rich nutrients to the soil for an established grassland while hopefully revealing boulders from the dam that have been hidden for decades.

The Park Service will need the right temperatures, wind speeds and humidity for the “window of opportunity” to set the fires, making the projected timetable hard to predict.  It could be as early as late spring or as late as spring 2021. But Manley said the Park Service will close the south abutment’s access road – the road closest to the planned activity – and alert the media prior to the move.

Bosley said the efforts will all take place below the dam’s former water line, which itself is well below the access road’s guide rail.

He said the undertaking will be “worth it.”

And this time, it’ll be designed to stay that way, Manley added.

Efforts are being coordinated to ensure regular maintenance and monitoring continues in the area so the views remain.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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