ST. MICHAEL – Initial work will get underway Saturday to restore the former Conemaugh Lake bed at the site of the infamous South Fork Dam, National Park Service officials said.

It’ll signal the first phase of an estimated $275,000 project aimed at clearing nearly 70 acres of wild vegetation from sections of the onetime lake bed, said Joshua Manley, park service project coordinator.

As planned, scientists, archeologists and engineers will join ecologists and landscape experts from the Olmsted Center For Landscape Preservation to restore four targeted lake “viewpoints” – areas park service officials can use to give visitors a mental picture of the size and scope of the dam that flooded Johnstown on May 31, 1889.

“Currently, when I show someone the viewpoint from the visitor center, I almost need an old photograph,” said National Park Service Ranger Doug Bosley, the park’s chief interpreter.

Park service officials first announced the plan last month.

To clear each area, sprawling areas of shrubs, overgrown weeds and hundreds of trees – some of them 35 feet tall – will be cut down over a nearly one-week period beginning Thursday, park service officials said.

Afterward, herbicides will be used to eliminate invasive plants, such as knotweed.

Due to the work planned next week, South Abutment Road will be closed from Jan. 21 through Jan. 24 to allow work to continue near the corridor, park service officials said in a release to media Monday.

A 50-foot buffer zone will be in place on either side of the Conemaugh River to prevent erosion, sediment issues and other waterway disturbances.

National Park Service officials have said the work to rehab the lake bed will likely occur in phases over the period of a year, with weather conditions dictating when each step can occur.

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, he said.

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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