A new visitor’s center and lodge in central Pennsylvania lets the intrepid traveler see the state’s elk population up close. Adam H. Graham left the comforts of Brooklyn to see it for himself.
Though Pennsylvania’s environmental headlines have lately been dominated by natural gas fracking in the Marcellus Shale, a handsome new $10 million Gold LEED-certified Elk Center quietly opened on September 9 in Benezette, Pennsylvania, on the edge of the fossil fuel-rich Allegheny National Forest, and just five-hours from my Brooklyn apartment. In its first week, the center saw over 10,000 visitors, its gift shop was depleted of merchandise, and it attracted over 100 new members to the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, who operate the facility with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“Did you hear that?” asks the six-foot-two-inch CEO of the alliance, Rawley Cogan, who is sporting a pair of Wrangler jeans and a Stetson hat during our horse-drawn wagon ride on a cool September evening. His quiet enthusiasm about the center is palpable, and for a man who’s seen thousands of elk in his lifetime, he’s just as excited as the kids in back of the wagon when we spot a majestic ten-point bull emerge from the meadow fog and bugle loudly in our direction. If you haven’t heard one before, the piercing gull-like bugle calls of elk are somewhat intimidating and positively haunting. I had seen the animals while on assignment in Newfoundland and California, but hearing them is extraordinary.
Pennsylvania has the only elk population on the east coast, and all 700 of them are contained within an 800 square mile range in the Pennsylvania Wilds, stretching over hilly second growth forests from Treasure Lake to the township of Lumber. “We’re lucky this site was never strip-mined,” Cogan explains to a few local farmers riding in our wagon, revealing the state’s checkered environmental past. A century ago, Pennsylvania had clear-cut much of its forests and over 100 species had been extirpated from the state, including panthers, wolves, beavers, and elk. The story, often referred to as the 1760 massacre, is explained in vivid detail in Henry W. Shoemaker’s 1917 classic Extinct Pennsylvania Animals.
But the state’s recovery has become a model for reforestation. The elk, bear, and beavers have returned in healthy numbers. A burgeoning eco-tourism industry and a growing awareness of conservation now can be seen even in the state’s most conservative pockets where oil, coal, and lumber provide local jobs. The new lodge-like center, slated for a grand opening today, October 6, harvests rainwater and is constructed with Pennsylvania hemlock and stone from local quarries. Inside, pieces of mission-style white oak furniture crafted by local prisoners are arranged around a grandiose fireplace, and a new multi-sensory theater will screen a film which incorporates the scent of campfire and an actual snowfall while explaining the local history of the elk–their depletion in 1867 and successful reintroduction in 1913 from a Rocky Mountain colony shipped by train.
In addition to the horse-drawn wagon rides, the center offers workshops on elk, guided walks, and a homestead program where visitors can spend the night in a three bedroom farmhouse house on the elk range. This winter, the center plans on offering sleigh rides, and expanding its repertoire of programs.
Elk Country Visitor Center
- Nat Geo Expeditions
134 Homestead Drive, Benezette, PA; +1 814 787 5167.
Grounds open at 6:30 a.m. The Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Mon-Sun (seasonal hours).
Photos: Above, Elk pause for a picture in Benezette, Pennsylvania, by Vanessa Rumsky/My Shot. Below, the new Elk Country Visitor Center.