BURNSIDE - It has been described as a wasteland, a gem, a party spot and a recreation area, but at 1 p.m. today, it will be officially known as the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA).

A ribbon-cutting ceremony today at the AOAA is the culmination of five years of planning by the Northumberland County commissioners, county officials, a steering committee and a five-member authority appointed Oct. 15, 2012.

The park has received more than $3.7 million in grant funds - $1.6 million alone to construct the trailhead south of the village of Burnside in Coal Township.

The park, which opens to the public at 9 a.m. Saturday, sits on 6,500 acres of forest and abandoned coal lands in Coal, East Cameron, Mount Carmel, West Cameron and Zerbe townships. It is divided by Route 125 and stretches from an area southeast of Excelsior to just east of Gap Road, south of Trevorton.

Grant money was awarded by the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources (DCNR), Appalachian Regional Commission and Commonwealth Financing Authority. Not included in that amount is a $1.3 million, 82-acre mine reclamation project and money received from the private sector, including $20,000 from Yamaha and $10,000 from Polaris.

In phases

The master plan, released to the public in 2011, recommends the authority develop the park in six phases at a total cost of more than $9.7 million. When fully developed the park, would include secondary access roads and an ORV challenge course. A plan for campgrounds has since been scrapped as the AOAA authority board is encouraging the development of private sites nearby.

The trailhead, which includes a welcome center, parking lots, lights and signs, was listed in phase I.

"We need to open this in phases," Jim Backes, chairman of the AOAA Authority, said. "We are going to get paid users in here first."

According to authority member Pat Mack, phase II, which is expected to cost $500,000, will provide a secondary trailhead and parking for non-motorized activities such as hiking, horse back riding, biking and hunting. The trailhead and parking area will be located along Route 125 less than one mile east of the existing welcome center. The park is currently closed to hikers, equestrians and bicyclists.

A $788,000 DCNR grant for phase II construction and overrunning costs of phase I was awarded in December. That is in addition to a $575,000 grant through the Marcellus Legacy Funds awarded in November. The grants will fund $353,000 for stream improvements to Carbon Run, including acid mine drainage abatement, and $222,000 for mountain bike trail development.

Trails, PNDI

Before construction can begin, a Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory (PNDI) study must be completed on the area where phase II will be built. A PNDI study identifies impacts to threatened, endangered or rare plants or animals in the natural community and is required for most grant programs.

"A PNDI study has been submitted for phase II and is about 90 percent done," Backes said. "When we open, it should allow some authority members to turn their attention to the next phase."

Outside of major construction, authority members and volunteer committees continue to mark the vast amount of trails that intertwine throughout the property. Backes said 80 intersections on the eastern reserve are marked by odd numbers, while the western reserve will eventually be marked with even numbers. Higher numbers will correspond to trails farther away from the trail head. Maps measuring 8-by-14 inches will be distributed to riders.

Barry Yorwarth, authority member, estimated more than 300 linear miles of trails has been developed on the east and west sides, split nearly evenly.

Several trails leading to and from AOAA property have been blocked by gates and rocks, but more work needs to be done, Yorwarth said.

"The major trails (leading onto the property) on the eastern reserve are posted or blocked," Yorwarth said. "It's an ongoing process. More will be done before we open."

Riders will only be allowed access to the western reserve if they are with a tour guide. The authority is working to mark trails and to finalize an agreement with Blaschak Coal Corporation to allow riders to cross the coal company's property, which is sandwiched between both sides of the AOAA. Authority members said they hoped to have an agreement ahead of the public opening.

While opening day finally arrives, Backes summed up the larger picture of the AOAA in a statement released Wednesday about the grand opening.

"The authority thanks the Northumberland County commissioners for their foresight and support in this project and the trust they have in the authority to bring a world-class outdoor recreation facility to the Lower Anthracite Region."

Park hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. It will also be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Memorial Day. Hours and days of operation are expected to expand in the summertime, Yorwarth said.