BURNSIDE - "Wow."

That was the first word out of the mouth of Richard D. Allan when asked about his first visit to the proposed Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA).

"It's amazing. Absolutely amazing," said Allan, secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), after his tour - via a Hummer - Friday morning. "I've never done anything like this before and it was very exciting. I can see why it's going to be a draw for people to enjoy. This is a tourist destination."

Allan was in the area with state Sen. John Gordner (R-27) and Rep. Kurt Masser (R-107), who toured with The Hummer Club Inc.

"That was the biggest surprise to me, how well these vehicles handle this terrain," Allan said about the Hummers, noting they were at times nearly perpendicular with the ground. "That's why they come here for that enjoyment to be able to ride on such steep inclines."

Allan said he is impressed with the way that Northumberland County has planned out the AOAA, an off-road and recreational park being developed on 6,500 acres of county-owned forest and coal lands in Coal, East Cameron, Mount Carmel, West Cameron and Zerbe townships.

DCNR has been very helpful in the creation of the park, Allan said, being on board since day one.

"They've got a very good business model worked out here," he said. "We've helped them out with the initial feasibility study, but, locally, there are people that have been involved with getting this off the ground for a dozen years."

Citing the example of Rock Run Recreational Area in Clearfield and Cambria counties, Allan feels that just such a park can succeed in Northumberland County.

"The fact that Rock Run is self-sufficient shows there's a demand for that type of recreation," Allan said. "This could be just as good or better. These trails could bring out those that want a little more excitement."

Trouble acknowledged

The secretary acknowledged there has been opposition to the park. Many complaints involve those who have ridden on the land for free for decades, and will now have to pay for access. Others are concerned about hunting being restricted.

Allan, however, hopes local residents recognize the amount of work that has gone into the project.

"Everything has been very well thought-out with a lot of people involved, cross sections of the community were involved. Everything has been done the right way to do to get to this point today," he said.

He declined to comment about accusations that trails have been cut illegally, or about the issue of hunting on the land. He said those matters are for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

One of the park's most vocal opponents, former Habitat for Wildlife president David Kaleta, Shamokin, said he had no comment about Allan's visit when contacted Friday.

Another 'Christmas surprise?'

Allan laughed and said "no comment" when asked if there was another "Christmas surprise" on the way for the park, after Northumberland County received $1.5 million in grant money from DCNR in December 2011.

Gordner echoed Allan's sentiments on the day's activities, saying how the AOAA can be a complete day out for many recreation enthusiasts.

"This facility has it all, from the Hummers plowing around, to horseback riding, mountain biking. Because of the amount of terrain and acerage, it can appeal to everyone," Gordner said. "The Hummers came today from New Jersey, New York, Virginia. Our host today talked about doing this with his 5-year old son, and he doesn't like to camp; he stays in a hotel and eats locally."

It's what AOAA officials are hoping for when the park comes to fruition.

"This administration has rethought where we invest our money for economic development. There is a lot of recreation here that we don't do in our state parks and forest lands," Allan added.

"I'm excited about the secretary's visit here and DCNR's commitment to the park," Masser said. "I'm excited about the opening of the park and getting it up and running. I've heard the concerns and the authority will be addressing those concerns. We have it here and for everyone."

The Hummer Club Inc. featured the AOAA in a two-page color article in the October 2012 issue of their club magazine, Azimuth.

Asked how close the AOAA might be to formally opening, all three state officials referred the question to the newly formed authority board.

The county last month named five people to the authority board, which begins operation in the new year.