COAL TOWNSHIP - "We support this project 100 percent and believe it will clean up the environment, provide an economic boost to the area and give off-road recreational vehicle enthusiasts a safer, more regulated place to ride their vehicles."

Those comments by Cindy Dunn, deputy secretary for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), summarized the feelings of approximately 40 people who participated in a three-hour riding tour Sunday covering abandoned coal lands that Northumberland County officials plan to convert into the Anthracite Outdoor Recreation Area.

Dunn and John Norbeck, bureau director of state parks for DCNR, were among the local, county and state officials, environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts and National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council (NOVCC) who met above the Burnside Mountain at 11 a.m. to witness first-hand the wooded, scenic and rocky area that is scheduled to become the home of an off-road recreation vehicle park.

Riders in an assortment of all-terrain vehicles including Jeeps, trucks and buggies congregated in a mine reclamation area off Route 125, where they were briefed about the project and ensuing tour by Northumberland County Planning Director Pat Mack. Riders then traveled across Route 125 onto Blaschak Coal Company ground before traversing various steep hills, narrow dirt roads containing some litter, huge mud puddles and mountains overlooking a few stripping pits. Several stops were made during the trip to give riders an opportunity to stretch their legs and view the beautiful scenery and landmarks known to local residents as the "Whaleback," "The Projects" and "Blue Gill."

Sandy Winhofer, director of the Brush Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, was among the tourists who really enjoyed seeing the area that hopefully will provide the area with a much-needed economic boost.

"This is amazing," Winhofer said. "I've never been up here before and this really makes me appreciate nature and what our area has to offer."

Winhofer, who realizes the off-road vehicle park has its detractors, said, "I think this will be a very positive thing for the area. Riding will be more regulated with an outdoor recreational vehicle park. The park won't only help the county, but also the communities it will be located in."

Mount Carmel Township Supervisors Reynold Scicchitano and Joseph Zanella also agreed that the park will help bring revenue into the area since riders will need to purchase food, buy gas and seek lodging, in addition to paying a fee for using the park.

Mack, who said he was grateful for the fine turnout at the tour on a beautiful fall afternoon,

said approximately 6,000 acres of abandoned coal lands stretching from Mount Carmel Township to Zerbe Township will be used for the park. Sunday's tour covered approximately 3,000 acres on the western section of the property covering Coal, East Cameron, West Cameron and Zerbe townships.

Kathy Jeremiah, grants manager for the county planning department and off-highway vehicle park coordinator, who has spearheaded the project since its inception, said she appreciated a $400,000 grant recently received by the county from DCNR.

"The grant process was very competitive and we certainly were hoping for more money since we applied for $3.5 million," Jeremiah said. "But the $400,000 grant was one of the largest amounts distributed by DCNR to a single project."

Jeremiah said she plans to apply for another state grant in the spring.

DCNR awarded $23 million for 189 conservation and recreation projects in 65 counties throughout the state.

Jeremiah said the grant will be used for phase I of the project, which involves developing a master site development plan. The plan includes construction of an access road, parking, access for people with disabilities, trail construction, signs and other related improvements.

Barry Yorwarth, full-size OHV representative and park development liaison, said the master site development plan is scheduled to be completed in January. Yorwarth said once the master site development plan is finalized, officials will be able to determine a more accurate cost of the entire project.

"We still need some nuts and bolts answers before we guess at a cost figure," Yorwarth said. "The potential for this project is phenomenal, but it all boils down to acquiring the proper funding."

Dunn said the Anthracite Outdoor Recreation Area will become the second Keystone site. She said a similar sized off-highway vehicle park is located in Rock Run in Cambria County in the western part of the state.

"We are focused on this area because of the recreational and environmental remediation opportunities that exist here," Dunn said. "The proposal we received for this project is a very good plan developed by a professional staff. It was the best proposal. This area is big and buffered and by cleaning up the environment, it will be a 'win-win' situation for everyone."

Norbeck, who is an ATV enthusiast, said he was intrigued by the project when the county contacted DCNR about a year ago.

"The county wants to take on a state park appearance with this project and provide the proper services," Norbeck said. I think it's a positive economic opportunity for Northumberland County."

Norbeck pointed out that the economic impact of state parks is approximately $920 million per year.

"The vision for this project is multi-faceted, but it will definitely have a positive effect on the overall economy, Norbeck said.

Commissioner Vinny Clausi said he appreciated the support DCNR officials have given to the project and is hoping the state agency can provide additional funding for the park in the future.

The commissioner vowed not to spend any taxpayers' money on the project.

Mack said Sunday's tour was part of a three-day session involving the off-highway vehicle park proposal.

The county will host a workshop from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. today at Masser's Banquet Hall that will be conducted by the Pennsylvania Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Association, in cooperation with the National OHV Conservation Council (NOHVCC).

According to Mack, NOHVCC is the premier resource in off-road trail designs and ideas, and is the leading authority in the industry for ensuring there are sufficient lands available for off-road enthusiasts. Mack said NOHVCC, an education non-profit organization, has worked on the California state off-road system and OHV parks, including the Hatfield and McCoy trail system in West Virginia.

Today's workshop is open to anyone, but Mack noted the information provided will focus on broader items, such as the industry in whole, and will not localize issues concerning the recreation area.

Mack invited the public to attend an input session scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday inside Shamokin Area Middle/High School auditorium.

At Tuesday's meeting, consultants from Pashek Associates will present a summary of economic development projections from similar facilities, review a draft of the proposed concept plan for the facility, discuss potential park operations and the life safety management system, discuss potential rules, present recommendations regarding the proposed hunting policy for the property and summarize research findings on fee structures of similar areas.

In addition, Mack said there will be economic data and concept maps and an information session to allow the public to ask questions, provide comments and suggestions to the consultants and project study committee.