In a low-lying wooded area just east of the Bluegill Pond, Shamokin Creek Restoration Alliance (SCRA) officers Jim Koharski, Leanne Bjorklund and Mike Handerhan lament the destruction of a wetland they and other volunteers spent countless hours creating in the summer of 2000.

"What the ATVs and OHVs did, they came in here, they ran over the sandbag piles trying to get up through, and that destroyed everything," said Koharski, president of the nonprofit organization founded in 1996. "They tried to drive over them, they tried to drive through them."

There had been ferns growing 5 to 6 feet tall in this remote span of forest and abandoned mine land in eastern Zerbe Township, near the Coal Township line.

"It was gorgeous. It was beautiful," said Bjorklund, one of SCRA's directors.

It's not the only area of the Carbon Run Watershed, part of the Shamokin Creek Watershed, that has been negatively impacted by unrestricted off-highway vehicle (OHV) use.

A small, unnamed tributary that flows out of the Bluegill joins Carbon Run a short distance downstream near Site 42, one of SCRA's first treatment projects, created in 1999. Site 42 is an important part of the watershed cleanup effort because its two large

ponds filled with mushroom soil help filter metals from mine water draining from the North Mountain Tunnel of the Bear Valley Mine.

Dirt roads parallel each side of the ponds. One is an access road. The second was built to allow ATV riders to get past the pond without disturbing the access road, which was gated by SCRA to keep Site 42 protected from erosion and human disturbance.

"We put this (second) road in for ATVers to go around our ponds," Koharski said.

But it didn't work. Instead, riders destroyed the gate blocking the access road - not once, but twice, the second time cutting the posts off at the ground with acetylene torches.

They damaged two other nearby gates, too.

Not only that, but local Boy Scouts had constructed and placed bird houses near Site 42.

"They went out of their way and ran over them," Koharski said. "They picked them up and threw them in the ponds."

Working further east, there is the "finishing pond," where the water from Site 42 gets a final filtering before it is discharged into Carbon Run. Koharski recalled on one of his visits finding an ice chest jammed in the opening of the discharge pipe, which runs some 30 feet under a dirt access road. It was blocking water from leaving the pond, but Koharski was eventually able to pop it free by jamming a large tree in from the opposite side.

"I spent about two hours getting that out," he said.

With these and many other examples of vandalism, Koharski's assessment of the regard for SCRA's work, let alone the environment, by those who use this land is blunt: "They don't care."

Yet, in a irony as big and beautiful as the land SCRA is trying to protect, it is the OHV community that may ultimately save Carbon Run, and at the same time greatly improve the entire Shamokin Creek Watershed.

AOAA impact

The creation of the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) has changed everything. The AOAA's development, in combination with SCRA's nearly 20 years of groundwork, and the state's effort to clean up abandoned mine drainage, is providing the awareness, the funding and - perhaps most importantly - the control of the land that could actually repair its "disturbed" history.

In particular, the AOAA has received a $353,000 grant from the Marcellus Legacy Fund and the Northumberland County Conservation District (NCCD) has received a $90,000 grant from Growing Greener that will fund the $414,000 Carbon Run "Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) Abatement and Treatment Program." Planning work is beginning now, bids will likely be sought in the fall and construction is targeted for spring 2015.

Can the grant awards be attributed to the AOAA's development? Without a doubt, said David Crowl, whose two hats - he's a member of the AOAA Authority board and chairman of the conservation district - speak to the new partnerships that are sparking environmental cleanup.

"The AOAA has brought a presence out there, and it has brought the resources together to properly manage the property," Crowl said. "Hopefully, the other projects and money spent out there are going to be secure with (the AOAA's) presence."

While it's been rented to groups for various events over the past two years, the park opens to the public May 17.

"Thank God" for the AOAA, Koharski said, noting that a lot of AMD funding has gone to the western U.S. in recent years because of the prevalence of mining there.

Despite all their years of work, which did earn SCRA some grant money and definite progress in improving Shamokin Creek, its members realize it is the AOAA that has landed the region the game-changing Marcellus grant.

"I couldn't believe it. We were thrilled," Bjorklund said in describing how she felt at the news back in November. "It's a long, hard process until you get through writing a grant, and then you have to sit and wait, wait, wait until they tell you if you got it. And we got it, so we were very excited."

SCRA's past efforts definitely played a role, the organization having supplied "tons of material" for the grant application. If anyone knew about the scars of Carbon Run, SCRA's members did. The organization was already working on a study of Carbon Run for DEP and the federal Bureau of Mine Reclamation to get in line for bigger funding.

"As it turned out, with the AOAA park coming in, suddenly, it pushed us forward," Bjorklund said. "It was one of the few times when things really came together for us."

'Rich in history ... challenges'

The application for the Carbon Run work describes the watershed as an approximately 9 square mile area that drains a "significantly impaired portion of abandoned mine lands" in Coal and Zerbe townships.

Seven primary AMD discharges emanate from the upstream areas in the Carbon Run Watershed and there are many more smaller ones, according to the application, written by employees of Skelly and Loy Inc., an engineering and environmental consulting firm headquartered in Harrisburg.

From its headwaters, Carbon Run flows about 5.5 miles before it enters Shamokin Creek near the bandstand at Claude Kehler Community Park in the city.

Both Carbon Run and its three unnamed tributaries are listed as impaired by DEP. Treatment systems will be established at the headwaters, the Bluegill and at Site 42, and erosion control measures will be put in place along access roads.

"The watershed is rich in history, recreational opportunities and, unfortunately, significant environmental challenges," says the application.

Koharski can take you directly to the origin of those challenges.

At the headwaters

It's about a four-mile drive on rocky, rutted, dirt roads from the Bear Valley patches off Route 125 to the headwaters. Along the way are beautiful areas where the forest seems undisturbed. Elsewhere, for nearly as far as the eye can see, the land is being clear-cut of trees by coal companies selling the wood for cogeneration. And at least three strip-mining operations are under way in the Carbon Run Watershed.

The headwaters, toured on Jan. 9 with Koharski, Bjorklund and Handerhan, SCRA secretary, before the majority of this winter's snow had fallen, are marked by a pond that formed years ago from the outfall of an abandoned stripping pit. Go about one mile directly north from this site, across the mountain, and you'd be on Route 225 at about the Dollar General store in Zerbe Township.

On this sunny but cold winter day, the outer edges of the pond, about a half-acre in size, are iced over. The southern end of the pond tapers to a creek channel only a few feet wide. A hundred yards downstream, it trickles downhill into another small stripping pond before exiting once again as a small, slow-flowing stream.

"Most of it's aluminum," Koharski said about the metals that are polluting the pond, which, in fact, is known as the Aluminum Pond. "Before this re-mining started, this used to be a nice swimming hole and a party place for the ATVers," he said. "Nice, quiet, kept out of the way."

Usually, the water stayed in this pond and it wasn't affecting Carbon Run, but with the re-mining, it has raised the water level and more is now draining into the run.

Koharski's not complaining about the new mining. In fact, the more that gets done the better. Today's strip-mining operations "daylight" the old mines, get the coal out, then fill in the holes. That prevents rainwater from seeping into the mines and creating more AMD.

For that matter, Koharski says, while people tend to complain about pollution from culm- and coal-burning power plants, those operations are exacerbating the cleanup of waste coal and abandoned underground mines, a net improvement for the environment as he sees it.

Even getting to the headwaters with an SUV was nearly impossible before the re-mining began, and it certainly wouldn't be possible to get the heavy equipment in that will be needed for the treatment projects without the improved, if still rudimentary, road system.

Koharski said they'll dredge the area where the Aluminum Pond begins to taper, then put 400 to 500 tons of limestone in, covered by a geotextile blanket, then soil.

"The geotextile will prevent oxygen from interfering with the process," he said. "The water will flow right through the limestone, coat it and come out the other end, and the aluminum will drop out," he explained.

In the grant language, it says the limestone will raise the pH and neutralize the acidity.

The two AMD sources at the headwaters were identified and the remediation plan developed with funding from one of three Trout Unlimited grants provided to SCRA in 2013, according to the grant application.

The Bluegill

About three-quarters of a mile northeast of the headwaters, back toward Shamokin, is the manmade Bluegill Pond. That project area includes four AMD seeps that help form a small stream described in the grant as the north branch of Carbon Run.

Off the east side of a steep section of road leading down to the pond is Site 39; surfacing on the southeastern side of the Bluegill are Sites 40A, 40B and 40C. Again, the remediation project will use "simple passive treatment techniques with limestone and wetland features" at the Bluegill, according to the grant application.

The plan is to use an existing wetland and also create a new one.

The existing wetland is the one described at the beginning of this story that SCRA created back in 2000 and was damaged by riders.

Northwestern cadets helped SCRA members fill and place some 400 sandbags, plant wetland plants and even put some limestone in the creek channel. Koharski said he tried to get the county to listen about the destruction.

"To my knowledge, there should have been no one back in here," he said. "They knew this was wetlands."

And there is another recent change noticed on this visit: A new section of dirt road has been cut through the wetland, likely for the mining or timbering that's taking place. It serves as an example of the many ownership interests and projects under way in an area where it's hard to know the location of property lines and who can do what.

"I'm disappointed it happened; that's all I'm going to say," Koharski said.

Are they bitter about such things?

"We're steaming," Leanne answers, but she's laughing. Turning serious, she adds, "We don't want to ruin relationships."

Nearby, a 10-foot-long footbridge made of two logs and two planks lies across the tributary in the wetlands. It's another disruption of the flow of water and nature's ability to clean it up.

When the new wetlands are constructed, and with the control of the AOAA, SCRA officers are hopeful the problems won't be repeated.

"If that's going to be the last time they come in here and do the mining here, and once they're finished, they're gone - I'm happy," Koharski said.

And though they were damaged, the wetlands first created by SCRA have improved the water quality.

"There are some fish in the tributary (that flows out of the Bluegill); I saw them in July," Koharski said.

Prior to SCRA's work there was none.

In fact, there are fish in most of Carbon Run, from just a short distance below the headwaters all the way to Pine and Sixth streets in Shamokin. Not trout, mind you, Koharski says, but fish nonetheless, and the insects and other food they need. The limestone treatment coming should allow even more to survive.

SCRA anticipates the park's ATV riders, locals and otherwise, will be more cognizant of their environmental impact.

"A lot of the ATVers, they're well educated people; they are respectful of nature," Bjorklund said. "They're probably sick, too, when they see some of this stuff."

"Plus, you have people coming in here asking, 'How are you going to bring your water back,'" Handerhan said, referencing people from ATV and motorcycle clubs. "They're offering service."

It's expected the excessive garbage dumping in the mountains will be reduced, too, through control of the land.

Working with AOAA

The relationship between SCRA and the AOAA is more than coincidence. People on both sides know each other, including Koharski and AOAA authority member Barry Yorwarth, who worked together for years.

"Barry and I have a good working relationship," Koharski said. "He's offered to help with the reclamation of the land and the water. In fact, just about all the members of the board are for reclaiming the land."

Among the committees formed from the AOAA Authority is the conservation committee, headed by Crowl. It includes representatives from NCCD and the state DEP, Fish and Boat Commission and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. This team is now monitoring what's happening on the AOAA land, which is owned by Northumberland County.

"Historically, it's not been managed at all," Crowl said. Now, "we pretty much have a professional committee helping the county manage the property out there in a professional manner."

He noted that the three core values of the AOAA are economic development, recreational opportunities and conservation and natural resources.

Crowl praised SCRA's years of work, and noted the cooperation with NCCD. In particular he praised the district's watershed specialist, Jaci Harner, who has done "a tremendous job in marshaling all the people together to make this project work."

Harner said, too, it's about partnerships.

"I think it's a fantastic opportunity" to improve the environment and help SCRA, she said about the grants and the AOAA. "When you can have two groups from the same area come together, form a partnership, have some common goals and be supportive of each other ... you can accomplish so much more."

Fixing Site 42

At Site 42, where the gates were damaged and the birdhouses trashed, there is a treatment system that looks similar to SCRA's Site 15 project along Route 901 near Ranshaw, but of an older design. It was the first project of its kind for SCRA.

"At that time, we were very tight with money," Koharski said. "(Former Commissioner Allen) Cwalina gave us $1,000 (in county money)." SCRA didn't use all the funds and tried to give the remainder back. Cwalina said instead to put the rest in the SCRA treasury.

Covering more than 100 yards along a gentle slope of land, it includes two large ponds, each about 25 feet wide, separated by a grassy area. The lower pond is divided in three by baffles, "curtains" that hang across the pond and about 18 inches into the water that slow its flow to help the metals fall out.

On the bottom of the first pond is piping, then limestone and then mushroom compost - a similar concoction that caused a controversy over its stench at Ranshaw.

The piping directs the water underground from the first pond to the second, with some going over the spillway and through the grass. But much of the piping is clogged, Koharski said, after 14 years of use.

He recalled the work involved in getting the project done.

"Can you imagine, five or six people coming out here, carrying 40 tons of mushroom compost - by hand?" he said. It had been trucked to the scene and dumped on a large pile nearby.

The system is fairly simple.

"(The water) goes through the mushroom soil, where the bacteria works on it. Then it hits the limestone," which raises the pH level, Bjorklund said.

"It works; it cleaned up the creek," Koharski added. "There's bass living in that second pond. So it's still working."

As for the damaged gates, they weren't repaired after the second vandalism, and riders continue to use the access road.

"We're going to fix the road. I hope they stop them from coming in here," he said. "We want it blocked, that's all."

The discharge from Site 42 is unique in that it flows through a pipe that was placed under Carbon Run.

"This was kind of an extraordinary event to have a discharge pipe under the creek," Bjorklund said. It travels through the pipe for about 100 feet before dumping into the "finishing pond."

Of the seven primary AMD discharges in the upstream areas of the watershed, Site 42's is the largest. It's the second largest in the entire Carbon Run Watershed to the Site 49 Henry Clay Stirling Mine Pump Slope AMD, which surfaces at an old mine shaft on the inside corner of Route 125 at the "bus barn" turn just south of Shamokin.

The grant writers said SCRA's Site 42 passive treatment system has "performed reasonably well" since 2000, "but ATV damage and time has created the need for system improvements."

A final cleansing

Another old water-filled stripping pit, the finishing pond further treats the Site 42 water before it goes into Carbon Run.

"Carl Kirby (Bucknell University professor who has helped SCRA) thought it would be neat to use that as a final pond for things to settle out of," Bjorklund said. It takes another ton of iron out of the water every year.

Baffles will be placed in this pond, too, to allow more metal dropout, but no limestone will be used here.

Koharski recalled how he and a few others came to the pit one time with a row boat and a depth finder to see how deep it is. It's about 15 to 17 feet.

"To bring a boat out here ...," Koharski said, laughing.

Of course, he wasn't laughing that day he had to knock an ice chest out of the discharge pipe. And there's more disgust on this day when a large console TV and office chair are spotted in the woods near the road.

"New," Handerhan said.

The unnamed tributary that comes out of the Bluegill joins the Carbon Run mainstem across the access road from the finishing pond. Near that confluence, the water from the finishing pond and Site 42 enters Carbon Run.

At that point, it's had its final treatment, although SCRA would like to set up a treatment site some day at the Stirling pool, too, but the tight confines near the highway makes placing one there difficult.

Assuming 90 percent removal rates for "loading reductions" to Carbon Run, the combined projects are expected to remove 1.3 tons of acidity and 1.3 tons of iron annually, according to the application.

Creating a beautiful place

So what would SCRA's definition of success be for Carbon Run in the future?

"A place people can enjoy. Walk. Hike. Do their off-road vehicle trips if they want to, but to see something that's more natural, not this disturbed land, disturbed streams," Bjorklund said. "To be able to enjoy a real nice natural experience."

Koharski likes the idea of fish returning to the area.

"When I was growing up, at least you had a place to fish," he said in referencing the lake at Edgewood Park. "I'd like to have Bear Valley Dam (near the AOAA property) as a public fishing area. It can be done."

Handerhan says designated nature areas will be beneficial.

"It will be good for wildlife because you'll have areas that aren't going to get disturbed," he said. Now, such areas can be clear-cut, mined or driven through by OHVs.

Bjorklund imagines overnight camping.

"There are some very nice vistas here," she said. "The sound of water - just picture camping near the sound of water ... if you didn't have to look at it. Today, you don't want to look at it."

The grant and the AOAA could be the catalyst.

"If you start in one area, restore one area, people will say, 'Well, why can't we do that here? Why can't we do that there?'" Bjorklund said.

Control, respect

The optimism is welcome by SCRA, which has experienced its share of frustrations.

"Last year we got to the point where we were almost all burnt out; I know I was," Koharski said. "We were ready to toss in the towel."

"We felt we were spinning our wheels and not getting anything done," Bjorklund adds. "But it's a little brighter now."

Harner at NCCD agrees things have improved with news of the grants.

"Everybody's very excited to know we have this financial support and we can move forward with a pretty substantial project," she said.

Control of the land is the essential step that's been taken.

"I think with the AOAA park, there's going to be some sense of responsibility," Harner said. "With that responsibility there will come a little bit more respect for what SCRA has been trying to accomplish."

On the Net: Shamokincreek.org