By Leslie Robertson
NASF Foundation photography fellow
Today I met up with Jean Devlin, an Education Program Specialist in the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) communications department with whom I went on yesterday's timber tour.
We left for the Elk Country Visitor Center, a three-hour drive away, but not before stopping at my favorite Pennsylvania gas station, Sheetz, for breakfast. (I used to go all the time while at school at Allegheny College, so it was nice to get breakfast there!).
We picked up forestry technician Diana Ball as our tour guide for the area. She was full of stories and information about the leased camps in Pennsylvania as well as the history around the Elk State Forest. The hunt was on; we were on a mission to see some elk!
Our first stop was at the Elk Country Visitor Center, an extremely well-designed, LEED Gold-rated facility that attracts visitors from all over the country (and the world!) who are interested in one thing: Elk. After placing a sticker on the map, indicating my hometown, I met Raley Cogan of the Keystone County Elk Alliance who told us all about the history of the building and its unique qualities.
The center opened in 2010 and features a great partnership between the DCNR (public) and the Keystone Elk Country Alliance (private), which provided an opportunity for the groups to come together in their interest in elk conservation.
As I walked around the realistic dioramas and informational displays, I talked to Jean and Raley about the process they went through to deliberately design everything a certain way, such as the welcoming fireplace that serves to direct guests to the main attractions in the center and provide a warm gathering point. I was also able to watch a short "4-D” (immersive) video which explained the importance of conserving the elk population and the history of elk in Pennsylvania.
Everything was choreographed perfectly, from the pre-show where you met a female biologist and see her desk, to the “snow” which fell from the ceiling, and finally, the video screen opening up to wall-to-wall windows of an elk overlook at the end of the show.
I was also able to learn about the educational programs they have at the visitor center. They have been working on a distance learning program; the visitor center ships a box full of elk-related items and handouts that support the lesson, then a classroom can Skype in to learn about elk and elk conservation. It seemed like an amazing program, and they do it all with no cost to the schools! Needless to say, I was impressed.
We walked around to several picturesque elk viewing areas; unfortunately, we didn’t see any elk at the while we were there. However, I was lucky enough to encounter several elk cows and fawns grazing in a field while driving a little later in the day. Mission accomplished.
In the afternoon, Jean and Diana took me through several locations within the Elk State Forest, stopping at beautiful vistas, streams, and trails. We also made our way to equestrian campsites, which are reserved specifically for people camping with horses. We wrapped up the day at one trail Jean described as “real Pennsylvania” with sycamores, a small stream and waterfall, and flowering trees. It was such a calm, peaceful place; I would have loved to have hiked it a little more if I had time. Overall, a very successful day!