Driving north on Interstate 176 towards Reading, Gibraltar Hill rests on the horizon like a sleeping giant. Just a short time ago, an approved subdivision plan would have cleared the dense woodlands and forever altered the skyline.
On Monday, June 22, a group of government officials and conservationists gathered to celebrate its preservation by Natural Lands Trust and recent transfer to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry.
The 234-acre property is located in Robeson and Cumru Townships, just three miles southeast of downtown Reading. When trees drop their leaves in winter, the property’s forested hilltop provides stunning, 360-degree views of Reading and the surrounding area. Those views and Gibraltar Hill’s beautiful woodland habitat would have been developed into 34 home sites under the development plan. A two-year conservation effort, led by Natural Lands Trust and the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), brought together federal, state, and private funds to purchase the property as a new addition to the state forest system.
“Gibraltar Hill will stand as a powerful, visible reminder of how important open spaces are to us all,” said Molly Morrison, Natural Lands Trust’s president. “Under the Bureau of Forestry’s care, generations of Pennsylvanians will have the opportunity to explore its woods and enjoy the countless benefits of time spent in nature.”
According to DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn, Gibraltar Hill will be the first forested property in Berks County managed by the Bureau of Forestry’s William Penn Forest District to demonstrate best practices to local residents looking to wisely manage and conserve their woods.
“It heartens me to hear from our foresters that the local communities really are excited by this purchase and transfer of what had been the largest, privately owned woodland tract in central Berks County,” Dunn said. “The collaborative effort bringing so many parties here today reflects more than an interest in conservation. The beauty and outdoor recreation this tract provides is in our self-interest, making our citizens healthier and attracting the residents and visitors who support our communities economically.”
The Bureau of Forestry expects to have trails at Gibraltar Hill ready for the public later this year.
The federal Highlands Conservation Act, a fund established to protect an almost unbroken band of forested hills running through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—including this portion of Berks County, provided leadership funding for the preservation of Gibraltar Hill.
Congressmen Pat Meehan (PA-7) and Ryan Costello (PA-6) reinforced the significant role that federal support for conservation has played in preserving important landscapes in Pennsylvania and Berks County, in particular.
“I’m so glad Gibraltar Hill has been preserved so that present and future generations can enjoy its natural beauty,” Representative Meehan said. “It demonstrates why we must pursue open space and conservation initiatives in Congress. I commend Natural Land Trust and the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for their work in protecting this valuable open space.”
Representative Costello added, “We are blessed in Southeastern Pennsylvania to have incredible natural resources and equally fortunate to have residents and organizations committed to preserving these special places. The preservation of Gibraltar Hill demonstrates the effectiveness of the Highlands Conservation Act and underscores the importance of reauthorizing the program. All of the partners involved with protecting Gibraltar Hill can take tremendous pride in knowing their hard work will allow generations to come to hike across miles of scenic trails and soak in the tranquility of these woods.”
Gibraltar Hill lies within the Schuylkill Highlands, a DCNR-designated region at the nexus of two landscapes that have been prioritized for protection: the Highlands and the Schuylkill River Watershed. Allegheny Creek—designated a “High Quality” stream by the PA Department of Environmental Protection—winds around the foot of Gibraltar Hill as it makes its way to the Schuylkill River.
“I am so pleased to see Gibraltar Hill conserved,” commented state Senator Judy Schwank. “Our undeveloped spaces are some of our most important natural resources and the protection of these places is vitally important. Now future generations will enjoy Gibraltar Hill just as people do today.”
“Area constituents in Cumru and Robeson Townships are especially gratified to have such a prominent forested hillside in our Schuylkill Highlands region preserved in perpetuity,” said state Representative Mark Gillen. “Gibraltar Hill forms a panoramic backdrop for hikers and bikers along the Thun trail. The future outdoor opportunities on this natural gem will compliment nearby recreational amenities.”
Preservation of Gibraltar Hill also furthers the objectives of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI), an ambitious effort to protect and restore the Delaware River Basin’s water quality and overall ecological health. Led by the William Penn Foundation of Philadelphia, the DRWI is targeting eight “clusters” of watersheds within the basin for conservation investment. One of the areas of focus is the Schuylkill Highlands where high quality streams are abundant. The protection of Gibraltar Hill is an important step in maintaining the health of Allegheny Creek and waters downstream.
Clare Billett, program officer at the William Penn Foundation, said, “Clean headwater streams in the Delaware River watershed that originate in large, unbroken forests help ensure that high-quality drinking water is available to more than five percent of the U.S. population—or 15 million constituents. Preservation of forested headwater streams, like those protected through Gibraltar Hill’s conservation, helps ensure healthy watersheds continue to provide sufficient, high-quality water to area residents.”
Peter Howell, executive vice president of the Open Space Institute, which administers some conservation grants for the William Penn Foundation, said, “The Open Space Institute is extremely pleased to support for this outstanding project with a grant to Natural Lands Trust through its Bayshore Highlands Fund capitalized by the William Penn Foundation. This project protects forest and water resources in the Delaware watershed. Forests play a critical role in ensuring a reliable supply of clean water, in turn helping to meet human needs and strengthen our communities. These projects showcase the value of innovative and thoughtful collaborative initiatives in preserving water quality for millions of residents in the region.”
At the conclusion of the program, officials joined in planting American chestnut trees as part of a larger effort to restore the nearly extinct tree to the landscape. Once very common in eastern North America—it is estimated that at one time fully one quarter of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains were American chestnut—the species was decimated by the spread of chestnut blight in the early 20th century. Scientists have worked for decades to breed blight-resistant cultivar, including the one being planted at Gibraltar Hill.
Funding for preservation of Gibraltar Hill was provided by the US Forest Service through the Highlands Conservation Act, PA DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnership Program, Open Space Institute, and the Schuylkill River Restoration Fund.