Two rare bird sightings in July have drawn attention to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster County, but funding for the wildlife refuge continues to be a point of contention.
In early July, a limpkin, a bird normally found in Florida, parts of Mexico, and South America, was sighted at Middle Creek. It was the first ever recorded sighting of the bird in Pennsylvania, according to the Game Commission.
A few weeks later, a Hudsonian godwit, a medium-sized shorebird with a long bill, was spotted at Middle Creek. The bird had not been seen in the area since 1983.
Middle Creek’s sprawling 6,254 acres are situated along the county border between Lancaster and Lebanon and is most known for the unique birdwatching opportunities it presents. A lake is also open to fishermen and seasonally to non-motorized boats, and there are picnic areas, wildlife observation points, and hunting areas. Numerous nature trails wind through Middle Creek, including an 8-mile portion of the 140-mile-long Horse-Shoe Trail, which stretches from Valley Forge National Historic Park up to the Appalachian Trail north of Harrisburg. The Wildlife Drive, a paved road that is open to cars, bikes and pedestrians from March 1 to September 30, allows visitors to take a self-directed tour through the area and learn about its points of interest. Middle Creek is also the only conservation area in the state that has a visitors center.
But despite its unique offerings and immense popularity with birdwatchers, Middle Creek has struggled to maintain consistent funding since its launch in 1973.
Financial concerns have troubled Middle Creek at different points throughout its 50 years in operation. As recently as the mid-2010s, Middle Creek — also known to locals as “the project” or Project 70 — had to consider closing the public-facing aspects of the space, including the Visitors Center. This was a heartbreaking thought for many Lancastrians, especially those who have grown up around Middle Creek or who have seen Project 70’s transition of private land into what Middle Creek is today.
Even with the love that Middle Creek has been shown by the locals and by the thousands of visitors who come every year to see popular wildlife — like the resident bald eagles and the migrating snow geese and tundra swans — and even though the Game Commission’s revenue is back up in recent years, Middle Creek has not yet resolved its financial struggles.
Because the Game Commission is a state commission rather than a state department, it does not receive money through state or local taxes, like the sales tax. Instead, the commission is funded by the sale of hunting licenses, by revenue from natural resource extraction on state game lands, and by a portion of the federal tax on sporting arms and ammunition. More than half of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s funding comes from the sale of hunting and trapping licenses — but these sales have been declining over the years and, for the past two decades, the price of the licenses in Pennsylvania has not really changed, despite inflation. This is due to the fact that the state legislature, which is responsible for setting the price of such licenses, has refused the Game Commission’s requests to increase license costs. While this is a boon for hunters, it has affected how much funding can be given to places like Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.
As a government project, Middle Creek cannot simply ask for cash donations from the public, because the organization needs clear records of the money it receives. There are plans to set up a kiosk at Middle Creek so that those who come to hunt, birdwatch, traverse the trails or stop by the Visitors Center can donate via credit card, but for now, donations can be made directly to the Game Commission.
Brant Portner, who has served for the past two years as Middle Creek’s environmental education specialist, told The Lancaster Patriot that currently the best way to support Middle Creek is to purchase hunting or trapping licenses from the state, even if the licenses are never used. Other ways to support the conservation area include buying Game Commission merchandise like patches, calendars, apparel and mugs at huntfish.pa.gov, or picking up a subscription to the Pennsylvania Game News, a monthly magazine put out by the Pennsylvania Game Commission for hunters and for readers who have an interest in the state’s wildlife.
Portner added that depending primarily on licenses for funding is not the best idea going forward. He encourages residents who are invested in keeping Middle Creek fully operational to speak to the Game Commission and to its board of commissioners about Middle Creek’s importance to the community and request that the commission give the public other ways to support a resource as beneficial as Middle Creek.
“The Game Commission has been talking about this and needs to continue talking about it,” Portner said. “What are those supplemental incomes, we’ll call them, for a lot of those non-hunters or non-consumptive users? We need to look at what other states are doing, programs, or maybe not even look at other states — let’s be the leader and create a program.”
Despite the funding challenges, Middle Creek has continued to provide space for native species to thrive, given locals a place to go to connect with nature, and drawn in travelers who wish to see the wildlife that relies on the conservation area.
Although the funding issue will take time to resolve, Middle Creek is still working to bring value to the community through the events, programs and education it offers — usually for free.
One of those free resources is the Visitors Center’s newest addition, the Conservation Heritage Museum. The museum, which opened last year, presents the history of the Pennsylvania Game Commission from its founding in 1895 to the present day and teaches visitors about conservation.
Middle Creek also offers programs every month — such as a wild edible plant hike in August and a guided bird hike in September — as well as annual events. The yearly wildlife art show will be held August 4-6, and the Wild Goose Chase 5k Run/Walk, which raises funds for habitat restoration work at Middle Creek, will take place on August 26 this year.
To celebrate National Hunting and Fishing Day, Middle Creek will host demonstrations, talks and hands-on activities about hunting, fishing and wildlife on September 24 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be food trucks, a raffle to celebrate Middle Creek’s 50th anniversary, and the dedication of a time capsule that will be opened in 2073 for Middle Creek’s 100th anniversary.
Another way Middle Creek is commemorating its 50th anniversary is with its all-ages 50 Things To Do at Middle Creek Challenge. The scavenger hunt of tasks is broken down into multiple categories, such as “outdoor recreation” and “Middle Creek events,” and people who complete a certain number of activities in each category earn a 6 1/2-inch sticker of the winning patch from Middle Creek’s 50th anniversary patch design contest. The list of activities and categories can be found linked on the “Middle Creek Events and DIY Activities” page on the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s website, pgc.pa.gov, and physical copies of the list can be picked up at the front desk of the Middle Creek Visitors Center.