A prairie in Lancaster County?

A $1.2 million makeover of a River Hills farm has given Lancaster County its newest and one of its most unique natural areas.

The 170-acre Chestnut Grove Natural Area near the county landfill in the River Hills of Manor Township opened to the public Saturday after an intense three-year ecological restoration effort.

The Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority owns the property south of Washington Boro and converted it to a passive recreation area as part of its mission of “community sustainability.”

The entrance with a 20-space parking area is located off Chestnut Grove  Road, near its intersection with River Road in the Highville area. The natural area is open seven days a week, dawn to dusk.

Though it offers many diverse natural features, and 4.5 miles of easy-walking trails, the undulating property’s main feel is some 85 acres of open grassland — thousands of native grasses and wildflowers swaying in the wind and buzzing with cabbage butterflies and the calls of red-winged blackbirds.

“It’s very unique for Lancaster County,” says Emily West, the authority’s environmental compliance manager who has watched the spot slowly spring to life. “There are not a lot of open native grass and wildflower areas in our region so it’s a great opportunity for hiking in terms of a lot of vistas.

“It has a little bit of everything for everybody.”

Not the least of which is a new 4.5-mile trail network that not only offers excellent views of wildlife, but also a new choice of circuit hikes in the area for county residents.

For example, there is a missing link for the Lancaster County Conservancy’s Turkey Hill Trail. You  can now hike from Turkey Hill all the way to the Lancaster County Conservancy’s Safe Harbor Nature Preserve, about 6.5 miles.

Just as welcome, the natural area trails connect to the highly popular Manor Township Enola Low Grade Rail-Trail that runs along the Susquehanna between Turkey Hill and Safe Harbor.

Now, you won’t have to walk up and back where the trail dead-ends at a closed railroad bridge. You can hike on a short but steep connector trail to enjoy the Chestnut Grove Natural Area network of trails and hike back to the Turkey Hill trailhead via the new section of the Turkey Hill Trail.

On an advance tour of the natural area several days ago, authority spokeswoman Katie Sandoe was stopped in her tracks by a foreign sound — the sussuring of wind blowing softly through grasses of various heights.

“It’s so peaceful,” she marveled.

Indeed, the wide open space does seem like a place removed from the rest of what you see in Lancaster County.

Attracted to its unique habitat already, a rare sandhill crane visited for several days in December. As we walked along, we saw an indigo bunting, bluebirds and heard a Baltimore oriole.

Wildlife observation is one goal of the restoration project.

The diversity of the site doesn’t stop with the prairie-like grasslands and wildflower meadows.

This ambitious ecological restoration project also features permanent and temporary wetlands, views of the Susquehanna, River Hills forest, streams, ponds and even a stand of American chestnuts, part of the Pennsylvania Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation’s effort to restore the great American tree to the landscape someday.

Elsewhere, about 30 acres of former farmland have been planted with trees and will be allowed to grow into a forest to connect with the surrounding River Hills woods that line the Susquehanna. The newly planted trees are enclosed inside fences 7.5-feet high so deer don’t eat them.

Some 4,350 native trees and shrubs have been planted, not to mention thousands of grasses and wildflowers grown from seed.

Once cornfields and pasture owned by the Barley family and its Star Rock Farms series of properties, the dairy farm was purchased by the authority for another crop: dirt.

Between 2011 and 2012, about 7 feet of dirt was removed from about 86 acres. The 1 million cubic yards of subsoil was stockpiled and will be used as part of the authority’s proposed vertical expansion of the nearby Frey Farm Landfill.

The authority hired an ecological consultant to work with the landfill’s open space committee to restore the site to a native habitat area.

The topsoil that had been scraped off was returned to the landscape and the restoration project began. An old stone springhouse is all that remains from the farm that once included a farmhouse and farm buildings.

Besides the farm, the 170 acres of the natural area includes smaller properties the authority has purchased through the years.

Wildflowers already are blooming, but give it a couple more weeks and the area will be even more colorful, says West.

Indeed, this is a landscape in its infancy; just the beginning of an ecological awakening.

The natural area will fill in over time, get more colorful and lush. But it will take tender loving care. Invasive plants will have to be weeded out. In the absence of bison and wild fires, the prairie-like fields will have to be mowed to goose growth.

This is not a wilderness area. A large power line passes through, there are several homes on the edges and the top of the active Frey Farm Landfill and a pair of wind turbines are visible.

But it is large and diverse and the look and sounds will offer a unique and peaceful experience for those who visit.

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