Spanning three generations and seven decades, the Mellon family has long supported efforts to conserve land, water, and wildlife, preserving millions of acres of habitat and restoring and protecting hundreds of thousands of miles of wetlands, streams, and rivers. In addition to positive ecological impacts, these endeavors have had significant economic impact, increasing recreational tourism and land values in the region, particularly during the last two decades.
Loyalhanna Creek Watershed
Almost a half century ago, the Richard King Mellon Foundation began to support efforts to protect and restore one of the Laurel Highlands' most important stream systems, Loyalhanna Creek. Flowing from the slopes of Laurel Ridge, the creek meanders northwest, cuts through Chestnut Ridge, and progresses to its confluence with the Conemaugh River near Saltsburg, where the two combine to form the Kiskiminetas River, a tributary of the Allegheny River. With a grant of $2,000 in 1973, the Foundation began to assist local citizens by underwriting studies so they could better understand threats to the stream and lay groundwork to enhance water quality and habitat. Early studies revealed that, although much of the watershed is covered with forests and fields, the stream was degraded by abandoned acid mine drainage, excess nutrients, and sedimentation from erosion. The Loyalhanna Water Association was founded to address these challenges. The Foundation has supported the group's work with partners such as Trout Unlimited, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and the PA Fish and Boat Commission, to implement 75 riparian restoration projects and build a passive treatment facility near Latrobe that treats 500 gallons per minute of acid mine drainage. As a result, this scenic creek is now swimmable and offers wonderful fishing. Work continues, but the stream is significantly cleaner than it was in the 1960s.
The West Branch of the Susquehanna begins in the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania and flows for 243 miles to its confluence with the North Branch in central Pennsylvania to form the mighty Susquehanna River. Scenic and historically significant as a major transportation corridor to the west, by the middle of the 20th century the West Branch was so degraded by industrial pollution, sewage, drainage from coal mines, and poor agricultural practices that it barely supported life. In 1984, testing on the Susquehanna River near Karthaus, Pennsylvania saw a pH of 3.9, aluminum loading of 18 tons per day, and iron loading of 26 tons per day. A toxic swill. Unsurprisingly, fish surveys in the early 1990s found only fourteen fish representing a mere three species.
Appalled by the degradation and undeterred by the challenge, twenty years ago the Foundation established a partnership with Trout Unlimited that led to a full-fledged restoration program for the West Branch. Aspiration combined with perseverance over the last two decades transformed the river from a conduit for pollution to a living ecosystem with a wide variety of aquatic organisms. Today the pH has increased to 6.5 (more than 100x less acidic), the aluminum levels have decreased by 87% , and iron concentrations by 70%. The number of fish species has increased five-fold and tributaries that were dead are now fishable. Two restored streams, Babb Creek and Sterling Run are now reclassified as Wild Trout Fisheries. An economic analysis completed a decade ago found that cleaning up the river and tributaries will result in at least an additional $23 million flowing into the region each year for fishing-related activities (based on 2006 dollars) and that the property along improved stream segments would see its value increase by approximately $2,600 per acre. So, the improvements have had significant ecological and economic impacts.
For the last two decades, the Foundation has invested in programs and projects to protect northwestern Pennsylvania's French Creek. With its headwaters in Chautauqua County, NY, the creek flows for 117 miles through four Pennsylvania counties to its confluence in the Allegheny River at Franklin, PA. Named by George Washington when he canoed its icy waters in December 1753 in dugouts that he borrowed from French soldiers, it remains one of the most biologically diverse streams in the northeastern United States. With 90 species of fish and 28 species of freshwater mussels, it represents a biological treasure chest, providing habitat for fish and freshwater mussels that Washington would have seen 265 years ago. Few rivers and streams can lay a similar claim. Because if this biodiversity, The Nature Conservancy listed French Creek as one of "The Last Great Places" in the United States.
The Foundation's investments in the watershed have supported three major activities - public education and outreach, so that people understand the value of the resource; stream restoration activities to improve those tributaries and parts of the main stem that have been degraded; and land protection, particularly of riparian areas, that help insulate the stream from non-point source pollution. The approach in French Creek watershed is collaborative, including non-profit partners, conservation districts, academic institutions, and landowners. The term "conservation through cooperation" best describes this effort.
Unlike many streams in the Commonwealth, French Creek is healthy. The Foundation's investment have aimed to keep it that way, paying particular attention to supporting programs that engage the people who live in the watershed. As a result, those who live there have erected signs on bridges that cross the creek that declare "French Creek: A Community Treasure." Their recognition of and commitment to this ecological gem is critical to its ongoing health.