Pa. Wildflower Preserve Has Uncertain Future
WASHINGTON CROSSING, Pa. (AP) – From its inception, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve has stirred the hearts and minds of those who found special meaning in its unique inspiration and lush natural beauty.
The 134-acre property, which lies within the upper portion of Bucks County’s Washington Crossing Historic Park, is one that defies convention, neither solely a public nor private entity. It’s that ambiguity has helped fuel sporadic but ongoing controversy and contention since the preserve’s beginnings in the 1930s.
And the debate continues today, as the nonprofit preserve association that’s been operating the property for 13 years is pushing the state Historical and Museum Commission to turn ownership over to it for $1. Years of inadequate state funding has undermined the preserve’s infrastructure, and association members insist they cannot raise the millions needed to support and expand the preserve’s mission without owning it.
“People are reluctant to give money when it’s state-owned property,’’ said Jim Greenwood, a former congressman and a member of the association’s board of trustees. He called the proposed transfer “an invisible change’’ that can only benefit the public.
However, opposition to the transfer from another nonprofit, the Crossing Legacy Foundation, has been mounting, Its founder, Guy Polhemus, argues the preserve, as part of the historic park, should remain in the hands of the public and not be “dismantled’’ by private ownership from the rest of the Washington Crossing landmark. A 99-year lease would be more appropriate, foundation members said. It has offered to pay Pennsylvania $1 million for such an agreement.
“Each part of this iconic park tells a story that makes up the whole narrative of the famous Christmas crossing, the turning point in the American Revolution,’’ Polhemus said. “The graves of 23 patriot soldiers are located at the base of the wildflower preserve that was created to honor and commemorate their sacrifice.’’
A bill to transfer the wildflower preserve to the association is pending in the Legislature, with plans for a public hearing later this summer.
To better understand the current controversy, it helps to understand the preserve’s past.
It was more than 75 years ago when the idea of a plant sanctuary that would both celebrate the native plants of the region and honor the country’s earliest soldiers was born.
Mary K. Parry, chairwoman of the Bucks County Federation of Women’s Clubs, and W. Wilson Heinitsh, hired as a consultant for the park, first discussed the idea of creating a distinct natural area at Bowman’s Hill in 1933. The Washington Crossing Park Commission, the state’s first park administrators, set aside 100 acres on the gentle Solebury Township hill to be designated as a wildflower preserve under the sponsorship of the Council for Preservation of Natural Beauty in Pennsylvania.
According to records at the time, the project, the first of its kind to create a preserve within a public park, was considered “a new adventure in conservation.’’ It was also the first such project administered by the Work Projects Administration, the Depression-era government public works program.
Publications from that period describe the wildflower preserve as being “established in this National Shrine to commemorate, in Nature’s own way, the valor of the Patriots who camped in these hills during the most discouraging period of the American Revolution, those bitter December days preceding Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware, Christmas night, 1776.’’
As the preserve flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, under the efforts of many garden and nature clubs, civic organizations and individuals who donated time, money and native plants, an undercurrent of tension was growing along with the greenery.
With the bulk of the heavy lifting of the preserve’s early development – the trail and road development and maintenance, forest management, classification and cataloging of species, and sign and labeling projects done by the WPA and other federal agencies, the groundwork for a power struggle was set.
By the mid-1940s, debate over who had authority over the expansive acres of trees and trails had escalated dramatically. Members of the preservation council were arrested, as they demanded the courts determine whether they or the park commission would control the future of the beloved property.
The state ultimately won the contest, hiring a horticulturist, botanist and a naturalist for the preserve.
In 1944, 15 acres of the property was secured as a memorial reforestation project, the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which now owns the preserve.
The area, known as Penn’s Woods, is now home to hundreds of trees, dedicated to a variety of people, from founders of the preserve to presidents.
Through the 1950s and 1960s the preserve continued to develop, with a working partnership between the state and an active “preserve committee’’ group of dedicated volunteers. Programs grew, with an emphasis on propagation and community education. A visitor center was built in the late 1960s and expanded in the early 1970s.
In 1978, according to PHMC records, the preserve committee was incorporated as the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve Association. Its first full-time professional staff member was hired in 1981. The association has grown continually ever since, adding numerous educational programs, trails and plantings to the preserve. It now has four full-time staffers and seven part-timers.
The nonprofit entered into a “placed property’’ agreement with PHMC in 1997. Similar to a lease, the agreement gives the association responsibility for all aspects of the preserve, with the exception of roads and major repairs to buildings and infrastructure, such as the property’s failing sewage system.
About 100 core volunteers donated some 11,000 hours of work in 2009, said Miles Arnott, the preserve’s executive director.
While supporters of the land transfer battle with those who criticize the move, each side says it wants to see the natural treasure prosper. But how that prosperity is articulated means different things to different people.
In the preserve association’s 2006 master plan, which has not been made public, three major projects are proposed.
A large, 21st century visitors center and courtyard would be built closer to the preserve’s River Road entrance; a canopy walk that would take visitors through the tree tops to observe the scenery is described as “the second major ‘wow’ on the site and will reinforce the sense of the preserve as a tourist destination.’’ The third piece is a nursery, maintenance and propagation center.
“We’re the best-kept secret in Buck County,’’ said Arnott. “We don’t necessarily want that.’’
Critics of the land transfer, like Polhemus, applaud the work of the association, but question its vision of the preserve’s future.
Besides concerns about the physical changes to the property, Polhemus has raised issues about future boards that will oversee the preserve.
“To whom will subsequent directors of this private organization be responsible to in the years to come?’’ said the foundation’s director.
But for longtime supporters of the preserve such as former Congressman Greenwood, whose home is just south of the preserve in Upper Makefield, say ownership is key to the ongoing success of the site.
“I can devote my time and energy to many projects that benefit the public,’’ said Greenwood. “I’m not that interested in just being a caretaker.’’