Scott Shepler says hello to everyone he passes on the Paxtang Parkway. The woman walking a collie gets a hello. The midday jogger gets a hello.
All these people might not even know that this stretch of the Capital Area Greenbelt is called the Paxtang Parkway, but they are enjoying it for exactly the reasons that Shepler strives to keep it from washing into the creek.
“I view these natural areas as respite areas from city living,” he said. “It’s important for us to maintain it.”
As the Harrisburg region looks toward a multi-million-dollar upgrade of the Greenbelt, the Paxtang Parkway—the stretch that could be credited with launching the Greenbelt movement in the first place—gets its piece of the action.
First, where is the Paxtang Parkway? Just where its name implies. Pop into a parking lot behind City Line Diner on Derry Street, where Harrisburg adjoins Paxtang, and you’re at the gateway of a 1.3-mile stretch of wooded, creekside path. This stretch has always been meant as an urban respite. Around 1900, renowned landscape architect Warren Manning envisioned a “necklace” of naturalistic, “wild garden” parkways, accessible by pedestrians and carriages, linking city parks.
Only two of those parkways were built, and the Paxtang Parkway, dating to 1906, was one of them. Vehicles actually drove it until Hurricane Agnes wrought devastation in 1972. The parkway went dormant until 1989, when two state foresters, Norm Lacasse and Ellen Rhone, were conducting a tree inventory and discovered this forgotten parkway. In 1990, they formed the Capital Area Greenbelt Association to revive Manning’s vision. By 1999, the Greenbelt was essentially complete.
CAGA board member Shepler remembers when cars drove on the Paxtang Parkway. In recent years, he despaired over its deterioration. The parkway snugs into a kind of ravine along Spring Creek West’s meandering Paxtang tributary. Runoff from the forested hillsides and output piped from the Kline Village Plaza storm water system were washing away the asphalt walking trail. Erosion on the waterway was pushing back the creek bed almost to the point of touching the trail. Manmade features such as encasements around sewer pipes were deteriorating.
At one creek bend, Shepler pointed to a small hill.
“When I started this, many years ago, that little point was much more pronounced,” he said. ”I’ve seen that thing walk back maybe six to eight feet. All the soil was washed away. It’s all gone.”
Rapid erosion means that large quantities of sediment wash into Spring Creek, with its precious wild trout population, and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay, creating cloudy water that hampers the growth of underwater plants essential to young fish and shellfish.
In 2015, Shepler teamed with Todd Moses, an environmental restoration specialist with engineering and environmental consultant firm Skelly and Loy, to write a plan of preservation and protection.
“The Paxtang Parkway is a microcosm of the problems plaguing older urban greenspaces,” the plan noted.
Here to There
Conditions were detrimental to water quality and infrastructure, but restoration could offer “immense quality-of-life benefits” for residents with limited access to natural areas.
Phase 1 of the plan is underway this spring as part of the Greenbelt upgrades—a $500,000 project to stabilize the most egregious erosion sites. CAGA raised $60,000 from the Kline Foundation, Trout Unlimited, the city of Harrisburg, the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority and its own coffers to leverage a $490,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Skelly and Loy donated in-kind services for planning and funding pursuits.
“You have to start out with money,” Shepler said. “Nobody will give you any money unless you have money.”
Within the overall Greenbelt upgrades, the parkway project adds “another area where we have an opportunity to prepare and preserve the Greenbelt,” Shepler said. “It’s hard not to be excited about all the improvements.”
These improvements, kicked off in March by state and local officials, total $7.5 million. Along with the Paxtang Parkway streambank restoration, projects include:
- Six intersections enhanced with such safety features as flashing lights, ADA-treated crosswalks and pedestrian crossing buttons. Shepler often takes children from the Boys & Girls Club on Greenbelt bicycle rides through Trips for Kids Harrisburg. “When you have a group of kids ages 8 to 16, crossing some of these intersections is really hairy, so I’m really happy about that,” he said.
- A long-awaited connector from Wildwood Park to Fort Hunter. Pedestrians and bicyclists will avoid heavy traffic via a 1.5-mile path from Industrial Road, under Linglestown Road and along the river at Front Street.
- Resurfacing near the PennDOT building on a former rail bed along Cameron Street between the Five Senses Garden and Paxton Street and from Rutherford House to Park Drive.
Along with the DEP’s $490,000 grant for the parkway project, the Greenbelt upgrades are funded with $5 million from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, $1 million from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, $230,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and $310,000 from Dauphin County gaming grants.
“You’re talking about a recreational resource from a biking and walking perspective, but it’s a community resource, too,” Shepler said. “People use it to get from here to there for various reasons, out of necessity and not just out of enjoyment.”
The parkway project also tackles the thorny issue of invasive plants.
All along the creek and in the woods, Shepler pointed to invasive plants, shrubs and trees. The tree of heaven is “really the tree of hell” for its aggressive reproduction and tendency to block nearby plants from growing. Japanese knotweed creates a tangled rhizome underlayer “that’s as impervious as concrete.”
It’s just a start, but Phase 1 plants reconstructed areas with native plants and funds planning for invasive plant control.
“The key word is ‘plan,’” Shepler said. “Implementing the plan, that’s a different story,” because control often requires the use of herbicides that only municipal employees—and not CAGA volunteers—can handle.
Still, it has to be done.
“If we don’t have native plants, we won’t have native insects,” Shepler said. “If they don’t survive, our birds won’t survive.”
Pointing to a meadow along the parkway that looks somewhat scruffy in the early spring but is planted with wildflowers and hosts a pair of bluebird boxes, Shepler has a message for those who like their nature manicured.
“Aesthetics, for some people, is the main issue, and we’ve got to get away from that,” he said. “It can’t be just about how things look.”
A couple with a toddler walked past, and Shepler said, “Hello.” Then he continued. “If it’s just about how things look, then kiss it all goodbye. It’s impossible.”
Future phases of the parkway project, it’s hoped, will reconstruct sewer casements and culverts, repave the trail and improve rainfall infiltration to reduce storm water runoff.
As many as 100,000 to 400,000 users, on average, enjoy different sections of the Greenbelt each year. Shepler believes that he and CAGA, an all-volunteer nonprofit, are at work for all of them.
“It’s saving a historic parkway,” he said. “If no one did anything about this particular problem, eventually it would have to be closed and a vital link in the Greenbelt would be gone. That’s not tolerable. It’s not something anyone wants to think about. We want to preserve and protect this valuable community resource.”
For more information about the Capital Area Greenbelt, visit www.caga.org.