BENNER TOWNSHIP — The new bridge over Spring Creek that a crew was installing last week will serve as a gateway once the canyon is open to the public.
“Nothing can happen until the bridge is done,” said Chip Schaffer, chief of engineering at the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Standing on the nearly finished project, he explained that steel beams on the old bridge were rotting, making it unsafe to drive over. The roadway, which extends from Shiloh Road, will eventually lead to a parking area, another step toward giving the public access to the canyon that has been off limits to
the public for much of the past century.
An exact timeline for when that will happen hasn’t been worked out. But it could be as early as this year.
Bill Capouillez, director of the Game Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management, said the bridge is crucial.
“We want to get the key infrastructure in place before we invite the public out,” Capouillez said.
The Game Commission is handling that project inhouse, using its own equipment and standard bridge design at a comparatively low cost. He said he expects the land to open to the public by September.
Benner Township supervisors had more conservative estimates.
The township is hosting a meeting about the canyon on March 16 to let the public know about the parking lot and trail that are in the works and to answer questions about the projects. Board of Supervisors Chairman John Elnitski said the meeting also will serve as a way to find out what members of the public think about the plans and find out how quickly they want to see the opening take place.
One approach would be to open it sooner rather than later. Another approach would be the slow track, allowing more time for developing the plans.
“We’re trying to be a clearinghouse for the public to get information,” Elnitski said.
Last year, then-Gov. Ed Rendell signed legislation allowing for the transfer of the land that for decades was Rockview state prison property. The Game Commission is receiving 1,211 acres, the Fish and Boat Commission 141 acres, Penn State 452 acres and the township 25 acres. Those entities signed a cooperative agreement earlier this year on how the land will be managed.
That agreement had to be in place before the state Department of General Services could transfer the deeds to the former Rockview prison property. That transfer has not been finalized yet.
The landholders — which will form what’s known as the technical advisory group — are finalizing how the cooperative agreement will be implemented. Supervisor Dave Breon said that includes determining when the public will be involved in the planning process.
Also under review is the site of one of the planned parking areas, which had at one time been a village. The Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission is involved in that review.
Breon said the township has to make sure it’s proceeding with due diligence. He said because of the historical issues, questions about the size of the parking lot and stormwater control, the projects aren’t going to happen immediately.
“We won’t be ready for an influx of people this summer,” he said.
Supervisors are also looking into setting up a trust to pay for projects and maintenance in the canyon. The idea is for a fund that’s separate from township finances that could accept gifts from private donors and municipalities.
Elnitski asked the public to remain patient: “If everybody just rushes out there to see the canyon, we won’t be prepared for it.”