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This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of our stories here

You have to drive through a gate and up a gravel road, surrounded by woodland, to get to a newly restored wetland habitat for amphibians in Ohiopyle State Park, Fayette County.

Along the way, you see some of the old outbuildings of the former Ohiopyle Therapeutic Wilderness Camp, a residential program of Pressley Ridge that provided mental and behavioral treatment for teens until 2008. The camp also left a giant swimming pool at the top of the hill.

Its removal was a centerpiece of the restoration.

“It was an engineering feat,” said JoAnn Albert of the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. “It was a bit of a marvel.”

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The site of the pool, about a half-acre, is between a spring and a small stream. Piping from both sources fed the deep pool, constructed of rebar and concrete. 

It was a liability, Albert said. So the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Bureau of State Parks, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Wetland Restoration LLC, and Beran Environmental hatched a plan to restore this area to a more natural state. Last summer, heavy machinery broke up the cement and buried most of it under the site. 

“We created a little series of vernal ponds and this wet meadow, which looks sort of lumpy right now,” Albert said. 

At one end is a deeper, spring-fed pool. Water bubbles out of the hillside and makes a slow serpentine to the bottom. It still looks a lot like a construction site, because the buttonbush, witch hazel, and other native species planted last year haven’t sprouted yet.

But the little puddles between the mounds of dirt are the main attraction in the spring.

Little Pools Teaming With Life

The animals they’re hoping to attract to this site are vernal pool obligates. These are amphibians that have to travel from the surrounding woodland, where they live most of their lives, to these shallow pools to mate and lay their eggs.

“A vernal pool is sort of an ephemeral wetland, so it’s designed to dry out annually or at least every few years,” Albert said. “The reason we want that to happen is to keep fish from living there because the animals that use it have better breeding success when they don’t have a predator in the pond with them.” 

The eggs hatch, the larvae develop, and the young leave the pool to head into the forest before the pool dries out. Albert said in this particular area, these amphibians were using road ruts and chance puddles to breed. There was a distinct lack of habitat. 

Toads mating

American toads make their way to the vernal pools to mate when the weather warms in the spring. They display a type of mating behavior called amplexus, where the smaller male toad holds onto the female with his front legs until her eggs are fertilized. Photo: Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

Some species, like red-spotted newts, were already using the old swimming pool, but are also residents of the newly restored site. Others, like wood frogs and the Jefferson salamander, rely only on vernal pools and will return year after year to the same pool where they were born.

Spring peepers, which are chorus frogs, have moved into the habitat, chirping like birds. American toads have been seen mating there, adding their trills to the soundscape. 

LISTEN to spring peepers at the site

Sand from a beach area next to the old pool was reused to create possible nesting habitat for turtles. According to Albert, the wildflowers and other native plantings should attract pollinators, too.

A Natural Resource

Barbara Wallace, an environmental education specialist at Ohiopyle State Park, said as far as species go, the more the merrier. 

“We were really excited about this project because we don’t really have at Ohiopyle a lot of great wetland sites,” she said. “And you would think that we would. We have 20,000 acres of this beautiful country, but it’s all headwaters, so water tends to rush off really quickly.”

Barbara Wallace

Barbara Wallace, an environmental education specialist at Ohiopyle State Park. Photo: Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

Wallace will be using the new wetland to educate kids from summer camps to college-aged students. The site will also eventually be accessible to the public. 

Wallace said balancing conservation needs with recreation is a constant struggle, especially with increased visitation to the already popular park because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“A lot of times, actually, some of our most rare species are in some of our most used areas,” she said. “People just don’t know that they’re there.”

She advises visitors to the park to stick to trails and hardened paths to avoid damaging critical wildlife habitat.

Ryan Miller, a zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage program said invisibility is one of the threats to wetland habitat. 

“People have been known to essentially fill in wetlands or bulldoze over top of them,” he said. “And in the case of vernal pools, sometimes they might not even know they’re there because they dry up. They might not be able to recognize the fact that a little depression that might be just a little mucky in the middle actually is an important ecosystem for several amphibians.”

Other threats are tree succession, where the surrounding woods encroach on the wetland, and the warming temperatures from climate change.

“The period when the pools stay wet could potentially become shorter, and they might not stay wet enough long enough for those eggs and larvae to develop into adults, “ Miller said. “We could see a shorter breeding window.”

The Bigger Picture

The completed project also included a stream restoration just yards away from the old swimming pool site. Four dams and a road crossing were removed, clearing the way for native brook trout to return. The $100,000 project was funded in part by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Albert said the stream and wetland restorations are special because often when people change the landscape with infrastructure like swimming pools and dams, it’s changed forever. That’s not the case here.

“This may look messy right now,” she said, “But this is going to be heaven for some of these little creatures that we’re targeting.”

For the toads trilling in the meadow, it already is.

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Top Photo: A spring-fed pond sits at one end of the restored wetland habitat. It may not dry up in the summer like the network of vernal pools in the wet meadow below. Photo: Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of our stories here

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