There is a spot along Route 985 south of Johnstown where a landowner’s problem and the interests of anglers have come together to benefit both, improving living space for wildlife in the process.
The landowners are Steve and Belinda Showalter, and the problem is flooding. The answer turned out to be the Mountain Laurel Chapter of Trout Unlimited. And, the result is a property improvement that provides fish and other aquatic creatures with better habitat, and fishermen with better opportunities.
“The problem started back in the 1940s, after the ’36 flood, when the stream actually ran closer to the road,” said Randy Buchanan, longtime president of MLTU and the coordinator of the project. “The stream was channelized for about a quarter of a mile to run up against the mountain, and all that water came down it like a big ditch and caused problems.”
One of the biggest problems was flooding, which came to a head in January 2010, when the South Fork of Benscreek overflowed its banks, covering the bridge and lane that gives the Showalters access to their home. That high-water event and others also caused erosion, stealing land from the property the Showalters had just purchased. To them, it was obvious that they would have to correct the situation, and likely at a considerable expense.
Then, a chance encounter brought good fortune.
“I was trying to get a permit at the Somerset Conservation District office when Len Lichvar overheard the conversation and suggested Trout Unlimited might take it on as a habitat project,” recalled Steve Showalter. “It was two years in the making, but it has come to fruition.”
Lichvar is both the manager of the conservation district and the stream improvement chairman of the TU chapter. As such, he has been involved with a series of habitat improvement projects on Benscreek dating back to 1991.
“The Benscreek in general is an ongoing Trout Unlimited project from about 20 years ago, ever since (fisheries biologist) Rick Lorson indicated the creek could hold a lot more fish if fish had places to hold in it,” Lichvar said. And, he said, data consequently has shown that the venerable stream is well worth the effort.
“When the conservation district did the Stonycreek reassessment, of all the tributaries Benscreek turned out to be the stream with the best numbers of game fish and best aquatic life in the entire Stonycreek watershed,” he said. “The Benscreek is a fishery often neglected, underutilized, underfished and underrespected by most anglers. But, by scientific analysis, it is one of the finest coldwater fisheries in the region.”
Buchanan estimates the club has invested about $30,000 in Benscreek work, including several thousand dollars to correct the erosion problem on the Showalter property. All of that money comes through MLTU’s annual fundraising banquet, which is held in March, and is used to buy materials. Labor is provided by volunteers, beginning with organizing the banquet and culminating in stream work.
“It’s nice to know there is a group of individuals out there with some expertise and willing to help,” Showalter said. “I’m highly impressed with that. It turns out they’ve done this for a good while, but this is new for me. I find it very exciting.”
Impressive as the Benscreek work is, it is only part of MLTU’s commitment to stream improvement. The club also has a longterm project on the headwaters of Bedford County’s Yellow Creek.
“We’re trying to get a permit for work over on Potter Creek,” Buchanan said. “Since 1990, we’ve probably spent over $60,000 down there. It was surveyed three times, twice during and once after we were done there. All the surveys have shown the numbers and sizes of trout have tripled. I’m proud of that work.”
That pride appears to be justified. Just as on Benscreek, MLTU is a hit with Potter Creek landowners.
“After the first projects in those watersheds, we never solicited another job,” Buchanan said. “People seek us out. It’s quite a compliment on my people that they do the kind of work that brings us those recommendations.”
MLTU has certainly won over Steve Showalter.
“They put 13 triaxle loads of rock in this project, and it looks like a professional job,” he said. “I’m pleased with the work and happy to have met this group. Now that I know them, I’d like to get more involved in what they do.”