Joel Dunn

Joel Dunn is the president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy.

Envision the Susquehanna

River towns refocusing on their recreation potential

Otsego Lake and the hills around Cooperstown, NY, don’t look anything like the salt marshes and sand dunes of the lower Chesapeake Bay, but in my mind, I think of the almost 650-mile stretch of water that connects the two as one big river — the Susquehanna.

The Chesapeake Bay is the Susquehanna’s estuary. During the last Ice Age, 20,000 years ago, sea level was more than 300 feet lower than it is today. At that time, the Susquehanna began at the southern edge of the glaciers in northcentral Pennsylvania and flowed to the Atlantic. Then, as now, all of the other rivers of the Chesapeake watershed drained to the Susquehanna.

Then, as now, all of the rain that fell within the 64,000-square-mile basin ran to the Bay.

When the ice retreated as the Earth warmed, the rising seas drowned the lower Susquehanna valley and formed the Chesapeake and the tidal portions of its great rivers as we know them today.

The Susquehanna’s natural history and its human history are equally fascinating. Although the river is unnavigable for modern commercial craft north of Port Deposit, MD, for centuries it served as a main highway for trade carried by canoes and small boats.

American Indians, notably the Susquehannocks and Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, as they are known today, had settlements along the river.

Later, as Europeans pushed into the country, their towns and small cities grew up along the river. Canals were constructed to carry barges around rapids and manufacturing flourished.

The towns and cities of the Susquehanna have recently refocused on the river. They recognize its great potential for outdoor recreation — it has scenic beauty, public lands, access to the water (though not nearly as much as we’d like to see) and interesting history to explore.

At the same time, the river faces unprecedented challenges from development, the fragmentation of forested watersheds by natural gas drilling, and other threats that result in a loss of the landscape’s environmental and cultural integrity.

The Chesapeake Conservancy sees the renewed interest, and the threats, as an opportunity to create even more public access and to conserve the significant natural and historical places along the river.

This work is important because the Susquehanna provides drinking water to more than 6 million people and half of the freshwater flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. Environmental problems here affect not only those within the river’s basin, but the entire Chesapeake Bay community.

The Conservancy has implemented a community-based conservation program called Envision the Susquehanna to develop a conservation vision for the future of the river. The program works through a core team of partners made up of the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies, Wildlife Management Institute, Susquehanna Greenway Partnership, and Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The team recently launched the initiative’s website,, and will be working in the coming months to engage communities and stakeholders in creating a common vision for the Susquehanna River that focuses on environmental integrity, economic development, cultural engagement and outdoor experience.

The ultimate goal is to build an increased awareness of the natural, historic and cultural resources along the river; to create new opportunities to connect people to the Susquehanna; and to improve the ecological and cultural integrity of the landscape.

You can develop your own vision of the river. Go for a visit!

There’s a lot to do in the river’s valley. Learn about Indian history and visit archaeologically significant sites. Rent kayaks or canoes and explore the gorges and rock formations. Tour by paddleboat, explore towns and visit the state parks along the way.

For inspiration, I suggest checking out the Envision the Susquehanna website for an overview to learn more about the initiative and for opportunities to share your vision for the Susquehanna.

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Joel Dunn

Joel Dunn is the president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy.


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