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Pennsylvania buys Susquehanna River islands for conservation

Independence and Bailey’s Island are now state forest lands

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
Independence and Bailey's Islands from the Harvey Taylor Bridge in Harrisburg.

 Gabriela Martinez / WITF

Independence and Bailey's Islands from the Harvey Taylor Bridge in Harrisburg.

A pair of Susquehanna River islands near Harrisburg’s Harvey Taylor Bridge have a new owner: the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources bought Independence and Bailey’s Islands for $160,000 in late January. The agency aims to preserve the land and ensure the islands are available to the public for recreation.

DCNR owns hundreds of islands on the Susquehanna. What made Independence and Bailey islands so attractive were their proximity to the state’s capital and the many habitats they sustain, said Seth Cassell, the Bureau of Forestry’s director of planning and administration.

“River islands in general are really valuable from an ecological and wildlife conservation perspective. They’re really important habitats, especially for birds,” Cassell said. “They also – being so close to the city – have a high aesthetic, scenic beauty value.” River islands often have a mix of wetland plants and trees that are ideal for species of egrets, the Black-crowned Heron and other migratory birds. 

Independence and Bailey’s Islands were put on sale in August by their owners,  brothers Robert and John Ensminger. The islands had been in the Ensminger family for generations, and for more than a century have been a popular picnic spot for boaters. There was once a push to get the city to purchase Independence Island for the development of a “municipal bathing resort,” according to a 1916 article from  Harrisburg Telegraph headlined  “City’s Chance to Take over Island is Slipping.” The same article included a photograph of 4,000 bathers “crowding the sandy stretches of Independence Island” during a heatwave. 

For a long time, a pavilion stood on Independence Island, but there are currently no remaining structures.

The islands are now open to the public under state forest rules and regulations, Cassell said. DCNR plans to keep the islands in their natural state. There are no plans to build structures, but there could be some opportunities to section off areas for camping or picnicking. 

“The value for people is just going to be knowing that they will be forever conserved, the scenic beauty close to Harrisburg, and  then just knowing that–if you’re a boater or kayaker or people enjoying the river– it’s a place to stop, they know that they’re welcome there,” Cassell said.

Before purchasing the islands, DCNR surveyed the islands with a drone to gather background data. After winter, the agency plans to send a team of ecologists, geologists and foresters to explore the land on foot to gather ecological data. Cassell said there are some challenges with invasive plant species on the islands, such as Purple Loosestrife and the so-called Japanese Knotweed, which crowd out other vegetation.


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