Group envisions educational, recreational uses for ridge
EBENSBURG — A yellow shovel stood up straight, lodged into the ground at an Ebensburg area wetland Thursday, as a group of four students took turns reaching into a nearby hole.
From the hole, they would pull clumps of mud, which were then studied against a color chart.
The students, led by Environmental Studies Director Mitzy Schaney, were visiting from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown as part of a hands-on learning program that allowed them to inventory soil, plants and water.
“It’s important for them to have practical experience,” Schaney said, explaining that the students’ ongoing work at the wetland mirrors what they will do as professionals.
But student education is only part of the plan for the area known as Nathan’s Divide, said Dave Lester, president of a board of directors who are working to establish an educational nature center and an outdoor recreation area on the land surrounding a Cambria Township reservoir.
Named in memory of 6-year-old Nathan Riggleman, as well as the area’s position atop the Eastern Continental Divide, Lester said he and his wife, Linda, hope to create a nature center that highlights watershed education and environmental responsibility.
Water from the divide flows in two directions toward the Atlantic Ocean, eventually reaching both the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, he said.
“What happens at the headwaters effects everything downstream,” Lester said. “That’s all part of our story we’d like to tell.”
That story will be both “positive and negative,” Lester said, explaining that he hopes to educate the public about the area’s industrial and mining past that led to pollution of rivers and streams, as well as the ongoing effort to clean those waterways.
It’s a story Lester hopes will interest out-of-town visitors, as well as the about 2,200 customers of Ebensburg Municipal Authority, which owns the reservoir — commonly called Ebensburg Reservoir — and hundreds of acres of surrounding land.
Ebensburg Borough Manager Dan Penatzer said the authority and the nonprofit Nathan’s Divide group have an agreement — “an option to lease” — allowing access to the site.
That agreement has allowed Lester and other Nathan’s Divide leaders to build relationships with schools like Pitt-Johnstown, Mount Aloysius College and Saint Francis University.
At Pitt-Johnstown, those opportunities have been plentiful. Marketing students developed a logo and development proposal. There also are opportunities for geography students to map the area and for biology students to inventory wildlife.
“Nobody really has studied it,” Lester said. “It has been off limits to the public.”
On Thursday, Schaney and her upper-level environmental science students studied the wetland, using charts and reference books to determine the types of soil and vegetation present near the reservoir’s eastern edge off of Tanner Street.
“It’s a nice hands-on experience,” Schaney said as senior Joece Lynn looked in a reference book, attempting to identify a tree.
Another senior, Halee Sesock, worked in the muddy hole.
“It beats the typical classroom setting,” she said.
Lester said he hopes a brick and mortar nature center also will attract younger children, possibly from surrounding elementary schools. It may give those children an opportunity to learn about environmental issues and features that are not taught in traditional classroom settings, he said.
In fact, the idea for a Cambria County nature center first came to Lester while taking in educational information at a similar center when out of town on vacation, he said.
That was several decades ago, but Lester said the modern effort to make the center a reality began only a few years ago — in 2014 or ’15.
Ebensburg Mayor Randy Datsko suggested the Nathan’s Divide site, Lester said, explaining that he, Datsko and others on a board of directors are now steering the project.
Lester said it pained him to admit it, but he understands that not everyone is interested in environmental education, so project leaders have expanded their plans.
“Our focus is outdoor education and recreation,” Lester said.
A trail network looping around the reservoir and eventually connecting to a planned extension of the popular Ghost Town Trail has been proposed as part of the Nathan’s Divide project, Lester said.
On Thursday, Lester displayed paper printouts of proposed plans in the bed of his pickup truck. They showed ziplines, bridges and climbing walls.
For now, though, the focus is on trails, Lester said, adding that anglers have already beaten a decent footpath at points along the edges of the reservoir.
An intern, Chance Eutin, said he is helping to further develop that network.
Eutin, who also is one of Schaney’s environmental studies students, said he first visited the site during a class last year.
“I just kind of fell in love with it,” he said, explaining that he now works at Nathan’s Divide identifying prospective walkways and clearing paths.
Lester made sure to note that Eutin’s work is appreciated, but to make the full plans for Nathan’s Divide a reality, additional resources are needed, he said, pointing specifically to funding.
Last fall, the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies awarded the project a $1,000 grant to help cover costs associated with improving an access road to Nathan’s Divide and for purchasing bridge materials, said Angie Berzonski, the foundation’s program and communications officer
“We think that it’s a really cool project,” she said.
That road is now situated behind the Crossroads Alliance Church off of Center Street.
There have been other funding opportunities — even other grants awarded, Lester said.
The problem is, Lester and his colleagues have been unable to take advantage of some of those opportunities because they often require matching funds. And for now, the Nathan’s Divide nonprofit does not have money saved to match the sizeable grants they need to make the multimillion-dollar plan a reality.
That’s why Lester said his group is seeking a benefactor to help ease that burden.
The ideal situation, Lester said, would be for that benefactor to have an understanding of his group’s efforts to highlight water. A bottling company would be a perfect partner, he said.
“We are always applying for grants,” Lester said, “but grants can only take you so far, and you always have to have matching funds.”
Members of the public also can donate to the Nathan’s Divide effort through a fund that is managed by the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies. It can be accessed online at
Once funding is in place, project leaders can further their work to turn the area into a hiking, biking and kayaking destination, Lester said.
“It’s going to take a long time,” he said.
Ultimately, Lester said the goal is to maintain the Nathan’s Divide watershed, ensuring its longevity by educating the community.
“The place itself is just ridiculously beautiful,” Lester said. “The last thing we want to do is have it trashed.”
Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.