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PGC paying tribute to Sewickley’s Oliver

If you’ve been to state parks or public lands in Southwestern Pennsylvania, chances are John C. Oliver III had a hand in acquiring some of that acreage.

Regional parks that Oliver helped secure additional property for include Ohiopyle, Moraine, McConnell’s Mills and Raccoon state parks.

That’s just a small part of his work.

Oliver, 82, of Sewickley Heights, was honored by the Pennsylvania Game Commission as the first recipient of a conservation award named for him. He joined the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1970 and became its president in 1978. He held the position until 1995, when he became the first secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The game commission’s Board of Commissioners created the John C. Oliver Wildlife Conservation Lifetime Achievement Award to honor those who make substantial improvements to the state’s wildlife and natural resources.

Oliver, a former Navy lieutenant who served in Vietnam, has been an avid outdoorsman and an advocate for hunting and scientific management of the state’s wildlife. He is also mayor of Sewickley Heights.

“I am deeply humbled by the award and very grateful,” Oliver said.

The importance of land and wildlife conservation continues to be important, which was evident during the covid-19 pandemic.

“Interest in the outdoors was incredible,” he said. “People were going outside to enjoy all we have here in Pennsylvania with our local parks, county parks, state parks, game lands and forest lands.”

Oliver noted that during his travels throughout the country, when it comes to public land, “we are the envy of so many states.”

Oliver is responsible for preserving more than 200,000 acres of land in the commonwealth for conservation. His environmental tenure spans more than three decades.

“All of that land is now held in perpetuity for the common good, available to be enjoyed by everyone for generations to come,” the commission said.

While working for the state, Oliver led land acquisition projects totaling thousands of acres of state game lands in Westmoreland, Somerset, Cambria, Erie, Bedford, Blair, Mercer, Cambria, Clinton and other counties.

During Oliver’s tenure at the conservancy, he was involved in land acquisitions for the Great Allegheny Passage, from Confluence in Somerset County to Brunners Run, Md., and the protection of the Loyalhanna Gorge and Roaring Springs Natural Area in Westmoreland County.

“All of us at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy admire and appreciate John for his lifelong commitment to conservation,” said Conservancy President and CEO Thomas D. Saunders. “As a past president of the conservancy, as a leader in Harrisburg, and as he continues to support organizations now, John is personally responsible for spearheading many of the most important land transactions in the history of the conservancy, the Game Commission, and state parks and forests.”

Oliver credits his life’s work in conservation to his family, especially his grandfather, James F. Hillman, who operated a coal company, the Harmon Creek Coal Corp., in Washington County.

Hillman famously restored land after it was strip-mined, voluntarily, before laws required companies to do so. Hillman worked closely with Graham Netting, then director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, to develop a comprehensive mine reclamation process.

“I got involved very early and watched both of them in action,” Oliver said.

Hillman went on to donate 3,654 acres in Washington County to the state for what is now Hillman State Park as well as nearly 3,000 acres for public hunting land. These days, Oliver said he feels very good about the fact that so many people are involved in conservation groups.

“I feel very strongly in approaching conservation from a reasonable and balanced point of view,” Oliver said.

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