The Pennsylvania Conservation Heritage Museum, a project that has been in the works for several years, is now under construction at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.

The museum, which is being added onto the side of the existing visitors center, is expected to be unveiled this fall. It will be free to visitors and contain exhibits on the history of the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) and wildlife management in Pennsylvania.

The construction site for the Pennsylvania Conservation Heritage Museum. The museum is being added onto the side of the existing Middle Creek Visitors Center.

The project began around five or six years ago when Bill Bower, PGC retiree, sought to do something with his large collection of PGC artifacts. Eventually the idea of creating a museum was formed.

When planning the museum, a variety of locations were considered, including a Game Commission elk range, Scotia Range, and even the Game Commission Harrisburg Office. However, Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area was eventually selected partially due to its existent facilities.

“Since Middle Creek was already established, we already had restrooms, we had staff, it just seemed to work well to just put an addition on this building,” said Cheryl Trewella, PGC retiree.

Part of the museum’s construction site alongside the wall of the Visitors Center. Once completed, the building addition will have walls separating sections of the museum.

In addition, Middle Creek has over 100,000 visitors each year. Particularly as a location to find snow geese during their migration, it attracts both hunters and people visiting recreationally for photography, bird-watching, hiking and more.

“Because of all the birds, and the pull particularly when the snow geese are coming through, we have a tremendous draw for the non-hunting public here at Middle Creek already,” said Trewella. “It’s a great place to be able to provide some additional education for that group regarding conservation and conservation history since they’re already coming here.”

While the idea started with Bauer, it eventually grew to include various PGC retirees and COPA members. At first, they hoped to raise $50,000 for a small project. But the PGC had bigger plans for the museum, and agreed to pay for the museum’s construction and other fees, while COPA was to raise $150,000 to go primarily toward exhibits.

The Pennsylvania Conservation Heritage construction site. The construction is being paid for by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which is funded by the hunters and trappers of Pennsylvania.

“With the support of the Board of Commissioners and executive office at that time, the idea took off,” said Mike Schmit, Conservation Officers of Pennsylvania (COPA) member and PGC retiree. “As the decision kind of firmed up to build on here at Middle Creek, the executive director of the agency at that time supported that idea and actually wanted it to be bigger, and grander than we ever envisioned.

“We never could’ve raised the kind of funds this would take,” he continued. “So the Game Commission is supportive to the point that the Pennsylvania Game Commission is footing the cost.”

Cheryl Trewella (left) and Mike Schmit (right), both COPA members and PGC retirees.

To reach the lofty goal of $150,000, COPA sought outright donations, held raffles, held 5K and 10K runs at Middle Creek, and sold inscriptions on pavers that would be laid into the walkways outside the building. After five years of fundraising, they have raised just over $164,000.

The 2018 Wild Goose Chase, a 5K and 10K race held to raise money for the Conservation Heritage Museum. Photo provided by Mike Schmit.
One of the pavers sold to raise money for the Conservation Heritage Museum. 4″ by 8″ pavers like this one are being sold for $200 and 8″ by 8″ pavers are sold for $300 (pavers still available for purchase here). Photo provided by Mike Schmit.

“We need to say thank you right down to the person who bought one raffle ticket for a couple dollars,” said Schmit. “They still are an important part of us reaching that goal and this museum becoming a reality.”

While the total costs of the museum are over one million, the funds raised by COPA will go toward developing quality, lasting and engaging exhibits that reflect the varied history of the PGC.

“[PGC Executive Director Bryan Burhans] said early on, ‘I want COPA’s efforts to go toward the displays,'” said Schmit. “He still wanted us to feel that COPA’s effort was to make the displays as modern museum quality as they could be.

Former PGC Executive Director Peter Duncan (left) with current Executive Director Bryan Burhans (right) at the Conservation Heritage Museum’s groundbreaking in April, 2021. Photo provided by Mike Schmit.

“He gave us that charge, we met our goal, we made those funds, and we look forward to those funds being used to make the educational learning experience in the museum everything it can possibly be using today’s modern technology.”

Now, Trewella is working with a company to design interactive exhibits that engage visitors with the long and varied history of the PGC.

“History sometimes can kind of be dry, so we’re trying to find delivery methods and different learning methods to bring in and engage as many of the general public as possible,” said Trewella. “What we’re going to try to do in the Conservation Heritage Museum is have activities in each area that both adults and kids can do to help them become immersed in the whole story.”

The museum will be split into sections. Upon entering, visitors will be greeted by the “Exploitation” area detailing hunting practices prior to Game Commissions, such as the overhunting of passenger pigeons that led to the species’ extinction.

“Some of that indiscriminate use of wildlife was the reason people recognized, toward the end of the 1800s, that we needed an agency to protect wildlife, to speak for wildlife,” explained Trewella. “So the game commission was created to do just that.”

PGC Commissioner Charlie Fox holds a punt gun that was donated to the museum. Punt guns were extremely large shotguns used to kill up to 50 ducks at a time. To protect and conserve future waterfowl populations, punt guns were outlawed in most states in the 1860s. Photo provided by Cheryl Trewella.

The next section is called “Enlightenment,” and details the period of time when people learned more about how to protect and manage wildlife.

“You go into that period of enlightenment saying, we are going to have to conserve this stuff if we are going to have it for our children and their children,” said Trewella. “That’s how it’s opened up, to kind of set the stage of why we’re even here as an agency.”

From there, the museum will have several sections highlighting different parts of the PGC’s history, as well as the history of wildlife conservation in general. By the exit of the museum, a section will honor “Conservation Heroes,” individuals who made progress in wildlife conservation.

Crate used to bring young eaglets back from the Saskatchewan province to boost eagle populations in PA.  The recovery program began in 1983 when there were only 3 nesting pairs of eagles in the state.  During the 7-year project, 88 Canada-born eagles were released in PA.  Today, PA is home to more than 300 nests. Photo provided by Cheryl Trewella.

“Different people like that we wanted to identify,” Trewella said of Conservation Heroes. “We also wanted to recognize those people that have lost their lives as a result of trying to protect wildlife.

“There were a lot of officers who were killed, who were injured as a result of trying to enforce these new laws. So we want to recognize their efforts and sacrifices.”

Trewella stressed the importance of change in wildlife conservation, and noted that the museum will show how the PGC and standard practices of conservation have changed over the years.

1933 photo of the first class of Game Commission District Game Protectors.  A variety of uniforms and equipment used by these early game wardens will be displayed in the new Conservation Heritage Museum. Photo provided by Cheryl Trewella.

“Wildlife conservation is based in science, but it’s not a black and white thing,” she said. “It’s still continuing to change, including with technology. There are a lot of things that we are now able to do that obviously we couldn’t before.”

The museum’s primary goal is to inform the public about what the PGC does and why wildlife conservation is important.

“When you look at the world we live in today, we share this world with wildlife and yet it’s not as if there’s a fence where wildlife lives on one side and humans live on the other,” said Schmit. “There’s always going to be a need for the wildlife science to try to determine, how best do we balance wildlife with human needs, and how can we coexist.”

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Emily Bixler was born and raised in Lebanon and now reports on local government. In her free time, she enjoys playing piano and going for hikes.