The original reason — after the Native hunters and homestead farms — was timber, immense white pine and hemlock spires felled by hand, hauled out by horse and rafted down to the West Branch Susquehanna on spring flood. Later it was coal, pick-and-shoveled out of narrow shafts or clawed up from surface pits leaving ugly, acid-seeping scars. Later still it was white-tailed deer, when hunters from Pittsburgh and the Mon Valley made yearly trips to humble camps tucked into hollows within reach of Benezette’s store, gas pump, phone booth and taverns.
Today more people than ever have a reason to seek Benezette and its wild surroundings. Their reason can weigh half a ton, crowned by antlers that could cradle a lawn tractor. Benezette is the heart of Pennsylvania’s only elk range, 850 square miles of second-growth slope and tableland, much of it state-owned forest and game lands, where 900 elk — the largest wild herd in the Northeast — graze, roam and rut. People from around the world come to see them, and the region’s once-meager amenities are changing in response.
“The popularity of elk has exploded over the past decade,” said John Straitiff, executive director of the PA Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau, the tourism promotion agency serving Elk and Cameron counties within the elk range, plus Clarion, Forest and Jefferson counties on its western fringe.
Pennsylvania elk weren’t always this abundant or admired. Seneca, Delaware and more ancient hunters stalked a native elk that thrived by the thousands across the Alleghenies for thousands of years. But as settlers pushed across the mountains, they shot elk at every chance for hides and meat, and felled the forests that harbored the herds. Ironically, Pennsylvania’s last native elk fell to a bullet near St. Marys, Elk County, shortly after the Civil War, near where the rebounding herd thrives today.
The state remained without elk for the next half-century. In 1913 the Pennsylvania Game Commission learned of a glut of elk at Yellowstone National Park and that Yellowstone elk could be had for the cost of herding them into boxcars. The Commission paid $1,500.00 for 50 elk from the Rocky Mountains and routed the train into Pennsylvania’s northern Alleghenies. They released the lot in Clinton and Clearfield counties and more shipments followed, liberated in the bordering counties of Cameron and Potter.
For a while the transplants seemed to thrive, then they faltered. But one band hung on, ranging along the Bennett Branch valley between St. Marys and Benezette. The dwindling survivors were their own worst enemy. They chomped and trampled crops outside St. Marys and farmers’ lawful crop-damage shootings whittled their numbers. Road-kills, trains and disease claimed others. By 1974, only about 30 elk remained alive.
Fearing elk might disappear from the state again, the Game Commission and the state Bureau of Forestry began working in the 1980s to lure them away from farms. For once the abandoned strip mines were a plus. The agencies reclaimed the scars and seeded them with grasses the elk favored as forage. A natural gas company helped, planting elk forage on pipeline corridors that probed deep woods. The Game Commission started a farm-fencing program to keep elk out of orchards, corn and hay.
It all worked. The herd grew, and the habitat improvements pulled elk into safer haunts where they not only stayed out of trouble but drew people to see them, especially in the fall rut when bulls herd harems of cows, clash massive antlers in combat, and peal out their haunting mating calls — known as “bugling” — at dawn and dusk. The first elk-watchers were just a few who had deer camps in the elk range; then the elk addiction spread beyond the plateau, luring the curious from across Pennsylvania and surrounding states.
Meanwhile the plateau’s rural economy sagged despite the expanding herd and the visitor influx, which sometimes caused conflict, blocking township roads, parking on private property, or asking for bathroom privileges at local homes.
“We saw even back then that we needed a destination up here, someplace visitors could get oriented and where basic services could be offered,” remembered Rawley Cogan, who worked two decades as an elk biologist for the Game Commission and now serves as president of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, a nonprofit group that educates visitors about elk and other wildlife, and protects and enhances habitat.
“The governor was from a very urban background. I had the impression that he thought Pennsylvania stopped at Interstate 80.”
The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), through its regional “Pennsylvania Wilds” eco-tourism initiative, began working on that need in the mid-2000s. It commissioned an elk-tourism management plan and developed elk-viewing sites where visitors can park safely on public ground and watch elk from blinds.
More elk-watchers came and a new vision emerged, with elk as the centerpiece of an experience that could blend the novelty of seeing a large wild creature with mild adventure, a sense of discovery and learning. The elk-tourism plan had already foreseen that a visitor center, focused on elk watching, could fulfill the region’s potential for a visitor-based economy while conveying a message of resource stewardship. It would take money and cooperation to make the vision real.
“At that point we were able to talk Governor Rendell into coming up here,” Cogan recalled. “The governor was from a very urban background. I had the impression that he thought Pennsylvania stopped at Interstate 80. But we showed him some bugling bulls and he saw people’s excitement. He looked around and said, ‘Let’s find a way to get this done.’ ”
Getting it done began with Pittsburgh’s R.K Mellon Foundation funding the purchase of 245 acres on Winslow Hill above Benezette, where most visitors already sought elk sightings. DCNR invested $5 million to build the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified visitor center on the site, and the self-supported Keystone Elk Country Alliance committed staff and volunteers to operate the facility.
The Elk Country Visitor Center opened in September 2010 and greeted 51,000 visitors from 46 states and 16 countries within the first four months. Annual visitation swelled to 411,000 during 2014. The facility has welcomed more than 1.1 million people since it opened.
“None of us predicted anything quite like this,” Cogan marveled. “You had a gut feeling this would work, but the response exceeds all estimates.”
“Our relationship with the self-supported Keystone Elk Country Alliance is a true success story, as together, we have been able to improve wildlife habitat, educate the public about conservation, support tourism and create local jobs,” said Acting DCNR Secretary, Cindy Dunn.
Most center visitors’ reactions are impressed surprise. The access road climbs from Benezette, hairpins upward through meadow and woods, then emerges at a handsome wood-and-stone structure that, despite its 8,500-square-foot dimensions, seems to have grown from the Allegheny landscape.
Surprise continues inside. Visitors browse a central hall rimmed by interactive exhibits. Often, elk graze in plain view beyond encircling windows. An “immersive” story theatre welcomes guests to a campfire on a deep-woods night, absorbing the story of elk and the land they roam. Trails lead away in all directions to viewing sites where elk encounters are sometimes close. “We consider this center to be a world-class destination,” Cogan said. “We’ve had people who travel the country say ‘We go everywhere and seek out this kind of thing. This is the best facility we’ve ever seen.’ ”
The center also serves schools and organized groups.
“Today, school budgets can’t allow travel without justification,” Cogan observed. “They won’t send kids out just to look at elk. So, we designed programs to support and enhance the curricula they’re teaching. Our education staff members are certified teachers whose presentations complement what a classroom teacher is doing in their school. We use the awe and impact of elk to reinforce ecology, biology, social studies, even reading and math.”
In its four years of operation, the Elk Country Visitor Center has defined and focused the allure of the elk, which people want to see but often don’t know how, and whose significance was not always apparent.
“Conservation drives the whole design and message of this center,” Cogan said. “We help people make the connection that what elk need to live are the same things we need. We believe that people come here and sense something meaningful.”
Local businesses have heard a message, too — that elk tourism warrants private investment and rural entrepreneurship. “Elk-viewers have been a tremendous boost to this region,” John Straitiff said. “Local people are starting bed & breakfasts, restaurants, breweries and wineries. But everyone knows it all depends on this remaining a place where elk can live.”
“People like choices,” said Doug Ruffo, who opened Benezette Wines at the foot of Winslow Hill after a 33-year corporate career elsewhere. “They can come now and see some elk, tour the visitor center, then have a meal, try some wine with a local name and stay nearby in a cozy cabin in the woods. But people don’t see this as a tourist trap; it’s still wild and beautiful here.
“I like seeing someone see an elk for the first time. We had a couple at the winery, and the man was a double amputee. They asked where they might see an elk, so we went out to the deck to look at a map and two huge bulls walked through the backyard. Tears rolled down the couple’s cheeks, they were so excited.”
“About 80 percent of the people who walk through our doors are families with kids,” said Brian Kunes, co-owner of the Benezette Hotel, a restaurant, bar and inn. “We changed the look and feel of this old place to be more welcoming to families.”
Some visitors are surprised, appalled even, to learn there is a hunting season for Pennsylvania elk the first week of every November. Since 2001 the Game Commission has allocated a restricted number of permits through a lottery — about 60 – 80 each year — to keep the herd stable at 900 – 1,000 animals.
“Within the 850 square miles where elk live across parts of five counties, about seven square miles around the visitor center and nearby viewing sites are closed to elk hunting,” Cogan explained. “People see elk in town [Benezette] or near the center and sometimes ask how hunters can kill ‘tame’ elk. I compare it to Yellowstone Park. Just because you can see elk around Old Faithful, that doesn’t mean that all elk in Wyoming are tame. If you go only a few miles from here, into the Quehanna Wild Area or the Kettle Creek drainage, those elk see or smell you and they’re gone. It’s real. This is no zoo; it’s an ecosystem and regulated hunting in no way conflicts with conservation.”
Appreciation for elk goes to the top of local leadership. “People who live in Elk and surrounding counties are proud of the elk,” said Elk County Commissioner-chairman Janis Kemmer. “Whenever we get company at home we take them to see the elk. It doesn’t matter how many times you go; it’s always marvelous.
“When I travel, people ask where I’m from,” Kemmer said. “I say I’m from the home of Pennsylvania’s elk herd. It’s exciting just to say it.”