Senator Bob Casey Jr. Looks Over the Susquehanna River
BY KRISTIN DETTERLINE-MUNRO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL PERSICO
Senator Bob Casey Jr. at an overlook of the Susquehanna River close to the Wright’s Ferry Bridge
On any given day, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey Jr. is juggling several local, national, and international projects at once. Although each is important for its own reasons, certain initiatives carry with them special meaning. For Casey, the Susquehanna National Gateway Heritage Area Act is one such project. “It does have a personal connection for me,” says Casey, a Scranton native who has been a US senator since 2007. “My father [and former Pennsylvania governor], Robert Casey, started the Pennsylvania Heritage Area Program, and it still continues to play such an important role in the commonwealth’s history.”
Senator Casey introduced the Susquehanna National Gateway Heritage Area Act in 2008 and fought throughout last year to have it approved. In June he reintroduced the act, and it currently awaits action by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
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As the name suggests, a national heritage area is a location with natural, cultural, and historic elements that lend it a nationally important landscape, as deemed by the federal government. Such a distinction would bring with it much-needed assistance, expertise, and educational resources through the National Park Service. The late Governor Casey, who was a US senator, like his son, before he served as the commonwealth’s 42nd governor from 1987 to 1995, launched the Pennsylvania Heritage Area Program with the development of Scranton’s Lackawanna Heritage Valley. It became the first heritage area in Pennsylvania in 1991 and was designated a National Heritage Area in 2000 by Congress. In its wake, 11 additional heritage areas have popped up across the state, including the Susquehanna in 2001 for its rich agricultural land, beautiful riverscape, and thriving Amish communities in Lancaster County.
The area made headlines of a different nature in September after Hurricane Irene and its record precipitation threatened the region with severe flooding, and senators and congressmen came together to urge President Obama to approve a request for federal disaster relief along the river. Casey was on the front lines of the natural disaster. “The level of destruction was some of the worst in 40 years, and worse in some areas,” says Casey. “The tragedy and impact that devastated whole communities will certainly offer a poignant reminder over the years to come. As much as we celebrate the beauty and the grandeur of the river, we also recognize the fear of destruction when it does overflow. That is the dichotomy that we live with.”
While the Senate delays consideration of the Susquehanna’s National Heritage Area distinction, the area has seen a wealth of improvements over the past decade through local and state funds alone. Mark Platts, president of the Susquehanna Gateway Heritage Area, a nonprofit dedicated to programs and projects in the region, works in conjunction with Senator Casey and has overseen projects like the creation of new parks, river access points, trails, and scenic overlooks along the river for kayaking, hiking, and bicycling. “As a heritage area, what we are trying to do is build awareness and the opportunity to improve the recreational activities,” Platts says. “We want to focus on preserving the landscape and then create high-quality facilities so that visitors have a good experience.”