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The Pocono Mountain region is known for its picturesque landscape, outdoor recreation, and clean water. Unfortunately, irresponsible business interests and municipal officials are threatening the region’s outdoor recreation opportunities and unique environment.

Large-scale commercial and industrial land developments continue to spread across northeastern Pennsylvania. Too often, the public is not consulted about how projects ⁠— such as expansive warehouses, poorly sited gas stations, or other similar developments — would impact local communities. Consideration of the impacts on streams, green spaces, or the outdoor recreation industry is rarer still.

Poorly conceived projects are often proposed and pushed through with potentially drastic impacts on communities and the environment. Such projects threaten the small creeks and streams that make the Poconos region so special.

Only 2 percent of Pennsylvania’s 86,000 miles of creeks, streams, and rivers are so healthy that they are classified as “Exceptional Value” by the Department of Environmental Protection. Roughly 80 percent of these clean and pristine waters — which carry the greatest legal protection — are located here in the Poconos.

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Locals will know some of them by name—Tank, Paradise, Swiftwater, Devil’s Hole, Cranberry, and Tunkhannock. Each one of these creeks is literally “Exceptional” for its water quality and biodiversity.

Exceptional Value waters cannot be degraded in any way for any reason. Period. That means that developers and municipalities must take every precaution to preserve the pristine nature of the water during construction activities and operations.

Protecting Exceptional Value streams also protects a vital economic engine. Our tourism and outdoor recreation businesses rely upon these protected waterways. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, tourists spent more than $570 million on outdoor recreation in the Poconos in 2020 alone.

Tourists and outdoor enthusiasts do not visit the region to tour warehouses or to lock themselves in the rooms of their resort. They are drawn to the respite that the landscape and the outdoor activities that our vulnerable streams and rivers provide.

Regardless of whether they fish, boat or hike along these creeks, residents understand that the Pocono region is defined by its outstanding streams and rivers. Living near Exceptional Value waterways enriches the quality of life in local communities.

Many low falls like this are found along the path at Rail Gap Pocono Creek Preserve.

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A recent poll conducted by the Our Pocono Waters campaign in partnership with Susquehanna Polling & Research reflects these sentiments.

Two thirds of residents of Carbon, Monroe, Pike and Wayne counties said large-scale commercial or industrial development negatively impacts the local environment, including local streams. 97 percent think it is important to protect Exceptional Value streams from new, large-scale development.

The folks who live and work in these communities want elected officials to prioritize the protection of Exceptional Value creeks by advocating for smart development. 94 percent of residents polled agree that state and local elected officials should do more to protect these pristine waters from large-scale development.

Importantly, 73 percent said they are more likely to vote for a political candidate who shares the common goal of protecting and preserving Exceptional Value streams from additional commercial development in the Poconos.

Protecting our unique and precious waterways in the Poconos does not require sacrificing economic growth. Simple solutions exist.

Large-scale developments should be scaled and situated in ways that do not damage our streams and scenic landscapes. They should incorporate practices that reduce the impact of stormwater runoff from parking lots and other paved surfaces on our creeks. Natural wetlands and forests need to be preserved as much as possible, filtering out pollutants and absorbing floodwaters. Low-impact wastewater designs need to be incorporated from the start. These are simple accommodations that can be made with thoughtful planning.

For their part, municipal officials must step up and take stream protection seriously. No longer should development permits be pushed through without consideration of significant public

participation and comment. Projects should fit within the environmental aesthetic of the region. Community voices should be heeded.

Municipalities should use their influence and authority to include requirements that include stormwater and other pollution protections. It’s a small price to pay for doing business in such an ecologically important region.

There is a wide gap between public opinion and the actions of our municipal leaders and commercial developers. The Poconos can have exceptional waters and an exceptional economy. It just takes a little more effort and a keen focus on what makes the Poconos an extraordinary place—its bountiful, unique and clean waterways. Let’s make sure we don’t degrade what makes the Poconos so special.

Donna Kohut is campaign manager for Our Pocono Waters. Have something to say, and it just won’t fit in a letter? E-mail My Turn column ideas to Ashley Fontones at afontones@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Pocono Record: Commercial development may threaten the environment in the Poconos