SHANKSVILLE, Pa. – Life is thriving at the Flight 93 National Memorial.
What was once an unsightly and desolate strip mine has been transformed to a beautiful tribute to heroes on a tragic day 20 years ago. Deer graze where a dragline once sat upon exposed rock. The water runs cleaner, and a new forest has taken root. The ecosystem is expanding.
Since the National Park Service and the Families of Flight 93 purchased the ground from PBS Coals in 2009, great strides have been taken to create a space worthy of the sacrifice made there.
Stephen Clark, superintendent of the National Parks of Western Pennsylvania, said it has been a journey of many steps to get the memorial to its current state.
“All throughout these 20 years, there have been accomplishments,” he said, “and the landscape has changed and the partnerships have continued to grow.”
Clark said with the initial construction phase of the memorial completed, the focus has shifted somewhat.
“So much of this memorial was not just bricks and mortar, but it was also to manage the landscape – hence the 150,000 trees with our reforestation effort,” he said.
“To transform this once-scarred landscape of a strip mine over generations to be a place of reflection, and a natural space where people can visit – and will for many generations to come – it’s extraordinary, it really is.”
A trail system that features a 21/2-mile loop, and a shorter Trail of Remembrance that leads to the spot where the temporary memorial once existed, are now in place for Flight 93 visitors and outdoor enthusiasts.
Like other national memorials across the country, Flight 93 has become a multi-use facility.
Clark said that although the park service always tries to stay within the vision of why the memorial was established, this site also offers recreational opportunities.
“Yes, it is a national memorial,” Clark said, “but that’s not to say that you can’t do other things that aren’t in conflict with the harmony or just the serenity, or impacting others.”
Some of those conflicts have come with requests to snowmobile, skateboard, ride horseback or hold yoga classes and ghost tours – all of which have been denied.
Coal legacy, AMD treatment
Having a natural resource manager on staff is an example of the park service’s commitment to the land.
“There’s no doubt that the ecosystems that we’ve created, we want to maintain,” said Clark, who emphasized the challenge of managing federal land.
“Maintaining the intent of the memorial, but all while doing that, there are other things that we can accomplish to bring visitors to these grounds and enjoy nature, and all the while be one with the spirit of the memorial as well.”
Once blanketed by virgin timber, the coal-rich ground at the site has been surface- and deep-mined as far back as 1934. Before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, mining companies did not have to operate in a way that was protective of the environment.
Acid mine drainage (AMD) from mainly Heinemeyer Mine operations prior to 1945 caused discharges that still flow into Lambert’s Run, a tributary of the Stonycreek River. From the 1960s to 2003, the land was heavily mined by companies such as Diamond T Coal Co., Reitz Coal, Rox Coal and – most recently – PBS Coals.
When Flight 93 crashed, PBS was already operating a water-treatment site, but the system would have been in plain view of visitors and interfered with the design of the proposed memorial. Within seven years of the tragedy, DEP entered into binding agreements with PBS Coals and the Families of Flight 93, creating a trust fund to “treat discharges for iron in perpetuity.”
A large dragline excavator was removed from a prominent highpoint, and much of the ground was reseeded.
In 2012, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement made available $312,000 to the memorial for a chemical-free passive-treatment system of limestone beds, ponds and aeration that was installed near the administrative buildings, cleverly hidden from visitors. The following year, a 1.2-acre wetlands was installed closer to the crash site.
Len Lichvar, district manager of the Somerset Conservation District and vice chairman of the Stonycreek Conemaugh River Improvement Project (SCRIP), was working on water treatment at the site several years before the plane crashed, as those organizations were in negotiations with PBS Coals to minimize the amount of AMD entering Lambert’s Run.
He remembered how they were on the verge of putting a plan together when the tragedy occurred.
“Everything stopped,” he said.
Healing ‘a scarred landscape’
The fuselage of the plane pierced the ground near a closed underground mine filled with water. Contaminated with iron and manganese, the water began to leak into the surrounding watershed despite PBS Coals’ active and passive treatment systems.
“What we were going to try and do,” Lichvar said, “Flight 93 made it happen.”
A key section of the upper Stonycreek had become an established fishery by that time, and Lambert’s Run was keeping that waterway from progressing any further. Lichvar knew then that the tragedy would directly impact the land that he referred to as “a moonscape.”
“They knew it was going to be a national memorial,” Lichvar said. “They didn’t want mine drainage or a scarred landscape.”
Downstream on Lambert’s Run, SCRIP installed an additional passive treatment system on park service property that they aptly dubbed the Heinemeyer system.
Although the plan is for the park to primarily remain a grassland, the Plant a Tree at Flight 93 project began in 2012 to reforest about 9% of the park with 150,000 trees, separate from the 40 Memorial Groves of trees planted near the visitor center.
Since then, more than 3,000 volunteers have planted 130,000 trees, said Michael French, director of operations at the nonprofit Green Forests Work in Lexington, Kentucky.
“With the planting that we’ll do in 2022, I would say that the park service should be pretty close to getting to its goal,” he said.
Green Forest Works, Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial, the National Park Foundation, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Biology all donated money and trees to the extensive project, with the intention of creating a windbreak and a true living memorial.
“When the park service was working with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, Green Forests Work, and other partners, they were trying to restore the forest type that would have been present on the site before the surface mining had occurred,” French said.
That means everything from white pine, oak, maple, hickory and elm, to walnut, gum, dogwood, aspen and cherry – 32 different species.
As an added treat, 5,938 blight-resistant American chestnuts, which were crossbred with Chinese chestnuts, were planted in the new forest. French said getting that special species to reproduce has been a vital part of the project.
“That’s the hope, that the chestnuts will be able to compete against the white oak, and northern red oak and everything else that we’re planting out there – get up into the canopy, produce nuts and then begin reproducing and evolving on their own again as a wild species.”
He said that it has been a pleasure to work with the park service in restoring the forest and helping to create that part of the living memorial.
“‘Healing the land and healing the hearts’ is what they often say up there, so it’s been and honor and a privilege to work on it.”
Sparrows, cranes and owls
While some are excited about the new forest, others point out the advantages of retaining the abundant grasslands.
Jeff Payne, a Berlin-area veterinarian who compiles Somerset County bird sightings for the Pennsylvania Society of Ornithology, has been birding in the area since the 1980s.
“As a grassland birding spot in Somerset County, it’s one of the best,” he said.
According to eBird, an online data base of bird observations used by scientists, researchers and naturalists, the area has attracted 135 species, which Payne said is actually down from prior years, possibly due to the increase in trees.
Henslow sparrows, sandhill cranes, sedge wrens, Northern harriers and short-eared owls have all been frequent guests at the memorial. Birders have reported peregrine falcons, northern shrikes, blue grosbeaks, vesper sparrows and horned larks, as well as endangered birds such as great egrets and upland sandpipers.
Payne said that the memorial is special, in that despite of being the final resting place for the 40 victims, it is also a place where life is thriving.
“You have that aspect of it,” he said, “but it has this other beauty to it.”